By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
Indianapolis — State Sen. Tim Skinner arrived at the Indiana Statehouse Monday morning, thinking he’d be talking to a group of teachers about how to slow down some fast-tracked education legislation.
Instead, the Terre Haute Democrat found himself in front of a podium, surrounded by thousands of sign-carrying, slogan-chanting AFL-CIO members fired up by what they see as a legislative assault on organized labor – teachers included.
As the crowd grew restless listening to a line-up of speakers, Skinner set aside the talking points he’d been given by protest organizers and decided, as he later said, “to wing it.”
It didn’t take long for Skinner – a large man with a booming voice – to grab their attention with a bit of blunt reality about how little power unions and their Democratic allies have in the current legislative session.
“It’s like wetting your pants in a dark suit,” Skinner said of being one of just 13 Democrats in the state Senate. “It gives you a warm feeling but nobody notices.”
The protesters who filled the three tiers of the Statehouse did notice, applauding and cheering Skinner as he went on to lambaste legislation that would have a major impact on union members in Indiana.
Among the bills he denounced: a so-called “right to work” bill that would prohibit union membership from being a condition of employment; and a bill that would restrict teachers’ collective bargaining rights.
But if the crowd responded to Skinner, some of his colleagues didn’t. The right-to-work bill passed out of the House Labor Committee late Monday morning on a party-line vote. It now moves on to the full House.
Since January, when Skinner arrived for his ninth year in the state Senate, he’s been telling almost anyone who’d listen that “it’s too late” for the teachers’ unions to stop the sweeping education reform pushed by Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels and his legislative allies.
But he’s not acting like it. Rick Muir, the president of the Indiana Federation of Teachers and one of the organizers of Monday’s protest at the Statehouse, said he put Skinner on the agenda for two reasons: First, because Skinner is a longtime teacher. Second, because Skinner “speaks from the heart.”
“He’s not afraid to stand up, or to stand out,” Muir said.
That doesn’t always go over well among his colleagues, especially those in the state Senate, where they pride themselves on proper decorum and civil exchanges. Senate members like to think their discourse is less rowdy than that of their colleagues in the House.
But that hasn’t stopped Skinner from describing Daniels’ education proposals – including teacher merit pay, expanded charter schools, and private-school vouchers – as “Dr. Kervokian” in nature to an Associated Press reporter. In provocative language typical of Skinner, he said the measures would mean the “assisted suicide of public education.”
Some of Skinner’s allies predict he may get some push-back for his less-than-cordial approach. He acknowledges some Democrats may want him to soften his tone, while Republicans will close him out ever further from the legislative process.
His response: “I don’t really care,” he said, before describing himself as an “idealist” working to put the courses he teaches – government, history and economics – into action. Said Skinner: “I’m at the point of ‘What did you elect me for, if not this?’”
• Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI’s Indiana newspapers, including the Kokomo Tribune. She can be reached at email@example.com.