INDIANAPOLIS — At the Indiana Republican Party’s spring dinner in mid-May, a crowd of big donors and a small mob of reporters showed up eager to hear what Indiana’s first lady might have to say about her husband’s presidential ambitions.
But Cheri Daniels wasn’t the only the speaker that night clad in “Republican red” dress and ready to entertain.
Assigned the task of warming up the crowd, Indiana Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman let loose with a few partisan zingers, laced with Statehouse-insider humor, including one aimed at House Minority Leader Pat Bauer, the pugnacious, longtime nemesis of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels.
A crack she made about Bauer’s toupeed head and the staff of the hotel where he and House Democrats holed up during their five-week boycott of the last legislative session earned her what may have been the loudest roar of laughter that night.
“It’s because people think I’m so prim and proper,” Skillman later explained. “It’s funnier coming out of my mouth.”
Skillman has cultivated that proper image. Well-dressed and well-coiffed — even in the blistering heat of the Indiana State Fair where she’s a daily presence during its 17-day run — Skillman maintains a cool calm.
“She’d make a good poker player,” said state Sen. Sue Landske, a Republican from northwest Indiana who served alongside Skillman in the state Senate. “She doesn’t wear her emotions.”
But Skillman will admit she was surprised and disappointed when Daniels bowed out of a run for the presidency. His decision ended the Statehouse speculation that Skillman, the state’s first elected female lieutenant governor, might step into the role of the state’s first female governor if Daniels had decided to step down to devote himself full time to a presidential campaign.
Skillman didn’t think the man who picked her to be his running mate back in 2004 was bluffing when he told that GOP spring-dinner crowd earlier this month that he hadn’t ruled out running for president. “I’m not saying I’m not going to do it,” Daniels said at the time.
But nine days later he bowed out, citing the “veto power” of his wife and four daughters, who’d made no secret of their distaste for politics.
Before announcing his decision in a written statement, Daniels called Skillman to tell her the news.
“I’m probably one of the few people who really knew how he felt,” said Skillman. “I’d gone through the same soul-searching.”
More than a year ago, as speculation grew that Daniels would take a run at the White House, Skillman was laying groundwork for a run for the governor’s office.
By December 2010, she had bowed out. Skillman, 60, initially cited some minor health issues. But lately, she’s been telling supporters there were other factors as well, including age. “I was looking at what could have been a 10-year commitment,” she said of a two-year campaign that could have been followed by two four-year terms.
That was 10 years that she wasn’t ready to sign up for, following a 34-year political career that began as a county clerk in rural southern Indiana.
“I knew when enough was enough,” she said, adding: “I didn’t need it to complete me.”
Since making the decision, Skillman has immersed herself even more deeply in her work, overseeing five state agencies, including the state Department of Homeland Security. In that role, she also chairs the state’s counter-terrorism task force, whose members includes the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office. She’s privy to what she’ll only describe as some unnerving details about the potential for homegrown terrorism and anti-American groups seeking to infiltrate the heartland.
She has no regrets, she said, about making the decision not to run for governor in 2012. Whether she could have won is a subject of speculation. Brian Howey, publisher of the influential Howey Political Report, cited 2008 polling that revealed Skillman had high likability marks among Hoosier Republicans.
“That could have been a significant cornerstone in a 2012 gubernatorial campaign,” Howey said.
Skillman doesn’t indulge much in the ‘what ifs?’ She will admit to a feeling of “letting down” women who’d hoped she’d become the first woman to be sworn in as Indiana governor.
“I’m most sad about that,” she said.
There are still 17 months to go in office and Skillman said she feels lucky to have that time. “There are far worse things in life,” she said, “than to leave office on your own terms and with a lot of good will.”
• Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI indiana newspapers. She can be reached at email@example.com