We need more Frank O’Bannons again in Indiana and the U.S.

My life changed on a summer day in 1994.

In a downtown Indianapolis hotel meeting room, Lt. Gov. Frank O’Bannon ended his remarks to leaders of small Indiana businesses. He spotted me lurking in the rear of the room, left the podium, made his way across the length of the room and grabbed my suit jacket by the lapels.

“I hear you’re interested in coming to work for us,” Frank said. “Please join us. I need you.”

Frank O’Bannon, then age 64, a moderate Democrat preparing to run for governor in a perpetually Republican-leaning state, knew I had interviewed with his staff for the post of communications and marketing director at the state’s affordable housing finance agency. Frank chaired the agency’s board of directors. Affordable housing for owners and renters would be a plank in his election platform for governor in 1996.

I had been a City Hall, Statehouse, and business reporter for The Indianapolis News, the city’s former afternoon daily newspaper. Now I was switching to a public relations career.

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A few weeks earlier, a friend suggested I become involved in a campaign. Who did I support for governor in 1996, he asked.

“No question,” I answered. “Frank O’Bannon.”

“You should tell him,” replied my wise friend, who was a Republican supporting Frank’s opponent. I told Frank’s team in the lieutenant governor’s office at the Statehouse and they interviewed me for the housing job.

Now here was Frank O’Bannon himself pulling my lapels. No one had ever recruited me like that. It was a standout moment in my life.

Gov. Frank O'Bannon, left, raises his arm in victory with his Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan on stage at the Convention Center's 500 ballroom Tuesday night during the Demo party's celebration in 2000.

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I went to work for the housing finance agency. In 1996, Frank won election as governor — the third Democratic gubernatorial victory in a row following Evan Bayh’s gubernatorial victories in 1988 and 1992.

In 1999 while at the housing agency, I was recruited again by Robin Winston, Frank’s choice to be chair of the Indiana Democratic Party and their first African-American to lead a major state party in Indiana.

I became communications director for the state Democrats as we developed and deployed messages to blunt the Republicans’ expected strong attacks on Frank’s record during the 2000 re-election campaign.

Frank won his second term as governor 23 years ago.

It was the last time any Democrat has won election as governor in Indiana.

he winning duo for the Democratic Governors ticket raise their hands in jubilation at the 2000 Democratic State Convention on the main stage at the Indiana Convention Center.  (left  to right) Governor Frank O'Bannon, and his running mate, Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan.

By then, I was part of a team across state government of caring, daring and principled Hoosiers led by a humble, gentle, savvy and inspiring man who made us feel like we were family.

Then it was all over, all of a sudden. Frank died 20 years ago on Sept. 13, 2003.

He had traveled to Chicago for a meeting of the Midwest U.S.-Japan Association. Every Midwestern governor was there. Frank suffered a stroke and passed a few days later at the hospital in Chicago.

I have rarely been sadder. Felt more loss. Believed a dedicated and passionate team was crumbling. Suffered depression, loneliness and discombobulation.

I left Indiana. I moved around the Midwest and New England doing public relations, eventually returning to Connecticut where I was raised and where my mother was still alive.

I have not been in Indiana in more than a decade. Yet I am still a Hoosier.

I have taken Frank O’Bannon’s lessons with me. Consider:

  • Use power responsibly. Frank embodied servant leadership. In seeking the chief executive’s job in Indiana, he was self-effacing, not self-aggrandizing. He wanted power to use it for the people. He was the vessel for people power. He spoke often about self-governing people. This he believed. 
  • Be positive. “Have a positive vision,” Frank taught us. “If we’re running for governor, tell the people how life will be different in four years.” Provide a vision voters can endorse with their votes. The vision should speak to the specific aspirations of the people.
  • Move to the mainstream and campaign from there. This is a lesson today’s national Democrats, including President Biden, must tackle and not avoid. Running as a Democrat in a politically precarious state like Indiana means identifying the center mainstream of political opinion where the most votes are. Mainstream Democrats win. As both parties have seen, going hard-left or hard-right is a recipe for loss.
  • Engage the people in campaigns and then in governing. His close adviser and my mentor, Robin Winston, encapsulated this in a political expression that became a mantra for decades: “The politics of exclusion lead to the politics of defeat.”
  • Recruit and empower a great team for an enterprise as vast as a state government. Enable good people to do well. Don’t micro-manage. But do set priorities and reinforce priorities. Develop allies, which Frank did by working to elect legislators, mayors, and sheriffs in the years before his 2000 re-election. From the Ohio River to Lake Michigan, these legislators, mayors, and sheriffs became awesome allies who repeatedly implored Frank’s message into their communities and their local media.
  • Be a person of integrity, humility, honor, personal faith, honesty and truth. Expand the base by assembling coalitions of people, communities and interest groups. Strive to inspire. Don’t forget what another chief executive, the late President George H.W. Bush, called “the vision thing.”
This is the county-by-county election results map of the last time Hoosiers elected a Democrat to be governor 23 years ago in 2000 when Frank O'Bannon was elected to a second term.

Frank was a native of Corydon, the southern Indiana town that served as Indiana’s first state capital. He was an attorney, a community newspaper publisher, and longtime leader of the Democrats in the state Senate. He led quietly from the rear, keeping credibility and negotiating for progress with the seemingly invincible Senate Republicans. Frank made friends and made them listen. Once in a while they responded gingerly to a Democratic priority. The backroom talk off the Senate floor was genuine and necessary.

I miss Frank O’Bannon every day.

Whenever I talk about politics, policy and the Democratic Party, I talk about Frank O’Bannon. Twenty years on, it’s still hard to believe he’s gone and so very suddenly. And, of course, he isn’t gone because he remains beloved by his team. We need more Frank O’Bannons in the United States of America.

We need more Frank O’Bannons in Indiana, too. Somewhere on this page is the county-by-county election map showing Frank’s Democratic Party victory for governor in 2000. Studying Indiana now from afar, I am utterly convinced a leader and a campaign like Frank’s can win in Indiana and across our American democracy. That map and Frank O’Bannon’s lessons are inspiration for successful politics using leadership, wisdom, authenticity and inclusion.

Doug Davidoff lived in Indianapolis from 1983 to 2006. He was a reporter for The Indianapolis News, a public relations consultant, and communications director for the Indiana Housing Finance Authority and the Indiana Democratic Party. His website is www.DougDavidoff.com. He lives in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

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