INDIANAPOLIS (December 26, 2015) — Gov. Mike Pence has enthusiastically endorsed the prospect of Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann possibly becoming president of the state’s embattled Ivy Tech Community College system.
If she is offered and accepts the job, it would shake-up Pence’s re-election effort, allowing the Republican to find a new running mate to join him on the November ticket.
Here are some things to know:
RISK VS. REWARD
Republicans say fellow party member Ellspermann is a talented and ambitious public servant. She holds a doctorate in industrial engineering, ran her own consulting firm before she was elected to the Indiana House in 2010 and was tapped in 2012 to join Pence’s gubernatorial ticket.
Recently, she has taken some positions that aren’t in line with Pence — notably her support of civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people during a year when Pence and the GOP-led Legislature passed a religious freedom bill.
Her stance could complicate Pence’s efforts to unite the business establishment with social conservatives — two key pillars of the Republican base that are divided over the issue. The Republican governor has refused for months to say where he stands on the issue and has recently signaled that he’s unsure religious practices can be balanced with statewide protections banning discrimination against LGBT people in housing, employment and public accommodation.
Another matter is Ellspermann’s advocacy for campaigns that avoid harsh political rhetoric, which is the same approach Pence embraced in 2012. Some Republicans believe that was a factor that made the race with Democrat John Gregg closer than it should have been. With Gregg and Pence set for another rematch, the governor, whose approval rating has dropped recently, has shown that his campaign is willing to embrace a more critical tone.
Both Pence and Ellspermann say differences of opinion won’t underlie any move.
But Paul Helmke, a public affairs professor at Indiana University and former Republican mayor of Fort Wayne, said it’d be a “risk and an opportunity for Pence.”
“On one hand, it could look like she’s abandoning a sinking ship,” he said. “On the other hand, it could be a chance to select someone new who can help Pence shore up areas of weakness.”
IVY TECH TROUBLES
Becoming president of the dozens of Ivy Tech campuses across the state offers Ellspermann a considerable opportunity to turn the school around.
In recent months, the school system has drawn scrutiny from lawmakers for flagging graduation rates and declining enrollment. They also withheld funding for construction projects in the two-year state budget and included a provision requiring the school to undergo a review by the state’s Commission for Higher Education.
If she replaces Thomas Snyder, who announced in September his retirement after nearly a decade at the helm, and is successful in the role, she would be positioned for another run at office.
“It’s a great temporary off-ramp that allows her to stay involved in a high-profile statewide role and get back on the political highway when and if she chooses,” Republican strategist Pete Seat said.
Ivy Tech officials say there’s no guarantee that the school’s 14 trustees — all appointed by Pence — will select Ellspermann. The school system was poised this month to award a $120,000 contract to a firm to conduct the search.
“Let me assure you that in light of recent media coverage, the search process is alive and well and moving along as planned,” trustee Michael Dora, chairman of the search committee, wrote in a recent memo to staff and students. “The trustees and search committee are all focused and committed to staying above the ‘noise'”
Ellspermann spokesman Dennis Rosebrough signaled that she does have support from influential people within the college system, noting she was approached about the job by “a couple of trustees, people in and around the Ivy Tech family.”
Ivy Tech spokesman Jeff Fanter stressed that the school has a process that must be followed before a decision is made, which is likely to happen between June and August.
Pence has said that he wants to honor that process: “We’ll let them make a great president.”