State Sen. John Waterman is as solid a conservative as you’ll find: a former sheriff who is tough on crime, 100 percent pro-gun, stingy with money and endorsed by Indiana Right to Life. He has just one flaw, and for a Republican politician, it’s fatal. He supports unions, including teachers’ unions that back public schools.
That was enough to get him taken out in last week’s GOP primary after representing his rural Western Indiana district since 1994. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce put a target on his back, ostensibly because he voted against the so-called right-to-work law that Indiana adopted in 2012. The Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity threw in with undisclosed funding for ads.
But key money – big, late contributions that may have helped push his opponent, Eric Bassler, over the top – came from forces whose agenda is promoting private school vouchers. Bassler won with 51.3 percent of the vote, even though the Senate Republican caucus backed Waterman.
Bassler got $15,230 in the week before the election from Hoosiers for Economic Growth, which is not funded by Hoosiers and doesn’t focus on economic growth. It functions as the Indiana arm of American Federation for Children, a national pro-voucher group led by mega-donor Betsy DeVos.
Hoosiers for Economic Growth got most of its funding this year in $175,000 from American Federation for Children. American Federation for Children reported one contribution in 2014: $166,000 from Wal-Mart heiress and school-choice bankroller Alice Walton. In 2013, it listed two contributions: $75,000 from Walton and $125,000 from Philadelphia investment manager Joel Greenberg.
Waterman voted against creating Indiana’s voucher program in 2011 and expanding it last year. Still, why would voucher advocates pull out the stops to beat Waterman? Republicans enjoy super majorities in the Indiana House and Senate. They have created the most generous school voucher program in the country. Democrats would have to win the House and Senate to undo the changes, and that won’t happen for years. Some theories:
- It’s politics. The idea is that campaign donors must follow through when candidates don’t dance to their tune – otherwise no one will take their threats seriously. Waterman got out of line, so he had to be punished. Henry Adams’ words are still relevant 100 years after they were written: “Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.”
- It’s strategy. Republican lawmakers are becoming fractious. They’re fighting over topics ranging from Common Core standards to gay marriage. House and Senate districts are drawn to give the GOP an unbreakable advantage, but Democrats might pick off an incumbent here and there. If Glenda Ritz could beat Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett in 2012 despite being outspent 5-to-1, who knows what might happen? Replacing Waterman could add one more reliable vote on tough issues.
- They’re not done yet. Indiana’s voucher program is already a middle-class entitlement, but it hasn’t yet fulfilled the Libertarian dream of a universal voucher system in which churches and entrepreneurs compete with “government schools” for all students. Robert Inlow of the Friedman Foundation recently called for “a level playing field,” apparently suggesting taxpayers should foot the bill for private school facilities and transportation, not just operating costs.
John Waterman was one of my favorite sources in the years I covered the legislature for the Bloomington Herald-Times. Big, friendly and always looking a bit uncomfortable in a coat and tie, he was far to the right on most issues – part of the “militia caucus” elected in the anti-Clinton backlash of 1994, a sort of tea party before there was a Tea Party.
He also was unfailingly open and accessible, outspoken and honest to a fault. Most of all, he has been a friend to working people, conscious of the importance of labor unions in the coal-mining district he represented. He has served Indiana well for 20 years.