By Brian Howey

Pharos-Tibune columnist

CARMEL — There are several ways to size up the concept of “State Sen. Mike Delph.”

Since 2002, he becomes the third Christian, Right to Life freshman Republican to enter the Indiana Senate replacing a more moderate incumbent. The others include Jeff Drozda of Westfield defeating Steve Johnson in 2002, and Brent Waltz of Greenwood and his upset of Larry Borst in 2004.

The circumstances in each of these cases are vastly different. Drozda exposed the personal-turned-public misfortunes of Sen. Johnson. Waltz used a personal fortune and a well-connected family political base to zing the powerful Senate Finance Chairman Borst, using his Pro-Life credentials and the incumbent’s cushy legislative health and pension benefits to pull off the huge primary upset.

Delph is the product of a thoroughly seized up Marion County Republican machine. There was a combination of cronyism and latent racism that allowed Wayne Township Trustee Dan Gammon to settle into a race many people didn’t want him to make. He was to have been a caretaker, turning the keys over to Councilor Isaac Randolph next year.

Randolph, long a darling of Republicans ranging from Gov. Daniels to WIBC talk show host Greg Garrison, was the rising star in waiting and would have been the only African-American Republican in the legislature.

Delph is the former aide to U.S. Rep. Dan Burton who earned a reputation as a hard working candidate in 2002 when he battled Todd Rokita and Richard Mourdock for the secretary of state convention nomination which Rokita won.

A little more than three years later, all three are moving up the food chain. Secretary of State Rokita has been instrumental in reforming Indiana’s election laws and is seeking a second term in 2006. Mourdock, the former Vanderburgh County Commissioner, will take a place on the state ticket (for treasurer) in 2006 with the full blessing of Gov. Daniels.

This was not supposed to be Delph’s time. Daniels wanted Randolph to ascend to the Senate, but the long-time party township folks like Gammon who have toiled for years in the trenches didn’t like the reformist governor shoving in a new senator. The township folks, wary of any kind of change, saw an opportunity to place Gammon in the Senate as a staunch defender of the status quo.

Borrowing a page from his former boss, Delph seized the opportunity.

In 1982, it was State Sen. Dan Burton who entered a Congressional primary in a seat that had been drawn for Bruce Melchert. Burton won, and still holds the spoils of victory two decades hence.

The talk of Randolph or State Rep. Phil Hinkle taking on Delph in the May 2006 primary is fascinating. If Delph proved anything from his 2002 secretary of state campaign and his efforts in last week’s caucus is that he shrewdly played his ideological card and simply out-hustled the cronies in a Marion County GOP organization that has become little more than a ‘58 Ford Edsel.

After his upset win at the Republican caucus, Mike Delph took a call from Secretary of State Todd Rokita, who had defeated him in the 2002 Republican convention. “Todd was very helpful and supportive,” Delph said. “He called me and I got stuck in the snow.”

“We held the line in Hamilton County and we were able to pick off support in Wayne, Pike and Washington townships,” Delph said of his improbable victory. “I had been told a guy from Hamilton County couldn’t win in those areas.” Delph said his supporters were undeterred by the 8 inches of snow that fell which tamped down Gammon’s support. “I got my people from Wayne Township there. We had a very elaborate get out the vote strategy. It was just a matter of getting the list. I went to all of their homes, their work places, talked on the phone and hustled. We passed out the peanut butter.”

Delph then quoted President Lincoln, saying “Good things may come to those who wait, but only those things left from those who hustle.”

Delph calls himself a conservative. He said he has taken the Grover Norquist anti-tax pledge. “No one should ever ask me to do that because it won’t happen.” Delph said he would seek a full term in 2006. After he victory, he prepared to take his family today to ... Disney World.

During his speech, Delph said, “I am a Republican because I believe in the limited role of government. The power of the individual. The economic power and stability of the free market. When elected as your state senator, I will stand up to the Indiana Civil Liberties Union in defense of our constitutionally protected 1st amendment right to worship the Lord as we individually see fit.”

As far as Hoosier power centers go, the Indiana Senate has generally remained as consistent as a fossil. It has been run by economically cautious, moderate Republicans personified by Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Garton of Columbus and Borst who adhere to a top-down style forged in the backroom.

But that may be changing.

One reason Murray Clark, the party’s 2000 lieutenant governor nominee, quit was that Garton had relegated him to the back benches after he took part in an aborted coup attempt against the president in 2002.

But Garton, who has led the Senate since 1980, can take no solace in this emerging rightward trend represented by Drozda, Waltz, and Delph, all of whom could conceivably have greater statewide ambitions in a post-Daniels era. Given an opening, the amusing question is whether a future leadership challenge could emerge from this group of young mavericks who, by their very nature, got to the Senate by challenging the entrenched status quo.

Or, as Delph put it in his pitch to the Republican caucus, “I am a Republican because I don't believe in top down decision-making or back room deals, but rather the judgment of the grassroots and the will of the voter.”

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