After the late Sen. Joe Harrison retired from a 40-year career in the Indiana Senate in 2006, voters in District 23 have elected Crawfordsville Republican Phil Boots four times. The district that runs from the Illinois line through west-central Indiana counties – Warren, Fountain, Vermillion, Parke, Montgomery and parts of Boone County – has been represented by two senators for the past 55 years.
Boots, a Montgomery County native and a former county commissioner, beat three others in the Republican primary in 2006. He won the seat in an uncontested general election that November. In three re-election bids that followed, Boots had a Democratic challenger in one, when he took 67% of the vote in 2014 in a district that includes Crawfordsville and Lebanon as its two largest cities, each with roughly 16,000 people.
While his predecessor spent more than half of his four decades in the General Assembly as Senate Majority Leader, Boots is chairman of the Senate Pensions and Labor Committee, with seats on appropriations, homeland security and transportation, public policy and veterans affairs and the military committees.
In private life, after returning from service in Vietnam, Boots began running Boots Brothers Oil Co. in 1975, operating gasoline and convenience stores in a business started by his father and uncle. In more recent years, Boots took a stake in one of the few remaining multi-newspaper towns, his hometown Crawfordsville. Sagamore News Media publishes The Paper of Montgomery County and the Noblesville Times.
Boots’ voting record leans toward the pro-business approach in vogue with the Indiana Senate’s supermajority. During the 2021 session, he’s been part of a bill – ripped by environmentalists – that would negate a law that requires a permit when building in state-regulated wetlands. He also authored a bill that would make teachers ask each year to have union dues automatically deducted from their paychecks. The bill, which Boots touted as giving teachers a chance to make what he called “informed decisions,” would put a disclaimer in 14-point, bold-faced type that teachers were aware that they “have a First Amendment right … to refrain from joining and paying dues to a union” and could revoke the payroll deduction at any time.
Boots made news in 2013 when he filed a bill that bucked U.S. Supreme Court rulings that struck down the notion of nullification. Boots’ bill, taking aim at the 2010 Affordable Care Act, attempted to give Indiana the power to declare certain federal laws unconstitutional. "We've seen case after case after case of the federal government telling us what to do, and I don't think they have the authority to do that,” Boots told the Times of Northwest Indiana at the time. "We have to stand up for what the Constitution says, and right now, no one is doing that." The bill did not survive.
Boots wound up the lone vote in a Senate committee against what had been pitched as a comprehensive hate crimes law in 2019. Boots said he was in favor of a bill targeting stiffer penalties against crimes motivated by biases, but he couldn’t go for ones that produced a list of characteristics that should be included in the bill. “I don’t care what you do, you cannot legislate people’s thoughts,” Boots said, as reported by WNDU. “So, there’s still going to be bias.” Boots’ vote foreshadowed the debate in the full Senate, where senators voted for a bill watered down so it didn’t include specifics, including race, sexual orientation or gender identity. Five years earlier, in 2014, Boots was among a handful of senators who bailed on a proposed same-sex marriage ban, sinking the attempt to put a one-man/one-woman definition of marriage in the state constitution.
As Hoosier traditions go, there are few as steady as state Sen. Phil Boots’ effort to once and for all eliminate restrictions on cold beer sales. In 2018, Indiana retailers won the right to sell beer, wine and liquor on Sundays. That came after years of debate and failed efforts of those looking to buy cases of beer or bottles of liquor on Sunday afternoons. It also came after big-box retailers who wanted Sunday sales and liquor store owners who fought against them agreed to support a Sunday sales bill – as long as it didn’t include an expansion of retail cold beer sales beyond package liquor stores and some restaurants and bars. Convenience store owners barked about it. But the General Assembly didn’t budge on cold beer. Boots has filed several bills trying to rectify that. All have failed, including one that didn’t get a hearing in 2021. -- Dave Bangert