As Indiana’s statewide offices go, attorney general sounds pretty glamorous — the kind of job that might inspire a fast-paced, drama-filled television series. Alas, while it might get higher ratings than a series devoted to, say, Indiana’s auditor or treasurer, the show probably wouldn’t get renewed for a second season.
Simply put, the Indiana attorney general’s office newly occupied by Todd Rokita isn’t what a lot of people think it is — and that statement applies not only to rank-and-file Hoosier voters but also, it seems, to at least some of the politicians who have sought, and even held, the post.
One of the biggest misconceptions revolves around the attorney general’s constitutional and statutory obligations — that is, what he or she (two women have held the job) do on a day-to-day basis.
At the federal level, the attorney general, as head of the Justice Department, oversees an array of high-profile, high-stakes law-enforcement agencies, including the FBI, the DEA, the ATF, the U.S. Marshal’s Service, and Interpol Washington, not to mention the nation’s federal prosecutors and prisons. Across the country, some state attorneys general play similar roles, directing complex investigations, coordinating large-scale police operations, and supervising the prosecution of the most heinous offenders within their borders.
Not in Indiana.
Here, as at the federal level and in virtually every other state, the attorney general is the top legal officer. However, in contrast to many other jurisdictions, Indiana does not look to its attorney general as the state’s top crime fighter. The superintendent of the Indiana State Police and the head of the Indiana Department of Correction, for example, report to the governor, and Indiana’s 92 elected prosecutors answer to the voters in their respective counties.
By and large, though, the office is best known for representing the state when the General Assembly veers into constitutional uncertainty; for handling consumer complaints about fly-by-night service providers; and for reconnecting Hoosiers with unclaimed property, such as the contents of long-forgotten safe deposit boxes . That reality hasn’t stopped some of the office’s occupants (and would-be occupants) from portraying it as Hoosiers’ first line of defense against marauding gangs, meth-crazed thieves, and psychopathic killers.
Another widely held misconception about the Indiana attorney general’s office: It’s a steppingstone to higher office — both state and federal.
Indiana’s two major parties have seldom had trouble recruiting individuals to run for attorney general, even though it’s the only statewide elective office that carries any sort of professional requirement. (Eligibility is limited to attorneys who have been members of the Indiana bar for at least five years.) Indeed, more often than not, candidates line up to vie for their party nomination. Why?
The position currently pays $101,000 a year, which, while far higher than Indiana’s average salary, is almost certainly less than a highly skilled litigator could make in private practice. The job itself might appeal to some, but it comes with built-in headaches, too. On one hand, because the office was established by the Indiana Constitution, its occupant enjoys a fair amount of personal independence, answering only to Hoosier voters. Moreover, the attorney general oversees a $42 million budget, supervises some 400 employees, and dispenses contracts for outside legal work — some worth hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. On the other hand, the role is, by definition, far more reactive than proactive, inasmuch as the attorney general is required to do a whole lot of responding — to civil lawsuits filed against the state or its employees, to criminal appeals filed by convicted offenders, to lawmakers’ requests for legal opinions, and to aggrieved consumers’ pleas for assistance. In other words, the attorney general’s agenda is largely determined by others.
It seems clear that many of those who have pursued the post have been motivated, at least in part, by the notion that the office is an electoral launchpad — a place where political careers can be tested, fine-tuned and thrust into higher orbits. The idea isn’t altogether unreasonable, especially given the experiences of state attorneys general in other parts of the country. One ripped-from-the-headlines “case study”: Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, who spent six years as California’s attorney general before winning election to the U.S. Senate in 2016.
In many states, the attorney general’s office seems to feature a back door that leads directly to the governor’s office. Eight of the nation’s current governors previously served as attorney general in their states.
Again, not in Indiana — at least not historically.
Plenty of Indiana’s attorneys general — we’ve had 44 so far — have entered office with extensive political experience. Some held seats in the Indiana General Assembly, some served as county prosecutors, and some earned their stripes in municipal government. In sharp contrast, however, none of the state’s attorneys generals has won election to the governor’s office or to the U.S. Senate — or to any other office that might be considered a higher rung on the electoral ladder.
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The latest individual for whom the attorney general’s office turned out to be something other than he expected — or at least hoped — was Republican Curtis Hill.
Even before Hill took office in January 2017, party operatives and political pundits were speculating about his next step. Would he run for governor? U.S. senator? President? Hill, who bills himself as a “conservative fighter,” did little to quash the discussion. Instead, at every turn, he pointed out he that he had received 1.6 million votes in the 2016 election — more than anyone else on the Indiana ballot, including the winner of the governor’s race, fellow Republican Eric Holcomb.
Emboldened by his apparent electoral clout, Hill clashed with Holcomb on a number of issues, including same-sex marriage, government-backed needle exchanges, the legality of CBD oil, and legislation targeting hate crimes, prompting speculation that he planed to challenge the incumbent governor in 2020. Meanwhile, Hill began to build a national following through frequent appearances on Fox News. The subject was seldom Indiana. More likely, he was arguing for the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, or criticizing NFL players who knelt in protest during the national anthem, or explaining why the articles of impeachment brought against Trump were “fundamentally flawed,” or attributing California’s growing homeless population to what he viewed as lax drug laws.
Some of Hill’s actions, however, seemed even more outrageous than his words. Democrats and fiscal conservatives questioned his decision to shell out $31,000 in state funds for a 15-passenger van — plus $667 to have his name and agency logo painted on the sides of the vehicle. Hill dubbed it his “mobile operations center.” He then spent almost $300,000 to spruce up his Statehouse office. The price tag included $78,000 for new furniture, $71,000 for “historic replica painting,” and $2,500 for seven reclaimed chandeliers. Notwithstanding the renovation of his Statehouse office, Hill saw fit to open several satellite offices, including one in Elkhart, his hometown. The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne reported that the unusual setup allowed him to count much of his mileage to and from Indianapolis — about 160 miles each way — as a business expense.
None of that, however, seemed to tarnish Hill’s electoral brand. What did cause damage was the officeholder’s conduct at a party marking the close of the Indiana General Assembly’s 2018 session.
Four women who attended the gathering — a state lawmaker and three legislative staffers — complained, first privately to legislative leadership and later publicly, that the officeholder touched them inappropriately. The accusations, eventually the subject of a federal lawsuit, ignited a two-year battle that raged not only in the courts but also in the all-important court of public opinion. Holcomb and other prominent GOP leaders called on Hill to step down, but Hill refused, calling the allegations “vicious and false.”
This spring, following a variety of legal and rhetorical skirmishes, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Hill had committed misdemeanor battery by groping the four women and suspended his law license for 30 days. The state’s high court declined, however, to answer a key question: Did the suspension disqualify Hill from seeking re-election, since he could no longer point to five years of continuous membership in the Indiana bar immediately prior to the 2020 general election?
In July, the debate surrounding Hill’s eligibility was rendered moot by delegates to the Republican State Convention, who, via mail-in balloting, narrowly rejected Hill in favor of former U.S. Rep. Rokita, a late entrant in the race. “Running against a Republican officeholder is not something I ever would want to do, in just about any circumstance,” Rokita had said in a news release announcing his candidacy. “But our incumbent is wounded.”
Rokita squared off against Democratic nominee Jonathan Weinzapfel, whose long resume includes stints in the Indiana House and as mayor of Evansville, in the general election – two of the most politically experienced candidates ever to seek the office. Democrats saw Weinzapfel as their best shot at statewide office, and on Election Day he outperformed Joe Biden and gubernatorial nominee Woodrow “Woody” Myers – though with only 41.7 % of the vote against Rokita’s 58.3.
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Rokita, 50, grew up in Munster, 25 miles south of Chicago, and, in a way, never left. “I wear the Region on my sleeve,” he recently told The Times of Northwest Indiana. After graduating from Munster High School in 1988, Rokita earned a bachelor’s degree from Wabash College in Crawfordsville and, subsequently, a law degree from Indiana University’s McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis. He then worked briefly for U.S. Sen. Dan Coats before setting up a law practice in Indianapolis.
Rokita’s return to the public sector came in 1997, courtesy of an overture from then-Indiana Secretary of State Sue Anne Gilroy, who was looking to modernize her office. “She had this new thing called an internet website and didn’t know what to put on it,” Rokita recalled in a 2018 interview with The Times. Job one was digitizing millions of paper documents — articles of incorporation, name registrations, trademark applications, etc. — stored in metal file cabinets.
Managing that project, Rokita said, “was like the hook in a fish’s mouth,” drawing him closer to the office’s inner circle. He rose through the ranks, eventually becoming deputy secretary of state. Term limits prevented Gilroy from seeking reelection in 2002, so Rokita ran to succeed her.
After securing the GOP nomination on the third ballot, Rokita defeated Bloomington Mayor John Fernandez in the general election. He won a second term in 2006.
As secretary of state, Rokita emphasized efficiency. He took pride in returning unspent budget allocations to the state’s general fund. In 2010, he bragged that the office was spending less than it did a decade earlier.
“Through the hard work of dedicated professionals, we’re proving that government doesn’t have to spend to survive and doesn’t have to be bloated to be able to provide world-class services to its constituents,” Rokita said in a news release. “In fact, we are showing you can actually do more with less through technology, innovation and smart solutions.”
Far more controversial than Rokita’s penny-pinching was his push to make Indiana the first state in the country to require voters to show a government-issued photo ID before entering the polls. Indiana’s law drew various legal challenges from critics who argued that the requirement would discriminate against demographic segments with limited access to such documents, including the poor, the elderly, and ethnic minorities. U.S. Supreme Court ultimately voted 6-3 to uphold the law, opening the door to similar statutes in more than 30 other states.
Early in 2010, U.S. Rep. Steve Buyer announced that he would not seek a 10th term in Indiana’s 4th Congressional District. The prospect of an open seat in a heavily Republican district prompted no fewer than 13 candidates, including Rokita, to seek the GOP nomination.
Rokita prevailed in the primary with 42% of the vote. Six months later, in the general election, he garnered 68.6% of the vote to win Buyer’s former seat. Rokita was re-elected three times. (His 2016 victory followed a failed bid to replace Mike Pence as the Republican nominee for governor on the November ballot, a spot that had opened up when Donald Trump tapped Pence, the incumbent, to be his running mate in the presidential race. Party officials ended up choosing Holcomb, then lieutenant governor.)
Throughout his eight years in Congress, Rokita was one of the most conservative members of the Republican caucus, staking out far-right positions on hot-button issues such as abortion, immigration and gun regulation,
During his time on Capitol Hill, Rokita became chairman of the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education. In that role, he played a part in crafting the Every Student Succeeds Act, which, as successor to the better-known No Child Left Behind Act, scaled back the federal government’s involvement in K-12 education, giving states a bigger say in setting and enforcing various accountability standards.
Rokita also served as vice chairman of the House Budget Committee, and, as a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, he championed general aviation — a cause especially near and dear to his heart. Rokita became a licensed private pilot at age 17. For years, he has boasted a commercial rating and owned a plane, most recently a twinengine, six-seat Piper Seneca II. He’s a longtime volunteer with Angel Flight, which offers free flights to individuals who must travel to obtain needed medical treatment, and Veterans Airlift Command, or VAC, which transports wounded military personnel, active or retired, for medical or personal reasons.
“I’ve flown soldiers with nonemergency medical issues for follow-up medical appointments and their families who couldn’t otherwise go with them because they couldn’t afford plane tickets,” Rokita told the newspaper Roll Call in 2012. “I really like this program because we’re doing all of this without the federal government. This is people helping people, like our founders intended.”
Not everyone, however, views Rokita as a pure-hearted humanitarian. In virtually every phase of his political career, he has engendered ill will, even among close associates. A 2017 report by the Associated Press portrayed Rokita as a nightmarish boss prone to micromanagement, intimidation, and, when things didn’t go his way, out-and-out temper tantrums. According to the report, based on interviews with 10 people who formerly worked for Rokita, the officeholder regularly browbeat staff members, leaving some in tears and prompting one to walk out of the office — and never come back.
“Rokita’s abrasive nature is not limited to instances described by former staffers,” the news service said. “He has rubbed many Indiana Republicans the wrong way, too, leading the GOP-controlled Legislature to cut him out of his district when they redrew congressional maps after the last census. While Rokita was still secretary of state in 2010, the Indiana Senate took the unusual step of calling up an amendment he wanted, only to have the entire chamber, including the amendment’s author, vote it down.”
Rokita’s demeanor came back to haunt him in his fourth and final term in the U.S. House — and in his 2018 bid for the U.S. Senate seat held by first-term Democrat Joe Donnelly. In the months preceding the GOP’s Senate primary, Rokita was stung by a series of revelations that were leaked by — or at least confirmed by — fellow Republicans.
Politico, for example, obtained and published what it described as an “agonizing” document — eight pages of instructions for anyone assigned to drive Rokita, or “TER,” as the document referred to him. The manual detailed the officeholder’s beverage preferences (stating with black coffee first thing in the morning), his disdain for small talk, and his insistence on having easy access to “the football” — his staff’s nickname for a box containing some 20 items, including gum, lozenges, hand sanitizer, tissues, and stain-removing wipes. The instructions also advised drivers to limit Rokita’s interaction with reporters. “Generally, less is more,” the document noted. Apparently, in Rokita’s eyes, the only people more bothersome than journalists were opposition trackers — i.e., political operatives who showed up at various events to chronicle his actions and statements. Drivers were urged to “maintain a physical position between TER and the tracker” but warned not to “touch, bump, punch, choke or verbally attack” the unwelcome guest. “This,” the manual said, “is the type of behavior they are hoping to provoke.”
Another AP report, distributed three months before the primary, noted that despite his frequent rants about “out-of-control” government spending, Rokita had been anything but frugal when it came to publicizing his own accomplishments, especially before elections. An excerpt: “Over the past 12 years, Rokita has spent roughly $3 million in public money on media campaigns, mailers and other forms of mass communication, usually ramping up the spending before appearing on a ballot, the AP’s review found. That figure reflects spending by Rokita that occurred both when he was Indiana’s secretary of state and during his time in Congress.” The report noted that Rokita had outspent every other member of Indiana’s federal delegation — by a wide margin in most cases.
In the 2018 Senate primary, Rokita finished second in a three-way race. The top GOP vote-getter, State Rep. Mike Braun, went on to beat Donnelly in the general election.
In January 2019, for the first time in 22 years, Rokita wasn’t on a government payroll. A month after leaving office, he became general counsel and vice president of external affairs at Apex Benefits, a healthcare-benefits consultancy in Indianapolis.
Attention then shifted to the far more discordant fight for the Republican nomination. Because that race featured four candidates and party rules stipulated that the winner secure a majority of the votes cast, delegates were asked to rank the candidates on their mail-in ballots.
At the “convention,” party officials found that Hill was listed as the top pick on a plurality of the ballots — but not a majority. Zionsville attorney John Westercamp had the fewest No. 1 votes, so he was eliminated out of the gate. Although Hill maintained his lead when the delegates’ second choices were added to the mix, the incumbent attorney general still lacked the necessary majority. At that point, the candidate with the next fewest votes, Decatur County Prosecutor Nate Harter, was dropped from contention. With the contest reduced to two candidates, Rokita leapfrogged over Hill to win the nomination — 52% to 48%.
For Weinzapfel, Rokita’s win represented “a complete change in the dynamics” of the general-election campaign, as the Democratic nominee told the Courier & Press. “When I got into this race in December,” he said, “I thought this would simply be a focus on Curtis Hill’s ethical transgressions and his efforts to decimate the Affordable Care Act.”
During the 2020 campaign, Rokita doubled down on law and order — with a clear emphasis on punishment. His campaign website said that, as Indiana’s secretary of state, he “worked with local law enforcement and prosecutors to track down and bring to justice criminals harming Hoosiers.” It also says he has “kept our elections safe from fraud” and “earned the strongest scores for defending our 2nd Amendment Constitutional freedoms.”
The bottom-line pitch: “Todd Rokita is an experienced attorney and proven public servant who will protect us from crime, fight lawlessness in our streets, uphold the rule of law, defend — not de-fund — our men and women in law enforcement, and stand behind our Constitutional rights here in Indiana and our nation.”
Hmmm. If a Hollywood executive happened to come across such rhetoric, he or she might conclude that the Indiana attorney general’s office has all the makings of a fast-paced, drama-filled television series. One thing, though, is certain: Producers would be hard-pressed to bill the series as a “reality show.” — Jon Schwantes for The Indiana Citizen