INDIANAPOLIS — Last April, not long after returning home from a contentious legislative session, freshman state lawmaker Sue Ellspermann got a call from someone who said he was with Mike Pence’s gubernatorial campaign.
The six-term Republican congressman was crafting his list of possible running mates, the caller said. He wanted to know if Ellspermann, a state representative from rural southern Indiana, would be willing to be vetted for the job of lieutenant governor.
She stalled, asking if she could call back, before hanging up. “The first thing I did was to Google the Pence staffer’s name,” Ellspermann said, recalling the conversation. “You just think: ‘This could be an interesting joke.’”
No joke, of course. About six weeks later, Pence announced Ellspermann as his pick, kicking off a statewide rollout of the ticket with an early morning rally in her hometown of Ferdinand.
Most voters may not have known Ellspermann, 52, an industrial engineer and management consultant who grew up as one of six children in what she calls an “apolitical family.”
But GOP leaders did. In 2010, Ellspermann won her first-ever election by taking down then-Democratic House Majority Leader Russ Stilwell.
She did so after both she and Stilwell signed a no-negative-campaigning pledge -- a promise that both candidates kept, Stilwell later said.
“Both Russ and I got pushback from the parties,” Ellspermann said. “Neither of our parties at the time appreciated what we did.”
Her victory was one of a dozen Republican wins of Democratic seats that gave the GOP back control of the Indiana House with a 60-40 majority.
Ellspermann wasn’t shy about stepping up once she was in.
She championed “right to work” legislation, bitterly opposed by labor, that bans contracts requiring workers to pay union dues. She co-sponsored the bill that stopped most state funding for Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers, triggering the federal government’s threat to pull the state’s $4.3 billion in Medicaid funds. And she voted to launch the taxpayer-funded voucher program for private and religious schools, now headed to the Indiana Supreme Court on a constitutional challenge.
Those were the very issues that appealed to the conservative Pence. But they’re also the issues that made Democrats howl in protest.
Democrats have labeled Ellspermann a tea party idealogue, who along with Pence, is focused on a “divisive social agenda.”
Ellspermann takes exception to that description. Asked what she wants voters to know about her, she talks about her engineering and management experience with General Motors, Michelin and Frito-Lay, and her 20 years as a consultant, specializing in team problem-solving.
“I really come from a problem-solving background, that’s what I’ve spent my entire career doing, …” Ellspermann said. “It really is about finding the best solutions to problems -- and problems aren’t Democrat or Republican.”
That message won over voters in Ellspermann’s Democrat-heavy home district back in 2010, said Kathy Tretter, editor of the Ferdinand News.
“Hers was quite possibly the cleanest, most sincere campaign in the entire state,” Tretter said.
It turned out to be smart politics, but Ellspermann said she couldn’t have done it differently. “I have four daughters,” she said, of the blended family she shares with her husband, high school administrator Jim Mehling. “I knew they’d be watching me.”
If elected, Ellspermann said, she’ll work to create an atmosphere in state government where ideas of all kinds can be talked about more openly and “without fear of repercussion.”
It’s ambitious, she knows. “Public life doesn’t create a very safe environment for legislators or public servants of any kind to think outside of the box or at least think out loud about solutions that are outside the norm,” Ellspemann said. “I think that’s unfortunate.”
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at email@example.com