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Wednesday, February 10, 2016 3:33 am

Pence pegs Holcomb for state's No. 2 post

Niki Kelly | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – Gov. Mike Pence on Tuesday nominated Eric Holcomb as the 51st lieutenant governor – even before current Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann resigned.

Ellspermann has applied to be president of Ivy Tech Community College but a decision isn’t expected for months.

She said she would resign at an "appropriate time." Pence said that would come in "weeks, not days" so that the Indiana General Assembly could confirm Holcomb’s nomination before session ends March 15.

He dropped out of the U.S. Senate race Monday after Pence called him a half hour before the Super Bowl on Sunday to offer him the job. He pulled to the side of the road in Burlington, Indiana, "and accepted on the spot. Jumped in with both feet."

Ellspermann said she believes there is "a better seat" for her on the bus, and Pence agreed Indiana would be better served if she were to go to Ivy Tech.

"This is a woman of integrity," Pence said of Ellspermann.

There were two tracks of political thought going into the announcement. The first was that Ellspermann was being pushed out by Pence to shore up support from moderates in the party more suited to former Gov. Mitch Daniels.

From 2003 to 2011, Holcomb held various key positions under Daniels, including deputy chief of staff in the official office and campaign manager for his landslide 2008 re-election. He also served as the Indiana Republican Party chairman and most recently, Holcomb was state chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Dan Coats

The second theory was that Ellspermann wanted out due to policy disagreements – specifically over giving civil rights protections to LGBT Hoosiers.

When asked about that issue Tuesday she didn’t clear anything up, saying, "I very much support the governor in his leadership of Indiana and I think there is very little additional to add there."

Pence admitted the two occasionally disagreed about policy but said it had nothing to do with the switch.

It’s a little hard to pin down where Holcomb falls on the conservative spectrum because most of his career has been spent shilling for political bosses. 

Ellspermann said she is resigning before she even knows if she gets the job to ensure "an orderly transition."

"We’d like to get Eric familiar with the General Assembly."

One of the lieutenant governor’s duties is to preside over the Indiana Senate, as well as coordinate and run the state’s agriculture, tourism and housing efforts.

The Ivy Tech decision isn’t expected until the summer, with the deadline to apply March 15 and interviews in April, the college said.

That timeline might have conflicted with the Republican Party state convention in June, where lieutenant governor candidates are officially chosen for the fall ticket.

IPFW political science professor Andy Downs said Holcomb is a great nominee because he knows the players in the party and has been an adviser to a governor, congressman and senator.

"He ticks off a lot of boxes," he said.

But he said he expects Democrats to question whether the Ivy Tech job was provided to get Ellspermann "out of the way."

Downs said "this is an awkward moment all around" and the sequence of events "looks bad."

Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, complimented Ellspermann, saying "she is an intelligent, capable and effective public servant and I wish her well in her new endeavors."

But he and other top party officials applauded Holcomb.

"Eric is a highly competent and effective leader," Long said. "He is a man of character, and I have a great amount of respect for him and his ability to get things done. I’m confident he will serve Hoosiers well."

Holcomb went to Hanover College and was president of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. Pence also ran that fraternity when he was at Hanover years before.

Holcomb served in the U.S. Navy and previously served U.S. Congressman John Hostettler.

The General Assembly has confirmed a lieutenant governor only once since the state Constitution was amended in 1978 to establish a process for filling the vacancy.

That came in 2003 when Democratic Gov. Joe Kernan nominated Kathy Davis to take his place as lieutenant governor about a month after he succeeded Gov. Frank O’Bannon, who died in office.

nkelly@jg.net