INDIANA'S hottest political contest is for one of its most obscure posts. Very few Hoosiers know anything about the secretary of state. But to listen to the rhetoric of the past few days, the position is of vital concern.
The heated race for this little-known office underlines the intense party struggle now under way in Indiana. No state has a more evenly divided - and precarious - balance of party power than Indiana. The spoils are doubly important this year. The party controlling the state legislature will redraw (and probably gerrymander) the state's legislative map.
``The stakes are very high this time,'' says Robert Browning, a political science professor at Purdue University. ``So the competition will be intense.''
Consider the party lineups.
The Indiana Senate has 26 Republicans and 24 Democrats. The House is split 50-50 (or was, until the last few days of the legislative session when a Democrat defected to the Republicans). Seven of Indiana's 10 US Representatives are Democrats. Both US senators are Republicans (although one of them was appointed to fill Vice-President Dan Quayle's seat). Democrats have the top three statewide posts: governor, lieutenant governor, and secretary of state. But this last post was appointed in 1988 when then Secretary of State Evan Bayh was elected governor.
Several races are expected to be close. The primary is May 8, but sparks are already flying in the race for secretary of state.
Secretary of state Joseph H. Hogsett, the Democrat, launched the first barrage last week. He criticized his opponent, William Hudnut, for raising taxes 27 times during his 14-year tenure as mayor of Indianapolis, the state's capital and largest city.
The following day, Mayor Hudnut retorted that Mr. Hogsett was inexperienced and did not understand the challenges of running a big city in an era when the federal government has drastically cut back its financial support to urban America.
The retort was a not-so-subtle jab at Hogsett's lack of experience in elective office. A lawyer by training, Hogsett was appointed to his post after serving as campaign manager for Mr. Bayh's successful gubernatorial race in 1988. Thus, he is facing voters for the first time in his career.
By week's end, Hogsett was pressing his attack again.
``Rather than making tough choices and finding ways to do more with less, he's simply taken the easy way out and passed on tax increases,'' Hogsett said in a Monitor interview. ``I am not talking about taking policemen off the street.... I am talking about reducing your own public-relations staff. I have only one press secretary. Why do you need seven?'' he asked rhetorically. In every year in office except one, Hogsett added, Hudnut has taken a pay increase.
Those would be symbolic steps only, both sides admit. The City Council - not the mayor - decides the mayor's salary.
``We aren't talking about symbolism, we're talking about leadership,'' says Dave Arland, Hudnut's press secretary. During the mayor's tenure, downtown Indianapolis has been transformed by new buildings and several new sports facilities, which have forced some of the new taxes. ``Is it worth that sort of [public money] investment? I think most people would say yes.''
Hudnut is sensitive to the tax issue, though. On Friday, he appeared with Republican House and Senate legislators to celebrate Indiana tax freedom day. That's the day of the year when the average resident has earned enough to pay off federal, state, and local taxes. Only eight states have an earlier tax freedom day.
The race is an important test for both parties.
Most political observers believe - and Hudnut has not denied - that he is running for secretary of state as a springboard to run for governor in 1992. Republicans have so dominated Indiana government that the loss of the governorship to Bayh, the Democrat, was a cruel blow. Before Bayh came along, Republicans had held the post for 20 years. In fact, before Bayh won the 1986 secretary of state's race, only one other Democrat had been elected to any statewide post since 1974.
In 1988 ``we woke up from being somewhat satisfied and realized it wasn't going to continue necessarily,'' says Keith Bulen, chairman of the GOP effort to retain majorities in the state Senate and House. Now, ``it's important that we rebound quickly before a defeatist attitude sets in.''
Democrats, on the other hand, need to prove they can win a statewide race with someone other than Bayh. The 1988 win has helped Democrats recruit new candidates and raise more campaign funds.
``People realize it's not the impossible dream anymore,'' says Ann DeLaney, the governor's executive assistant for legislation.
But the dream of holding on to the secretary of state job will be hard to realize, Democrats concede, because Hogsett has little name recognition compared with his better-known opponent.