More than three-dozen protesters encountered more than a lame-duck governor and a political party in decline when they took to the streets of French Lick Friday evening to tell Indiana Democrats that I-69 is killing their party. They found themselves face to face with Voices for I-69, a corporate funded front group for the economic development lobby.
Surrounded by sign-waving protesters chanting "No I-69" and "You can't eat concrete," a handful of I-69 supporters stood behind a "Voices for I-69" banner and proclaimed that the NAFTA highway means jobs for Joe and Josie Sixpack. "We want jobs!" they shouted throughout the hour-long rhetorical showdown. But it turned out that some of these spokesmen and women for the blue collar had vested interests in the highway. "We build 'em," one Voice proclaimed.
The confrontation was so loud and heated that Gov. Joe Kernan and Lt. Gov. Kathy Davis, whose political careers are underwritten by the highway lobby and other polluters and anti-democratic vested interests, walked down the street and in the door of the French Lick Legion Hall almost unnoticed. (They later snuck out a side door to avoid the protesters and return to the Democrats' annual party at the historic French Lick Springs Hotel a couple parking lots away.)
The weekend's anti-Kernan demonstrations were the fourth this election season organized by an ad hoc group of citizens. Led by Marion County Green Party Chair and former Hoosier Environmental Council Executive Director Jeff Stant, protesters have dogged Kernan at two fundraisers in Indianapolis and one in Richmond. Their message: Kernan and the Democratic Party are responsible for the $3.2-billion taxpayer fleecing known as new-terrain I-69 and should be held accountable.
(Note: The corruption surrounding I-69 and the Democrats is so transparent that, while it has gone largely unexplored by Indiana's lapdog media, it has been the subject of an NBC News "Fleecing of America" segment and ABC's "It's your Money."
Against the dual backdrops of the French Lick Hotel (once a haunt of Chicago gangsters like Al Capone) and wooded Orange County hillsides, the protesters' street dialogue with the Voices proved more entertaining than challenging. Like the arguments for the highway itself, the Voices' messages were shallow, nonsensical, and laughable, were $3.2 billion of taxpayer money, thousands of acres of forest, wetlands and farmland, and hundreds of homes and businesses not hanging in the balance.
As Kernan and Davis; attorney general candidate, former state party chair and former Secretary of State Joe Hogsett; and Ninth District Congressman Baron Hill waved but refused to talk to I-69 opponents on their way into the Legion Hall, their highway supporters expressed two sentiments: "We want jobs" and "Go home," with a handful of variations thereof:
- "Get in your car and go home."
- "Go home, we want a job."
- "Go get a job."
- "Go home, you hypocrites."
- "Get in your car and go home, you hypocrites."
To the Voices' call for jobs, protester Kate Mobley shot back: "What kind of jobs will I-69 create? McDonald's? You want McDonald's jobs?" The protesters chanted: "No NAFTA highway" — "What kind of jobs?" — "Jobs to Mexico!" — "Taco Bell, Taco Bell, Taco Bell."
To the Voices' admonition to go home protesters chanted: "Indiana is our home!" and "We're not going anywhere!"
To union members supporting the NAFTA Highway protesters chanted: "NAFTA hurts unions!"
While the confrontation with the Voices dominated the street scene, the real targets of Friday's protest action were Kernan, Davis, Hogsett, Hill, and the party that has been behind I-69 from the beginning. As Stant framed the issue in a news release announcing the event:
"Indiana Democrats must understand that they cannot thumb their noses at tens of thousands of Indiana voters like Frank O'Bannon and Joe Kernan have these past 14 years and win close elections.
In the end, voter outrage over this $3.2 billion taxpayer fleecing will trump the hundreds of thousands of dollars that Evansville fat cats have poured into the O'Bannon-Kernan campaign coffers. And Democrats all over Indiana will pay the price."
As Democrat after Democrat approached the Legion Hall, they walked past signs like a 20-foot-long, black-and-white banner held by Drew Laird and John Maier telling them: "NO NEW TAXES to pave farms and forests — Stop I-69"
As they reached the entrance, David Coyte opened the door and handed them a light green tri-fold brochure whose cover proclaimed:
"I-69 is killing the Indiana Democratic Party
"A significant number of Democrats will not be voting for Governor Kernan because of his stance on I-69
"Please take the time to examine the issues and find out why"
As Orange County residents passed by on their way to the senior citizens center next door, Mobley and Kristin Becher made those same points through open car windows.
Inside, the brochure explained:
"The party of the people has ignored the thousands of people who have voiced their opposition to a new-terrain route. Of the 21,873 comments received by the state during the comment period, 94% (20,467) opposed a new-terrain highway. In 2002, 138,000 petition signatures opposing a new-terrain I-69 were delivered to the governor."
With Mobley on the bullhorn, the protesters told the Democrats: "94% say no!"
As Hogsett shook hands with local constables and I-69 supporters, individual protesters shouted: "Look at what's staring you in the face, Joe" and "Come on Joe, you're killing your own party. You're giving it to Mitch." When Hill arrived, they shouted: "Progress without plunder."
While the Democrats wined and dined inside the hall, the protesters held signs in front of their windows and chanted:
- No more taxes
- Save our farms
- Fix the roads we have
- I-69, lots more taxes
- Kernan's a Republicat
- Fund our schools
The French Lick action followed some sobering political news for the I-69 party last week: A poll taken by the Indiana Manufacturers Association showed that Kernan has yet to break out of the 30s, five points behind Republican Mitch Daniels, where he's been stuck since June.
Joe Kernan and the Democratic Party cannot escape Frank O'Bannon's legacy if they persist in needlessly destroying thousands of Hoosier lives and flouting the opinions of more than a hundred thousand. As Stant warned in the news release: "Democrats from across Indiana must stop the governor before it's too late — for them and their party."
Steven Higgs is editor of The Bloomington Alternative and an active member of the ad hoc I-69 citizens group.