The superlatives were as abundant as the sunshine at Friday morning's "I-69: It's not over!" rally at the Indiana Statehouse. "A great day" is how Tom Tokarski put it on the bus ride home to Bloomington, an uncharacteristic grin plastered across his face. Incredible, others said. Amazing. Unbelievable. A watershed. A turning point. A new day.
It was all of those, for sure. And much more. It was a day of entertainment (and creative radicalism), delightfully provided by Robin Tala and the Bloomington Circus Collective. It was a day when the "I-69 is not a done deal" message reached Hoosiers all across Indiana, as no fewer than seven major media outlets covered the late-morning rally.
It was a day when Republican suits stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Jeff Stant, high on the Capitol's east-side steps overlooking Monument Circle, and generated raucous applause from youthful, face-painted artists and musicians with dreds. Ditto the Libertarian candidate for governor, Kenn Gividen.
But most of all, it was a day when a superlative gathering of diverse interests — ranging in age from 2 to 80, as Rob Schneider from the Indianapolis Star observed — converged on the "People's House" to tell the governor, the next governor, the Legislature, and their fellow citizens that new-terrain I-69 is a sham, and that it is never, never going to be built.
In addition to the sheer size and enthusiastic recommitment to the I-69 fight by a crowd of 500-plus, the most noteworthy development of the day was Indianapolis Republicans sharing the stage and publicly declaring common ground with Bloomington City Councilman Andy Ruff and Vigo County Councilman Turk Roman.
Democrats Ruff and Roman led a long list of speakers who proclaimed their opposition to the rally and the downtown lunch crowd via an amplified PA system. Ruff called new-terrain I-69 rotten pork. Roman decried the devastating economic impacts it would have on Terre Haute and said I-69 would be another 150 miles of new Interstate that Indiana cannot afford to maintain.
Ruff lauded the leadership shown by Republican State Sen. Lawrence Borst, whose conclusions on I-69 funding options — raise taxes or put every available penny of state highway money into Southwest Indiana for the next 14 years — is a resonant theme in the I-69 opposition. Stant echoed Ruff's praise.
Borst, chair of the Senate Finance Committee who lost to a challenger in last May's primary, accepted the tributes while standing onstage with Stant and Republican David Frizell, a Southwest-side Indianapolis State Rep.
Borst didn't speak, but Frizell did, onstage and to the television cameras. And he listed a half dozen other legislators who will be on the new-terrain opponents' side on I-69 in the legislative session that starts in January, when highway funding is expected to be a hot issue. Frizell reiterated what Ruff, Roman, Borst, and others have long argued. I-69 will require higher taxes on all Hoosiers.
The rally capped a week in which Republican gubernatorial candidate Mitch Daniels told the Evansville Courier & Press that there is no money to build I-69. The paper's editors endorsed him anyway. They didn't say whether they think Daniels' idea for an I-69 toll road would be a tax by another name.
Martinsville businesswoman Brenda Buster, IU student Kate Mobley, Bloomington author James Alexander Thom, 80-year-old Greg Foote, environmentalist Kristen Becher, Morgan County farmer Georgiana Ennis, and a host of other citizen speakers lent passion, heart, spirit, humanity, and additional facts to the dialogue.
And they were all prelude to Sandra Tokarski, who said the turnout gladdened her heart, to prolonged and thunderous applause from the crowd.
Stant introduced Gividen, calling him the first candidate in Indiana history to raise a major environmental issue in a governor's race or debate. Gividen called I-69 a "boondoggle" and led the crowd in boondoggle chants.
The official program ended with a march to the governor's office that stretched nearly the length of the Capitol-Washington Street sidewalks from Market to the Statehouse Southside door. It was a long, long line of angry voters that passed directly in front of Joe Kernan's office window.
Led by Stant and Tom Tokarski, the marchers grew silent upon entering the cavernous Statehouse, slowly making their way to the governor's office. Inside, a woman sat in a chair with a window view of Capitol, where the march had begun. A man standing next to her buttoned his sport coat. The mood inside the governor's office was somber.
After the crowd had slowly gathered, Stant and Tokarski went inside to ask, in hushed tones, that someone representing the governor come out and accept a written statement. The governor had declined an invitation to speak at the rally.
Authored primarily by Stant, the statement concluded:
"Governor Kernan, we don't understand you. We don't understand why you are supporting the new-terrain highway or why our views matter so little to you. But we are not going to let the next Indiana governor, whoever he is, treat us this way. The citizens will not be ignored any longer. We will fight any initiative to fund this outrageous and unjustified highway at any level and in every hall of government. And we will hold our political officials fully accountable for the actions they take or don't take on this issue so vitally important to our lives."
The room was eerily silent after Stant and Tokarski exited and the receptionist dialed her phone and asked if anyone was "available" to go out and accept the statement.
Moments later, a governor's aide stepped into the tiny space between the door and the assembled throng to accept the statement. "These are people from all over the state who are concerned about the governor's strong backing of new-terrain I-69," Stant told her, gesturing toward the crowd. "We're here to give you a statement of our concern and our resolve to fight for justice on this issue."
Tokarski handed the aide a photograph taken by France Knable of middle-school-aged children on bicycles holding an I-69 banner. He told her: "This is from the children of Indiana whose lives are going to be diminished by the construction of I-69 in Southwest Indiana."
The aide thanked them but said she had nothing to say, other than: "I will make sure that these materials are delivered to the governor and that he has an opportunity to read them."
The aide went back inside the governor's office, and chants of "This is what democracy looks like!" erupted from the crowd.
Indiana Citizens put their politicians on notice Friday. They will be counted on I-69, one way or another.
Just as he had led the drumming and dancing, singing and chanting Circus Collective onto the Statehouse steps to open the rally, Tala led them outside and onto the streets of downtown Indianapolis after it was over.
They marched, two and sometimes three lanes abreast, down Market to Illinois, where police cars and motorcycles with flashing lights blocked the way. Carrying banners that said "I-69 Imperial Design" and "Beet I-69" (in the shape of a beet), they marched up Illinois, bringing traffic to a halt but prompting no response from the police. They followed Ohio to Meridian to Monument Circle to Market and back to the Statehouse.
As if to punctuate the effectiveness the I-69 citizens coalition has had raising public awareness about I-69, a woman hung her head outside the passenger-side window of a van on Meridian and asked photographers ahead of the march: "Is this that I-69 thing?" Craning her neck to see the Circus approaching from behind, her question assumed rhetorical status. "Oh yeah," she said. "It is."
Steven Higgs is editor of The Bloomington Alternative and a participating member in the I-69 citizens coalition. He helped coordinate media for Friday's rally and contributed to the statement the coalition delivered to the governor.