INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb took on the conservative criticism over his coronavirus pandemic orders as he faced his two reelection challengers in a televised debate Tuesday night.
Holcomb, a Republican, also faced arguments from Democratic candidate Woody Myers that he’s been too passive in the state’s recent response as Indiana’s has seen steep increases in coronavirus-related deaths, infections and hospitalizations in the time since Holcomb last month lifted nearly all of coronavirus restrictions on businesses and crowd sizes.
Some conservatives around the state have argued Holcomb has exceeded his authority with a statewide mask mandate and executive orders forcing the closure of businesses deemed nonessential during the early weeks of the pandemic.
That has some longtime Republicans saying they’ll be voting for Libertarian Donald Rainwater, who said during the debate that Holcomb’s action exceeded the Constitution’s intent and infringed on individual liberty.
Holcomb said that his actions were needed during a public health emergency.
“Our individual liberty needs to be guarded,” Holcomb said. “When that liberty, or those actions, start to infringe on someone else that’s where we have to take a look at the public safety. It is just like a seatbelt, it’s just like wearing shoes in a restaurant, it’s just like fire codes — they’re meant for safety procedures.”
Myers, a physician and former state health commissioner, criticized Holcomb for issuing a mask mandate that many people ignore since it doesn’t include any penalties for violators.
“If what we were doing was working, then we wouldn’t have record numbers,” Myers said. “Our positivity rate is going up and our hospitals are filling up.”
State health officials on Tuesday added 48 coronavirus-related deaths to Indiana’s toll, which has reached 4,008, including confirmed and presumed coronavirus infections, since the state’s first death was reported in mid-March. Indiana’s number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and intensive care unit patients are both up nearly 90% in the past month.
Rainwater, an information technology manager from Westfield, has said he would undo Holcomb’s executive orders and said Tuesday he would ask state lawmakers to limit the emergency powers that the governor has used for the past seven months while the Legislature has been out of session.
“I don’t believe the governor is a legislator,” Rainwater said. “The governor is supposed to execute the laws that are passed by the General Assembly.”
The hourlong debate occurred two weeks before Election Day with the three candidates and the moderator in separate areas of the WFYI-TV studio in Indianapolis because of COVID-19 precautions, according to organizers with the nonprofit Indiana Debate Commission. The candidates are scheduled to take part in another debate on Oct. 27.
Holcomb has a huge advertising and organization advantage as his reelection campaign has raised at least $12.5 million — more than 10 times what Myers has received in contributions or personal loans he’s made to his campaign.
Myers announced early in Tuesday’s debate that he would appoint current state schools Superintendent Jennifer McCormick to lead the state education department if he’s elected as governor.
McCormick was elected as a Republican in 2016 but has since broken with the party after numerous education policy disagreements with Holcomb and GOP lawmakers. The Legislature pushed through a Republican-backed bill last year to eliminate the school superintendent as an elected position and make it a gubernatorial appointment starting with the end of McCormick’s term in January.
Myers said he would be more aggressive than Holcomb and the Republican-dominated Legislature in acting to boost teacher pay.
“It is clear to me that unless we do that, we’re going to continue to lose teachers to Kentucky, to Illinois, to Ohio and from the profession all together,” Myers said.
Holcomb argued he’s protected public schools from funding cuts for this school year despite big drops in state tax revenue during the pandemic.
He maintained that Indiana’s economy is strong and bouncing back quickly, pointing to the state’s 3% unemployment rate before coronavirus shutdowns started in March and how it has dropped from a high of 17.5% to 6.2% for September.
“Being a low-cost-of-doing-business and low-cost-of-living state, plus pro-growth policies on the business side equal getting ahead,” Holcomb said.