Former Greencastle Mayor Nancy Michael talks about life after public office, her heated final campaign in 2010, and the difference between big-time politics and its local version.
by Donovan Wheeler–photos by Caitlin Fogle
On the night of November 2, 2010, Nancy Michael could do little more than watch as more than two decades of public service reached its end. In moments such as those perspective is often elusive, but sometimes we get the clarity we need from the least likely sources. For Michael, it came in the form of her then 22-year-old son. “After I lost,” Michael says, “Peter turned to me and said, ‘I hope you’ll learn how to turn on the TV and enjoy it.’”
Few who opened their mailboxes every other day that fall will forget how contentious, and often ugly, that campaign became. In one small district after another candidates both benefited and bore the brunt of an equally ugly national debate over the future of our health care system. As we discussed the election, however, Michael made no mention of her opponent. When I did utter his name late in the interview, she pantomimed the zipping of her lips and smiled just as politely as she had all afternoon. While she perhaps aptly avoid her opposition’s decisions, she was more than willing to address her own.
“When you become a targeted race,” Michael says, “and when the party steps in to support you, that sometimes comes at a cost. Because when you have control over what gets printed and what gets mailed, then some things you’re not going to say.”
“[However],” Michael continued, “it [did get ugly].” Here she lets out a soft sigh. Time eases a lot of life’s stings, but memories have a sort of museum effect as well. “I will take personal responsibility for my part in it. As far as my part goes, there were things that happened that were not so good. Some of it [the flyers that went out for example] were things that I thought I had under control,” here she laughs. “It’s a side of you that you never want to see, and that becomes another good reason to get out. Because when you look at those things and you know that’s not you, that’s when you think ‘it’s okay to lose.’ But I also wholeheartedly believe that the 2010 race was nothing about me or even about my performance as a state representative. It was purely a matter of: if you were a ‘D’ you were out. It was the wrong time to be running as a Democrat.”
After a pause, Michael added one more significant rumination: “I think the election was maybe God’s way of saying to me, ‘it’s time to move on.’”
After twelve years sitting at the mayor’s desk—preceded by another decade in county offices—running for Indiana’s 44th House district did seem like the next logical step. After all, hundreds of current politicians and public servants can all cite resumes sporting a gradual climb to power which mirrors Michael’s own journey. And like every freshman in state or federal government, she arrived fully intending to make a deeper, stronger impact than she did spear-heading city government in Greencastle. But the nature of politics at the next level left her feeling disappointed at times.
“Part of the problem with state-level politics,” she explains, “is that everybody goes in wanting to do great things. Everybody goes in as themselves, and everybody there is a great person. We don’t elect terrible people. Then it becomes very difficult for office-holders to make decisions on their own. When you sit down to make the vote, for some reason it becomes a team effort. The root of this is both historical and institutional. When you first join the House or the Senate, you’re working with people who have been there for a long time, and if they can’t get along how do the freshmen deal with that coming in?”
“The power that a freshman is given in only as much as the leadership will allow.”
“On the other hand,” Michael continues, “there are lots of people working behind the scenes together on both sides…it is happening. But we don’t hear about that. What’s going on in the State House is very comparable to what’s happened with the wars over the last decade. We hear one account or set of details about Afghanistan in the media, but when you talk to the soldiers, you sometimes hear very different stories. So [compromise and real progress in state government] is still going on, but I think it’s much more difficult to work together like this than it used to be. And at the national level, that appears all but impossible.”
It comes with no small measure of irony that in a culture which is collectively obsessed with fame, power, and reaching the biggest stage possible, Nancy Michael comes away from her time in Indianapolis more convinced than ever that the beauty of public service lies not in latching onto the clichéd brass ring but instead rests where every career begins.
“The best position in politics is on the local level, and it always will be,” she says. “And this is because of the sheer numbers. At this level you can get to know your mayor, your township trustee, your judges, your sheriff, your police and fire chiefs when you live in a small town like this. But once the scale of the things gets too big…when your town hits 20, 30, or 50,000 people maybe…then we don’t make decisions about people we know. Until you can put a face with politics, it’s not personal, and decision or the vote becomes more about the group, instead. That’s why the bad apples [the Mark Foleys or the Anthony Wieners] can spoil it for the bunch.”
“The local level, therefore,” Michael reiterates, “is the greatest place to be because you truly can make a difference. As a mayor, you have the power to influence which streets will get paved, which sidewalks will be repaired, who gets hired in the police and fire departments. But then you get to the state level, and you listen to the conversations that go on there, and I would sometimes ask myself, ‘are we really making a difference?’”
“I can remember being successful [in the State House] at keeping bad laws from passing…grandstanding to stop legislation which was really going to hurt farmers. But as far as actually passing something that was fruitful which was going to make a real, true difference in the economic development of our state…not so much.”
Before I can ask her the obvious question, she follows up with an answer: “Today at the state (and most certainly at the national level) it’s all about the ‘win.’ One of the things I’ve thought about so much is this idea of ‘us and them.’ And ‘us and them’ is everywhere. It’s in basketball…it’s ‘Purdue’ or it’s ‘IU,’ and ‘us and them’ shows up in your difference in religious views…or between women and men. This is where we are in politics.”
At the very least, Michael contends that we could solve some of this polarization with a simple change in the election process: “If we could take ‘Republican’ and ‘Democrat’ off the ballot…at least at the local level, everything would be so much better. Is your sheriff a good administrator who’s honest and works well with people? Are your office-holders ethical people who will do the right thing? Will they listen to me? This is what most people consider when they vote for local races. I think this is what people try to do at the state and national level, too. But the sheer size of everything makes that so hard to actually do.”
A national election without party designations. The novelty of the concept becomes so appealing to even the most grounded and realistic of curmudgeons that sometimes we have to wonder why the surviving Founding Fathers ignored George Washington’s warning about the divisive and destructive influence of party politics when he walked away from the presidency after the 1796 contest. Part of the reason goes back to the scale. Even in the eighteenth century, Washington still spoke from a national, high-profile mindset concentrating heavily on “anti-division,” if you will. From Michael’s local perspective, however, the unifying power of common ground lies at the heart of what makes politics and civil service thrive.
“I have always found it interesting the way that the media pigeon-holes Democrats as ‘social-issue’ people and Republicans as ‘big business’ types,” Michael says. “Well, if you put everybody in Greencastle in a room, sit everyone around a table, we would pretty much agree on all the same matters. We all care about people; we all want businesses to succeed; we share the same library, post office, and school; and we all believe that people should be treated fairly with kindness. But for some reason, when we go to the polls, we divide ourselves. Then the Republicans talk about ‘those liberals,’ and the Democrats talk about ‘those right-wingers.’ I just don’t believe that we’re really that divided.”
Now, however, Nancy Michel doesn’t only get to avoid the weighty burdens of public office, but she gets to enjoy the fruits of a simple life in the community—albeit a still-busy simple life working by day at a Greencastle’s First National Bank and nights at Gail Smith’s Almost Home Restaurant. “I like where I work, and I love who I work for,” she says emphasizing the point.
“And one of the first things I noticed after leaving office,” she continues, “is that people were more willing to talk to me, and I think that’s because—when I was in office—they always thought I had an agenda. They thought: ‘Oh, she’s just talking to us because she wants our vote.’ Not everyone realized that I was just being me. And people become much warmer, and we could talk about how we were doing how our families were getting along.”
“I didn’t realize how much I had sacrificed until the first time I didn’t have to campaign,” Michael adds. “When you’re running for office you’re always gone, always out. Peter and Mary were 7 and 4 when I first ran for mayor, and as much as my kids probably hated my political career at the time, I think they’re proud of it and they’ve learned something from it. Nonetheless, I remember approaching my good friend John Ziener and asking him, ‘Do you think this is a good idea?’ We sat up 8:00 that night to something like 2:00 in the morning talking about it. And now I can look at myself and think: ‘You’re 55, and you’ve been mayor for 12 years…and a state rep…and you were county clerk…and you were on county council.’ It feels good to know that I’ve done my service, but it’s so nice to be home with my family.”
No one will argue that growing up in the mayor’s house makes for a unique childhood, if not at least a unique perspective to childhood. But when Michael describes her own upbringing, what I hear is the description of a much similar upbringing, centered around the themes of love and sacrifice: “I grew up on a dairy farm, started by my dad and his brother. We spent six out of seven days together, and every Sunday we went to church. And the work ethic you get growing up on a farm is so unique. I had such a simple life. We milked seven days a week, twice a day. We could occasionally go the mall, but even then we’d have to head back home by 3:00 because the cows were waiting for us. I didn’t know until I met Steve that there were other people who weren’t obligated, day and night, seven days a week. I think that upbringing helped me as a public servant.”
Five years out of office, people still ask if she would ever run again. To that Michael says that she “thinks about it” but often “gets sick” as a result. Perhaps that tendril of discomfort will pass, and Nancy Michael will one day shoulder the mantle of civil servant. But if those days remain concluded, she will continue to embody all that a small city like Greencastle offers: that friendly face, the warm greeting, the time to make earnest conversation, and a willingness to offer hand when we need it. Regardless who she works for today, Nancy Michael remains not only a public figure in the community, but in many ways the face of it as well.