Working for Lugar

This coming May will mark three years since Senator Richard Lugar’s fall at the hands of Tea Party candidate Richard Mourdock. Greencastle native and current Indianapolis resident, Emmy Hildebrand worked for the Senator on his staff, and yesterday she sat down with National Road Magazine’s Donovan Wheeler and shared her thoughts about the man and the campaign as well as the long term consequences of that primary election.

DW: What do you do now?

EH: I’m a lobbyist for a nonprofit that houses homeless veterans. We have been serving veterans in Indianapolis for more than twenty years, and—since there are a couple of federal programs which have a huge impact on us—to be able to have a voice with our legislators is important.

DW: What kind of work did you do for the Senator when you worked for him?

EH: I did a couple of things. I was hired originally in 2002 to coordinate his veteran’s history project, which is an oral history program run through The Library of Congress documenting veterans’ stories. Then, in 2006, I took on additional responsibilities, handling all his military and veterans issues here in the state.

DW: How were you able to begin working for him, when you started in ’02?

Hildebrand stands behind the Senator as he addresses reporters.
Photo by Mark Hayes.

EH: I interned for him during the winter term of my senior year at DePauw. I was a history major, and it was a good fit. Then they asked me to stay on, so I stayed with them through the following semester. I was eventually hired at the end of the summer. When I started there I was 21, and then I worked there for ten years—most of my formative years were spent working on that staff.

DW: What kind of a “boss” was he?

EH: The most gracious kind. I should preface this by saying that I spent my entire time in Indianapolis, and he wasn’t there day-to-day. He wasn’t my immediate supervisor, but he was still an inspirational leader. He talked a lot about public service—about how, if you have a skill you can use for the greater good—then you should use it for that purpose, and that really made an impression on me. If not for that, I wouldn’t have the job I have now…to be dedicated to service.

EH: He’s the kind of man who, for thirty years in the US Senate, inspired hundreds of individuals to work for him and to work very hard and very well. We all believed in his policies, but it came down to a personal level. We would do anything he asked of us because we believed so strongly in his mission and what he was talking about. And I don’t think, if you’re a “terrible” person, you can inspire that many people over decades of public service.

“Even after the election. We had a staff dinner, and it was a sad day. The Senator took the time to thank each of us and wish us well, then he said, “We still have a lot of work to do before November. We have the Farm Bill,” and “we have a lot of work to do…” never once saying, “I’ve had enough.” He wanted to work up until the very last second on all the things he felt were important.”

DW: Do you think there are still people in politics with those kinds of values? Or are there fewer?

EH: I think they’re few and far between. If you look at the Senator’s concession speech, he talks about it…how people are becoming more extreme…how you have to pass “purity” tests to be “primaried,” and I think that’s hurtful to politics in general. I mean, the Senator worked on some very important issues: nuclear disarmament, world hunger…matters that were broad initiatives that—if you got hung up on the small things—they never would have come to fruition. The fact that he was willing to negotiate and compromise and build relationships really furthered his agenda, and if we don’t have people who are willing to do this…then how are leaders going to get the big things done? Of course, that probably explains why we haven’t had a real budget in eight years.

DW: What do all these changes mean for “party politics”? What does that term even mean for you?

EH: As a citizen it’s discouraging. I recognize the need for political parties, and I see that—in an ideal world—parties are how you work together and build coalitions, because you have people with the same broad ideas and then you work together from there. But when that changes…when to be “a real member” of the party you have to always feel a certain way about these certain issues or otherwise you’re too tainted to be a real Republican or a real Democrat…I don’t think that gets anything done.

DW: Was there ever a moment where everyone started to realize that the 2012 campaign was not going to end well?

EH: I think everyone on the staff had their own moments [where that happened]. First of all, my husband deployed to Afghanistan in 2012. So at the time I’m already having the worst year of my life. So, he’s gone, and meanwhile we were all working in the office and then volunteering on the nights and weekends on the campaign. We put a lot of emphasis on voter turnout, and much of that was done through phone-banking. We were all making thousands of calls in the evenings and on the weekends, and everyone on the staff was doing this. We were working hard trying to convince people one-by-one to reelect Lugar.

EH: I remember the Saturday before Election Day, our campaign office was in Broad Ripple, so went over to the nearby McDonalds for breakfast. I looked at a longtime colleague and friend of mine and said: “You know we’re going to lose, right?” But she hadn’t had “that moment” yet, so she said, “No, we’re not.” I said, “Yeah…we’re going to lose, and you need to be prepared.”

EH: And even though we’d had that talk, on Tuesday night we were the first race called…right at 6:01. Even then it was still like taking a punch in the stomach—so much disappointment and hurt and anger, I guess.

DW: Anger towards whom? The tenor of the campaign?

EH: Yeah. It had been nasty. The phone calls we had been making to…just…regular voters… They were so hostile towards the Senator. And again, if you look at his concession speech, he said that he knew all of that was coming—from his votes on the START Treaty to his stance on immigration… The calls were just…nasty. There were some people who had vandalized his farm the weekend before the election. They put “Retire Lugar” signs on his fencepost and light poles and things like that. That explains a little bit about what the nature of the campaign was like.

DW: When we think about voters like that now, are we talking about mean-spirited people or people who were manipulated?

EH: Probably a little bit of both. The people were leading this effort, they called the Senator “Republicans in Name, Only”…RINO’s, and then they would call themselves “RINO Hunters.” They would make pictures of the Senator and put a bull’s eye target on him.

EH: To me, I think that you should disagree. I think that government, and lots of things are better if you are passionate and care about what you’re doing. But when you cross that threshold of what’s acceptable…bring a policy debate, instead. Bring a list of reasons why your guy is better than my guy, but… It doesn’t have to be “RINO Hunting.”

I looked at a longtime colleague and friend of mine and said: “You know we’re going to lose, right?” But she hadn’t had “that moment” yet, so she said, “No, we’re not.” I said, “Yeah…we’re going to lose, and you need to be prepared.”

DW: Was there ever a chance to have a policy debate? Or was this always a debate about ideology?

EH: I think it was ideology. In my opinion, the issues the Senator was working on were never really discussed. Instead the debate always gravitated around comments such as “He’s not ‘conservative’ enough” or “He’s Obama’s favorite Republican.” And that has been completely blown out of the water.

EH: A couple weeks ago, the Senator flew back to Ivy Tech with President Obama, and…first of all, who in their right mind would turn down a ride on Air Force One? I don’t care if you’re completely opposed to the President or his ideas or whatever. You’d be an idiot to turn it down. And, on that day a particularly nasty Tea Party personality on Twitter posted picture of it and said, “Still the right choice.”

EH: He’s been through all of these experiences, and it’s disappointing that Hoosier voters didn’t recognize that. Look at the situation in the Ukraine. The Ukraine doesn’t have nuclear weapons because of Dick Lugar. And at a time when the Ukraine is in crisis we have one of the foremost experts on the region who is out of the Senate.

DW: Do you see a day when we can be a people who can compromise again?

EH: I don’t know. I don’t see it in our near future. We see glimpses of it after national tragedies…after 9-11 or the start of the Iraq war. But right now…?

EH: There are a lot of factors which produce this environment. The politicians need to make headlines. They need to prove that they can be louder than everybody else. I think that drives people to the extreme, and it makes it impossible to compromise. And, media-wise, people don’t understand the difference between a “commentator” and actual “news.” That drives a lot of what people think about government and politics. The public is basing its opinion on someone else’s opinion.

DW: That’s a fascinating contradiction you’ve created: the attention-seeker versus the public servant. Am I correct in breaking it down that way?

EH: I think that’s absolutely accurate. I never witnessed the Senator or heard others say of him that he tried to grand-stand for his own benefit. He was always very much happy to do the legwork. Even though I wasn’t there at the time, everyone spoke of “Nunn-Lugar” passing in ’91. The reason that bill passed is that Senator Lugar personally visited with every member of Congress to get this bill passed. It didn’t happen because he made a big spectacle on the Senate floor or anything else. He was always more about getting the work done than getting the attention for it.

EH: Even after the election. We had a staff dinner, and it was a sad day. The Senator took the time to thank each of us and wish us well, then he said, “We still have a lot of work to do before November. We have the Farm Bill,” and “we have a lot of work to do…” never once saying, “I’ve had enough.” He wanted to work up until the very last second on all the things he felt were important.

DW: Now that your time with the Senator is over, what are your thoughts as you reflect on that period of your life?

EH: The first thing I would say is that I was in awe of the people I got to work with. The Senator’s staff were people who had been with him for a very long time, people who had been monitoring the elections in the Philippines in the ‘80s with him. Being a girl from Greencastle, my thought was always: “This is incredible! I’m around people who’ve shaped history.” Second of all, because we were together so long, we’re now a family. They were all at my wedding, and when I go to D.C. there are six or seven Lugar people who make themselves available for dinner or will meet just to catch up, and it’s like that everywhere.

DW: What should we all take away from this, regardless whether we’re Republican or Democratic?

EH: Be involved. The voter turnout was very, very low…less than 30%. So, even though we worked hard to try to turn out Lugar supporters, people would come up to me and say, “I had no idea it was going to be close. I didn’t even think about voting because I didn’t think there was any way he was going to lose.” If we really want more candidates who will move toward the middle and get things done, then everybody needs to vote. It can’t be left up to the most hardcore Democrats and Republicans to choose in the primaries because they’re choosing the candidates that we get to vote for in November.


Featured Image, Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar belongs in the public domain.

Author: Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches English to a horde of bright and lovably obnoxious high school seniors in a small college town. He has written in the past for Indiana on Tap and STATE Magazine, and is an occasional contributor to NUVO, Indy's alternate news website. Since picking up the guitar three years, he can now play a dozens songs while singing them quite badly.

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