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Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon, 73; Conservative Democrat Stressed Education and Development

September 14, 2003|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon, a conservative Democrat known as a consensus builder, died Saturday at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, five days after suffering a massive stroke. He was 73.

O'Bannon had traveled to Chicago for a conference on strengthening trade between Midwestern states and Japan and was found unconscious in his hotel room on Monday. His condition worsened Saturday, according to a statement released by his office.

"Based on the governor's living will, First Lady Judy O'Bannon and the family decided to use no further means of support and care and the governor died naturally," the statement said.

President Bush, in a statement issued by the White House, praised O'Bannon as "a dedicated public servant and a good and decent man." Bush also said O'Bannon had "served the people of his state with integrity and devotion."

Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan was sworn in as Indiana's new governor a few hours after O'Bannon's death. Judy O'Bannon, who had been at her husband's bedside since Monday, arrived at the statehouse in Indianapolis shortly before the ceremonies. She hugged a well-wisher and said of her husband, "He was a tough old guy."

O'Bannon was serving his second term as governor. After winning the office in 1996 and enjoying a successful first term, he ran into a series of troubles, as the state's economy soured and scandal tarnished some of his subordinates. But even as his job ratings turned negative, he retained a reservoir of personal goodwill built up during three decades in public life.

Born in Louisville, Ky., O'Bannon grew up in the southern Indiana town of Corydon. His family owned several weekly newspapers in the area. After serving in the Air Force from 1952 to 1954, O'Bannon earned his law degree from Indiana University and went into legal practice.

He was elected to the Indiana Senate in 1970, succeeding his father in representing eight counties in the southern part of the state. He rose to the post of Democratic leader, and planned a run for governor in 1988. But when Democrat Evan Bayh -- son of longtime U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) -- entered the race, O'Bannon became his running mate. They won and were reelected in 1992. Bayh now serves as U.S. senator from Indiana.

After O'Bannon's stroke, Bayh called the governor "a good man, and one of the most decent public servants I've ever had the honor of working with."

Despite two terms as lieutenant governor, O'Bannon initially was perceived as the underdog when he sought the top job in 1996. The favorite was Republican Stephen Goldsmith, the mayor of Indianapolis. But Goldsmith was hurt by divisions within the state GOP. O'Bannon also benefited from his pledge to continue Bayh's popular economic development policies. O'Bannon beat Goldsmith, 52% to 47%.

He won reelection by a large margin in 2000, even as Bush easily carried Indiana in that year's presidential race. O'Bannon defeated his Republican foe, then-Rep. David McIntosh, 57% to 42%.

As governor, O'Bannon emphasized improving public schools. He won increased funding for education and established a new community college system. However, the state Legislature rejected his proposal for full-day kindergarten.

His conservatism showed when he tried to install a stone monument bearing the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the state capitol. The courts blocked that plan.

During his first term, the booming national economy helped Indiana build budget surpluses and spurred tax cuts totaling $1.5 billion. But with the economy suffering during his second term, O'Bannon faced rising unemployment and shrinking state revenues.

He also was criticized after a man with a criminal record for identity theft was hired in a senior position in the Indiana employee retirement system, where he would have had access to information on 20,000 workers.

Late last year, O'Bannon launched an economic recovery plan. It was his efforts to create more jobs in Indiana that led him to attend the trade conference in Chicago.

O'Bannon met his wife on a blind date in college; they were married in 1957.

In addition to his wife, O'Bannon is survived by the couple's three children, Polly, Jennifer and Jonathon; and five grandchildren.

*

Times wire services contributed to this report.

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