By MAUREEN HAYDEN
WASHINGTON, D.C. — On his weekly trips back home to Indiana, U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly has been snapping photos of high school gyms to add to the Hoosier-themed artwork in his Washington, D.C., office, and collecting mugs for the Wednesday morning coffee hours he hosts for constituents visiting the nation’s capital.
Since taking office six months ago, the freshman senator has immersed himself in big national issues, from immigration reform to the Affordable Care Act. But he’s also been what he calls “laser focused” on staying connected to the people he represents.
For Donnelly, that means frequent travel around the state — where he’s routinely peppered with advice — and a mandate to his staff to respond as quickly as they can to the thousands of emails and phone calls they get each week, especially those that are requests for help navigating the federal bureaucracy.
“Our job is to make sure that if a veteran has a problem, we take care of it. If there’s a Social Security question, we get it answered,” Donnelly said in a recent interview in his Washington office. “We’re the hired help. We’re here to serve the people of Indiana.”
It’s gotten a little easier to do. In late May, Donnelly and his staff moved out of their temporary Senate office in a cramped basement space with a single phone line and into permanent digs on the seventh floor of the Senate Hart Office Building.
“I think my office is bigger than my house back in South Bend,” said Donnelly, a three-term congressman who had a much smaller office when he was in the House. He works to keep some perspective on his power: On a recent day after filling in as the presiding officer in the Senate — as junior Senators are called to do — Donnelly had one of his standard evening meals: a microwaved frozen dinner.
The 56-year-old Democrat was labeled an “accidental senator” by political pundits last November after he won a seat securely held by Republican Sen. Richard Lugar for nearly 40 years. Donnelly’s odds-favored opponent, Richard Mourdock, who beat Lugar in the primary, saw his campaign implode in the final weeks after comments he’d made about abortion and rape.
Donnelly, though, has taken an intentional approach to his work. Aware that Lugar, though a revered elder statesmen, was criticized for losing touch with Indiana and that Mourdock, a Tea Party favorite, was seen as an extremist, Donnelly has worked hard to convey the opposite.
In a recent interview with the Washington Post, for example, Donnelly made a point of telling the reporter of his frequent trips back to Indiana, where some of his best conversations with constituents took place in supermarkets.
Veteran political analyst Brian Howey, publisher of Howey Politics Indiana, said the political lessons from the 2012 election haven’t been lost on Donnelly — or others.
“Donnelly has always made constituent service and outreach a priority, but 2012 burnished the concept not only with him, but the entire Indiana (congressional) delegation,” Howey said.
In Washington, Donnelly has embraced the role he played in the House of a political moderate, fiscally conservative “Blue Dog Democrat” willing to work across the aisle to break partisan gridlock.
Last month, Donnelly, the grandson of Irish immigrants, withheld his support for the Democrat-favored immigration reform bill until it included an amendment to beef up border security that made the legislation more palatable to some his Republican colleagues.
He’s also joined Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine in several efforts to amend the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. That included a plea to the Obama administration to delay a provision of the ACA that requires employers with 50 or more workers to provide health insurance coverage to their full-time employees or risk a series of escalating tax penalties. That delay was granted last week.
Donnelly said those efforts with Collins, who’d originally opposed the healthcare law, stems from conversations with small business owners around Indiana who complained the ACA requirements were too complicated and difficult to implement in time. But they also stem from his shared frustration with Collins over the bitter and unyielding partisan divide over the ACA law.
“You’ve had some folks on one side saying, ‘We don’t like the health care law so we’re not going to do anything to try to improve it,’” Donnelly said. “And on the Democrat side, you had people say, “There are problems with it, but we don’t want to talk about them and we don’t want to fix them, we’ve just got to keep the wagons circled and plow forward.’
“And I thought to myself, both of those positions are completely unreflective of reality.”
Both his vote on the immigration reform bill and his work with Collins garnered Donnelly more national media attention than a freshman senator would usually get, said Andrew Downs, head of the non-partisan Mike Downs Center for Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.
Over the past month, Donnelly has been named or quoted by political reporters in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.
Downs doesn’t expect that attention to diminish, given Donnelly’s unexpected win that put him in the Senate and the $51 million spent by all sides — including many outside forces — in the race for the seat Donnelly now holds.
“He’s one of those people that (media) folks will want to follow,” Downs said. “He’s got an interesting story.”
Donnelly cringes at the notion.
“That’s certainly not my focus,” he said. “We have a saying here: No senator in Indiana ever made a lot of progress in Indiana by being the darling of the New York Times or the Washington Post.”
Maureen Hayden can be reached at email@example.com