Politics

Otis Cox. Auditing a lifetime of public service.

Otis article
Otis E. Cox-Indiana State Auditor from 1982 to 1986.

Original publish date:  August 30, 2012

I received a phone call from an old friend the other day with some shocking news. One of my heroes and mentors in life, former Indiana State Auditor Otis E. Cox, called to tell me that he and his lovely wife Pat were moving from Anderson to Fishers. You may wonder, why is THAT shocking? Well, its shocking to me because Otis E. Cox is as much a part of Anderson as the Wigwam gym (home of all those great Anderson Indians basketball teams), Gene’s root beer stand (home of the Spanish Dog with cheese) and Lemon Drop drive-in (home of the legendary onion burger). Otis Cox might as well be “Mr. Anderson,” at least in my mind. No matter where I go or who I meet, seems everyone has ties of some sort to Anderson.

Otis and Pat have lived in Anderson all of their lives. Otis for 71 years and Pat for considerably less than that. He graduated from Anderson high school and followed that up by graduating from the General Motors Institute (now known as Kettering University). Otis, a Democrat, was elected Madison County auditor in 1976 and again in 1980. He was then elected State Auditor in 1981 serving in that post from December 1,1982 to November 30, 1986. Upon leaving office in 1986, Otis went back to his hometown and ran for Mayor of Anderson in 1987 losing by a  mere 94 votes. An astonishingly thin margin in a city of 60,000+, but Otis, true to his humble personality, eschewed a recount on the grounds that “the people had spoken.” Otis would win re-election to the post of Madison County Auditor in 1992, a generation after first attaining the post in 1976. In 1996 and 2000, Otis served as a Madison County Commissioner before retiring in 2004.

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I wore this back in 1982 campaigning with Otis in what seemed like every county in Indiana. Lots of miles, lots of heat and lots of rain on this thing.

I first met Otis as a young collector of political memorabilia just barely after I got my driver’s license. He was always honest, patient and kind with this tinhorn, just learning the ropes of collecting history and participating in the Indiana political process. When he was elected State Auditor, Otis kindly appointed me as one of his deputies at the Indiana Statehouse. A post I held from 1982 to 1985. At that time, Otis E. Cox was 4th in line of succession to the Governor’s seat and the highest ranking Democrat in the state.

Otis counted among his deputy auditors; Mary Moriarty (Adams)-District 17 City Councilwoman, Nancy Michael-former 44th district State Representative and Mayor of Green Castle, & Ed Mahern-longtime 97th district State Representative who holds the singular distinction of being the very first babyboomer born in Indianapolis (arriving two seconds after Midnight on Jan. 1, 1946). Otis Cox helped mold the future of Indianapolis politics for decades to come and his strength of leadership resonates in the Capitol City to this very day. During all those years in office in the State Capitol, Otis dutifully went home each night to Anderson in Madison County.

I drove up to Madison County last week to sit and reminisce with Otis and Pat about old times, politics and their next move in life. Otis is what most would call a loyal “Yellow Dog Democrat”, a political term applied to that part of the electorate who vote solely for Democratic candidates. It is believed that the term originated in the South after Republican president Abraham Lincoln led the Union against the Confederacy to describe those voters who would “vote for a yellow dog before they would vote for any Republican”. The term is now used to describe any Democrat who will vote a straight party ticket under any circumstances.

PO-dukakis-bentsen-button_busy_beaver_button_museumI often tell friends that I won my wife Rhonda’s heart back in 1988 when I walked into her store wearing a Dukakis / Bentsen for President campaign pin during the election. She gasped and asked me, “Where did you get that?” to which I reached into my pocket, pulled an identical pin out and presented it to her. Pat tells a similar story about meeting Otis for the first time in the early 1960s. “He walked up to me and asked me if I voted for John F. Kennedy” to which I answered “No.”  He asked me “Well, why not?” and I said, “because I wasn’t old enough.” From that point on, the pair were inseparable while working for LBJ, RFK, McGovern culminating with Otis himself being swept into office with the Jimmy Carter election in 1976.

The Cox’s fondly recall that 1976 election, Otis’ first, with several humorous stories about the role Anderson and the state of Indiana played in the Carter victory. “In 1976, there were several people running for the Democratic nomination. Hubert Humphrey, Sargent Shriver, George Wallace, Walter Mondale, Scoop Jackson, Fred Harris, Robert Byrd, Lloyd Bentsen, Birch Bayh, and of course, Jimmy Carter. ” Otis says, “They were all planning to come to Indiana for the primary, back then the Indiana primary really meant something, not like today. All of the candidates advance people were frantically calling Madison County Democrats to find places for these guys to stay. Everyone chose a candidate and Jimmy Carter was the last on the list. A friend of ours took the Carter’s in, (much to the later chagrin of all who’d chosen another candidate), and you know, Jimmy Carter stayed friends with them for decades afterwards. Even invited them to their home in Plains, Georgia whenever the couple traveled down to Florida.”

 

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Jimmy Carter-Larry Conrad-Otis Cox 1976 campaign pins.

Otis was a delegate to the Democratic National Conventions in 1976, 1980 & 1984. I asked him about the upcoming conventions to which he replied, “It’s not the same today as it was back then. There are no races anymore. Everything is decided before the convention. It’s more of a formality now than a real convention. In 1980 we had the Carter versus Ted Kennedy fight at the DNC and in 1984 there was the Mondale versus Jesse Jackson delegate fight. Gary Hart was still mixing into that convention as well.” Otis says, “Now its all cut and dried. The Republicans won’t even seat the two delegates pledged to Ron Paul at their convention this week.”

I asked Otis about his time as State Auditor. He smiles that trusting smile that helped sweep him into office back in 1982 and replies simply, “I enjoyed the time I spent there.” When asked if he’d run for office again, he flatly says, “No” then stops and reflects a moment before adding, “Well, if I were twenty years younger, sure.” He talks about the changes he’s seen in the political system during his lifetime of public service. Otis is startled today by the lack of cooperation between members of opposing parties at every level of government. “When I was in the State Auditor’s office both parties worked together, they strive for it. Even though I was the lone Democrat, the other offices bent over backwards to help me. Especially the Governor’s office, whatever we needed, they provided. No questions asked. Mind you, this was on a daily basis. You just don’t see that today at any level.” remarks Otis.

I asked the former State Auditor and his bride how they felt about leaving the only place they’ve ever called home. After all, the Cox’s are moving from a county that many consider to be one of the state’s most economically depressed to a county that is often ranked as one of the most prosperous in the nation. After all, Madison County’s unemployment rate at is nearly 2 points higher than the national average, job growth is 6% lower than the national average, individual income is over $5,000 less than the national average and median household income is over $ 14,000 less than the national average. On the other hand, Hamilton County’s unemployment rate at is nearly 2 1/2 points lower than the national average, job growth is nearly 1% higher than the national average, individual income is over $ 10,000 more than the national average and median household income is a staggering $ 30,000 above than the national average. Although separated by an insignificant distance, that’s a significant lifestyle change.

“Well, we’re not really leaving Madison County,” Pat says “Our friends are here, our bank is here and our doctors are here.” Pat volunteers her time at St. John’s hospital in Anderson (where both of my children and my wife were born). She donates her time making floral arrangements for the patients and plans to continue her duties there. “It’s actually about the same commute for me, 15-20 minutes depending on traffic,” Pat says “Traffic can be bad, but I’m going the opposite direction. I’m going out of Hamilton County when everyone else is coming in.”

Otis Cox will always retain his love for Madison County but laments the loss of industry to the city and county of his birth. “Sadly, the manufacturing industry is gone and I don’t see it coming back.” he says. The automotive industry has a long association with the city; at one time employing some 25,000 auto workers in nearly twenty different General Motors affiliated plants located all around Anderson, trailing only Flint, Michigan in that regard.  Pat chimes in, “We just lost the Emge meat packing plant (on west 8th street), it’s so sad.”  Ever the optimist and booster for his birth county, Otis points out, “But things are looking up, we got the Nestlé’s plant and 300 new jobs a few years back.”

Otis and Pat are moving to be closer to their adult kids, Angie and Chris, who live in the Noblesville / Fishers area. The Cox’s are moving to Britton Falls, a Del Webb adult resort community for ages 55-and-over located near Hamilton Southeastern High School in Fishers. Otis proudly chirps, “It’s just like going on a vacation.” He looks forward to no more yard work and no more stairs in their new ranch style home. He continues, “But Anderson will always be home. I will miss Anderson.”

I asked Otis if he had any regrets from his decades of public service. He pauses, leans back in his chair, places his fingertips together with his index fingers brushing the tip of his nose as his thumbs gently touch his chin, “Yes, I had one regret.” he replies. “When I was commissioner, I was always sorry that I couldn’t get a couple roundabouts built in Anderson at places I felt needed them. But you know, now that I’m spending so much time in Hamilton County (which has well over 100 roundabouts) I’m getting sick of seeing them.” followed by a hearty laugh from the man who was once the most powerful Democrat in the State of Indiana. Well, Otis, if that’s your only regret from all those years of public service, I’d say you’ve served your city, county, and state well. Enjoy your retirement my friend, you’ve earned it.

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