One man’s gone, and three men are in

June 21, 2013

By DAVE SCHULTZ

Jeff Espich misses serving in the Indiana House of Representatives — and how could he not? —  but he feels he left the people of Wells County in pretty good hands.
Espich represented Wells County at the Statehouse for 40 years, declining last year to run for a 21st two-year term. When he left the House, he was serving as the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and had as much of a say regarding Indiana’s budget as any other single individual in the state — up to and including the governor.
Does he miss it? Of course.
“It was a great opportunity to work with great people,” he said. “It was an opportunity to have input into state government.”
Espich still has a role, serving as an adviser to Gov. Mike Pence on matters pertaining to state government. He will acknowledge that giving advice is one thing, but putting his beliefs into effect is something else altogether.
“I don’t give the final ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ so it’s not quite as satisfying sometimes, but I really like Mike Pence and he gave me an opportunity to serve with him in a great way.”
Espich’s former district, the 82nd, pretty much disappeared in the redistricting done after the 2010 census. Wells County is now served by three state representatives — Matt Lehman, R-Berne, in the 79th, whose district includes Ossian and Bluffton, the eastern half of Jefferson Township and all of Lancaster, Harrison, and Nottingham townships; Dan Leonard, R-Huntington, in the 50th, whose district includes the western half of Jefferson Township plus all of Union, Rockcreek, and Liberty townships; and Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City, in the 31st, whose area includes only Chester and Jackson townships.
All three of the new guys on the block, or in Wells County anyway, say they’ve received a nice reception from their new constituents. For his part, Espich says he hasn’t gotten a lot of phone calls from people wanting information or wanting to voice an opinion, and Lehman, Leonard, and Mahan say business has been picking up, thank you.
“The people of Wells County have been absolutely super,” said Leonard, of Huntington, whose district lost Whitley County and picked up the eastern section of Wells County while keeping all of Huntington County. “It just takes some time for people to get to know you and for you to get to know people. It’s going to take a little time.”
The transition has taken some work. Leonard’s 50th District website, for instance, still has some Whitley County informational links.
Leonard says something that has become a theme: Three heads could be — just could be — better than one.
“I hope that people realize that if they need something, it doesn’t matter if they’re in Matt Lehman’s district or Dan Leonard’s district or Kevin Mahan’s district, if they pick up the phone and call one of us, we hope to take care of them,” Leonard said.
Lehman had the easiest entrance into Wells County. He’d already represented part of Wells County, because the 79th District used to include the eastern half of Jefferson Township but not Ossian. Berne, also, isn’t that far from Bluffton; he said his daughters were born in Bluffton.
“I had attended town hall meetings, and been to the street fair,” he said. “Bluffton is the hub of the county.” He said he’s wanted to sit down with Bluffton Mayor Ted Ellis, whose city he now represents in the Statehouse, for a discussion of what the city is dealing with, but he hasn’t been able to set it up.
Plus, he said, with his insurance business, he has several accounts in Bluffton.
“My view of Wells County may be a little different,” he said. “Adams and Wells counties are almost identical. You’ve got Bluffton; we’ve got Decatur. You’ve got Ossian; we’ve got Berne. I have had to look at Adams County, and I represented Decatur on County Council and now as a state representative. I understand these counties. The whole district means a lot to me.”
He also speaks of working with Leonard and Mahan. When something comes up that concerns Wells County, Lehman says, the three of them will get together on it.
“A second set of eyes or a third set of eyes can be good,” he said. “Each of us may have a different idea of how this is going to affect Wells County.”
Mahan agrees. Even though Chester and Jackson townships are a small part of Wells County — and, of course, a small part of his district — he knows the area. He was involved with people in the 5 Points School, for instance.
“Now there are three state representatives for Wells County,” he said. “I am on four committees and I chair one; Matt Lehman is also on three or four committees and Dan Leonard is on Ways and Means. Wells County now has a voice on eight to 12 committees.”
Espich — whom Mahan says was “the epitome of what a state representative is supposed to be” — is pretty happy with the way things turned out for Wells County.
“Is it better to have one person who cares a lot, or two or three who care quite a bit, about the issues that matter to Wells County?” he asked. “Plus, I’ll tell you this — Dan Leonard and Matt Lehman have been in Wells County a lot. Kevin Mahan has only the two townships in Wells County, and that’s maybe four percent of his district, so he may not be here as often.”
And if Jeff Espich’s happy, odds are others are, too. υ

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