GOP leader in statehouse experienced in faith

INDIANAPOLIS — The new floor leader of Republicans in the House of Representatives is familiar with the manure of politics. Or rather, the politics of manure.

Before he was elected to the General Assembly seven years ago, Rep. Matt Lehman of Berne served 16 years as a councilman in rural Adams County — home to one of the largest concentrations of Old Order Amish in the country.

Religious freedom — a lightning-rod issue in the Legislature — wasn’t just an abstract concept.

Lehman respected the hardworking, frugal ethos of the Amish, whose presence brings tourists and their dollars into his community. But he routinely fielded calls from non-Amish complaining about the manure deposited by buggy-pulling horses of the Amish, whose faith calls them to eschew things of the modern world, including cars.

“I’d get more angry calls on horse manure on county roads than almost anything else,” Lehman said. “Now I get calls from people complaining about manure on state roads.”

Lehman was picked by his peers to be the voice of his caucus on critical issues in the coming session. He’s the third floor leader in as many years. The prior two resigned — one after accusations of an ethics breech, the other after the release of a cellphone sex video.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, described Lehman, a 52-year-old insurance salesman, as “not a flashy person.” That made Lehman laugh, as did a newspaper’s description of him as lacking in charisma.

He was more pleased by Bosma’s description of him as someone who “seeks to find solutions.”

Lehman never has been able to solve his county’s horse manure problem. But he’s seen or been part of solutions to related problems.

As councilman, he took calls from citizens who complained about damage to county roads rendered by the spiked horseshoes worn by Amish buggy horses. The shoes prevent the horses from slipping on ice.

Adams County didn’t ban the horseshoes but adopted a small “buggy license” to offset the costs of repair.

As a legislator, Lehman was an early supporter of a law that allows religious exemptions to the state’s photo ID requirements, which were driven by security concerns after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The law lets the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles issue photo-less IDs to the Amish, many of whom observe a biblical prohibition against “graven images.” The bureau now takes a facial recognition scan instead and keeps that on file.

Lehman also has sponsored legislation to help Amish farmers opt out of mandatory city sewer connections where sewer districts expanded, if they could show they had working septic tanks. For the Amish in his district, even a sewer line was too much connection to the outside world.

This year, Lehman carried a bill that eased insurance requirements for drivers in emerging ride-sharing services. He based it on years of experience working with the Amish, who have long paid non-Amish van drivers to take them to places not easily accessible by buggy.

“I’ve had Uber drivers in my county for years,” he joked. “Only they’re called ‘Amish haulers.’”

As floor majority leader, Lehman is charged with a more onerous task — delivering GOP priorities to the governor’s desk — and a heightened role as a solution seeker.

He faces controversy right away. His conservative colleagues want to use “religious freedom” as pretext to combat efforts to expand the state’s civil rights law to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

Lehman doesn’t know how that will shake out. Advocates on both sides are declaring that no compromise is available. That suggestion goes his grain.

“I try to be a consensus builder,” he said. “I’m not one of those guys who goes into a back room to twist arms.”

Maureen Hayden is Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI newspapers.

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