Kevin Brinegar reflects on decades-long career at Chamber, Statehouse
Kevin Brinegar in his office at the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. (Whitney Downard/Indiana Capital Chronicle)
From his first legislative session in 1981 to his last in 2023, Kevin Brinegar has personally witnessed some of Indiana’s most pivotal, historic moments — either crunching numbers for Senate Republicans or leading the state’s Chamber of Commerce.
The Indiana University graduate from “the wrong side of the tracks” in Monroe County has seen the chamber’s revenue streams more than double and underlying entities nearly triple in his 22 years as President and CEO — a position that combines his penchant for retaining data, navigating legislative morasses and shaping public policy.
“This has been the perfect job for me. … This job fills that appetite of wanting to make a difference for Indiana and for the people of Indiana, not just the businesses that we represent,” Brinegar said in an interview with the Indiana Capital Chronicle.
“I feel so blessed, particularly given my very humble beginning,” Brinegar continued. “To be here and be able to do this, and just have this passion for Indiana and trying to help move the state ever-forward. And obviously, this is a great place to do it.”
In 2024, his successor, Vanessa Green Sinders, will take the reins. Brinegar will step back into a consultant position after four decades of legislative sessions, allowing him to pass on his wealth of knowledge.
“I’ve got 31 years of history with the chamber. Sometimes I joke around and say, ‘That’s no reason to keep me around just because I’m the historian,’” Brinegar said.
He reflected on his achievements with the organization, which serves to advocate on behalf of Indiana’s hundreds of thousands of businesses and also provides workforce training seminars and leadership summits.
He highlighted his efforts to improve Indiana’s tax and regulatory climate for businesses and serving as a resource during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just on and on things that I would — as a poor kid growing up in a poor neighborhood — would have never thought possible.
– Kevin Brinegar, outgoing CEO and President of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce
Others pointed to his commitment to including a mix of voices in one of the state’s most powerful lobbying forces, including top Republicans and Democrats as well as racial and ethnic diversity.
Frank Sullivan Jr., a former Indiana Supreme Court justice and state budget director, said those chamber efforts told him “that its CEO has been a broad-gauge thinker who wants to make sure that all parts of Indiana society are included in its economic success and are important parts of its business community.”
“I guess what I’m saying is that I’ve seen, in his leadership of the chamber, his same big-picture approach to doing what’s best for the state that I saw when I worked with him in close quarters in the crucial role of budget debates in the late 80s and early 90s,” Sullivan added.
What happened in 1989
Sullivan and Brinegar first crossed paths following the 1988 election that shook up politics in more ways than one: not only would there be a Democrat as governor for the first time in decades, but the House had an even 50-50 split and the Senate had the slimmest of Republican majorities.
Democrat Evan Bayh’s election also signaled a new era for Republicans after several terms under fiscally conservative leaders who reined in spending impulses. For legislators going into the 1989 budget-writing session, it was a chance to act upon years of pent-up demands.
“There was an almost unrestrained appetite on the part of both Democrats and Republicans in the Indiana House of Representatives to spend and spend and spend like there was no tomorrow,” Sullivan said.
Bayh named Frank Sullivan as his budget director and it was during this time that Sullivan started a yearslong friendship with Brinegar, who was by then a fiscal analyst with the Indiana Senate Republicans.
“We could not have had a more closely divided political situation,” Sullivan said. “We were both operating in this intensely competitive political environment and the intensely uncertain fiscal environment.”
“And despite all of that, I found — though Keven Brinegar and I were of opposite political parties and had quite opposite political interests — I found him to be, at all times, incredibly professional (and) always looking out for the best interest of the state,” he continued.
That didn’t mean that there weren’t any “political tricks,” Sullivan said.
The House passed a bloated budget with unprecedented education spending but most believed the more fiscally restrained Senate chamber would enact something more reasonable.
“There had been a pattern of years where the House would send a higher level of budget and then the Senate would cut it back and negotiate,” Brinegar agreed, noting he’d started his term with Senate Republicans a few cycles earlier.
“I was concerned that, if the Senate was too harsh, that it might hurt them in the election and they already had a narrow margin. And the new governor wouldn’t say a word — he didn’t say whether he liked it or disliked this budget,” Brinegar said.
Brinegar said either he or one of his Senate bosses had the idea to just pass the budget as-is, with no amendments, so it’d go straight to the governor’s desk.
And they did just that, forcing Bayh to veto it and call for a special session.
Though the negotiations “put us on the spot, politically,” Sullivan said it turned out to be a win for Bayh’s administration by demonstrating his “fiscal responsibility” and didn’t hurt his friendship with Brinegar.
“We couldn’t have been too upset with these people who had done us such a marvelous political favor,” Sullivan said.
Over the next few years, Sullivan and Brinegar traveled together as part of the state’s fiscal team, visiting state parks, death row and the public universities before Brinegar joined the chamber in 1992 and Bayh appointed Sullivan to the Supreme Court in 1993.
Importance of education
High school freshman Brinegar didn’t care as much about academics as he did about sports. Over his four years he constantly competed, whether it was football, basketball, baseball or track.
But his mother, an employee at Indiana University, told him during his first semester of school that Bs and Cs, while good enough for him to play, wouldn’t be good enough for her.
“She sat me down and she said, ‘I want you to go to college and to do that, you need to not bring home anything less than a B. And if you do, then I’m not going to let you play,’” Brinegar recalled.
Born to teenage parents who divorced when he was two, Brinegar’s first home was a camper trailer parked in his grandparent’s backyard. Going to IU — where he could play basketball and take classes in the summer to finish his undergraduate degree and master’s in business administration in five years — opened doors for him.
Since then, Brinegar has toured Asia with the Indiana Pacers, been in a briefing room with a sitting president and known six sitting governors personally — only the start of an extensive list of accomplishments.
“Just on and on things that I would — as a poor kid growing up in a poor neighborhood — would have never thought possible,” Brinegar said.
Working at the chamber
When Brinegar sought the position leading the chamber around 2001 — Sullivan personally called two men in the hiring process “to tell them of my very high regard for Kevin and how I thought that he would be just perfect for the job.”
“I have no idea whether my calls to those two men made any difference but I was delighted that he got the job,” Sullivan said. “And I think his performance has proven that my prediction was right.”
Brinegar said he wouldn’t trade those years with the state “for anything,” with much of his knowledge helping to inform his years lobbying on behalf of the chamber. Since that time, much has changed at the Statehouse — conference committees are no longer held at hotel bars, legislatives staffers oversee their own printing operations, lawmakers play fewer (public) tricks on one another and technology allows for remote viewing and testimony.
Indeed the very technology Brinegar used to proofread and organize the state’s budget — processors from Wang Laboratories and Lotus 123, an early version of Excel — no longer exist. But he still keeps his yellowed calculator from that time and sometimes uses it to compute his expense reports.
His slowly emptying office holds other memorabilia, including not one, but two Sagamore of the Wabash Awards from Bayh and sitting Gov. Eric Holcomb.
Brinegar’s departure from the organization brings changes for the 101-year-old chamber, which is expanding its office space to offer more in-house training and events. Recently, leaders have repeatedly pushed for priorities outside the traditional realm for businesses, including quality of life issues like child care and health care costs.
Notably, in the wake of the backlash to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Brinegar and the chamber pushed to expand the state’s civil rights law to include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity, signaling a willingness to tackle topics outside of corporate finance and regulations.
“The time has come for Indiana to expand protections against potential discrimination,” Brinegar said at the time. “This action will increase the state’s future business competitiveness in the recruitment, attraction and retention of talent, as well as enhance respect for all employers and employees.”
As for unfinished business, Brinegar points to one lingering-yet-unsettled debate in Indiana politics: the high number of political units in Indiana, whether it’s the number of counties or the number of school districts. Other, much larger states (in both population and area) have fewer of those units.
But efforts to reduce that number — even at the township level — have faced substantial, entrenched opposition, though Brinegar said that 85% of school districts continually lost population over the last decade.
“When you say school district consolidation, many people hear school consolidation and that’s not necessarily what I mean. In some cases that might be,” Brinegar said. “… But … if you’ve got that few kids to spread your overhead over, you’ve got less dollars going into the classroom.”
He noted that the state’s smallest district has just 144 students, one of 20% of school districts with less than 1,000 students. More than half of corporations, 56%, have less than 2,000 — which some research suggests is the lowest student enrollment number for a district to operate efficiently and effectively.
Small districts such as these struggle to compete when it comes to class offerings and advanced placement test scores, he said, when so much has to pay for higher level district employees.
“That’s something I’m going to urge them to keep beating the drum on,” Brinegar said.
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