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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has raised the possibility of an unusual split with his 2012 running mate, suggesting Tuesday that Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann would be an "ideal" candidate to take over the embattled Ivy Tech Community College system.
The proposal has raised eyebrows among Indiana political observers who question why someone would leave a political position that has historically been a springboard to higher office. It also brought into focus positions Ellspermann has taken that aren't in line with Pence, perhaps most notably on LGBT civil rights, though both say differences of opinion didn't prompt the possible move.
Ivy Tech, which has drawn scrutiny for low graduation rates and declining enrollment, recently launched an effort to replace outgoing President Tom Snyder, who has overseen the system's dozens of campuses since 2007. Ellspermann, who holds a doctorate in industrial engineering, ran her own consulting firm before she was elected to the Indiana House in 2010, and was tapped just two years later to join Pence's gubernatorial ticket.
"I'm fully supportive of it. We talked about this over the last several weeks," Pence said. "In many ways, I think she's the ideal candidate to be the next president of Ivy Tech."
Ellspermann wasn't available for an interview Tuesday, according to her spokesman, Dennis Rosebrough. He acknowledged that Ellspermann and the governor have had differing opinions, but said they have a good working relationship and that any suggestion she was being forced out was inaccurate.
"A senior elected official ending up in a university leadership role is not unusual," said Rosebrough, who noted that Ellspermann was first approached about the job this summer.
But some believe policy differences may be playing a role, including those that stem from the political firestorm this spring over the state's religious objections law that Pence supported. Critics said the law could sanction discrimination against gay people on religious grounds, prompting lawmakers to make changes, though some said they didn't go far enough.
In a Sept. 25 article, Ellspermann told the online news site StateHouseFile.com that she supports efforts to protect all Indiana residents from discrimination, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people, which she said was key to repairing the state's reputation.
She told the publication: "I think what we've heard is that (people) are probably not satisfied yet. They want to be assured 100 percent that there is no further discrimination."
Rosebrough said the article accurately portrayed Ellspermann's comments.
Pence has refused for months to say where he stands on the issue. He recently signaled that he's unsure religious practices can be balanced with statewide protections banning discrimination against gay people in housing, employment and public accommodation.
"Clearly there were divisions over the handling of (the religious objections law) and nondiscrimination, and have been for months," said former Angie's List CEO Bill Oesterle, who donated to Pence before the two had a falling out over the issue of LGBT rights. "It's obvious something precipitated a separation."
Republican strategist Pete Seat said Ellspermann stepping down could be mutually beneficial. He said Ellspermann has been outspoken in her opposition to harsh campaign rhetoric, which is likely in Pence's rematch with Democrat John Gregg, a former Indiana House speaker.
"For Pence, it's because there was no guarantee that Ellspermann was on board with the contrast campaign he will have to run against John Gregg," Seat said. "For Ellspermann, it's a great temporary off-ramp that allows her to stay involved in a high-profile statewide role and get back on the political highway when and if she chooses."
The governor said Tuesday that he wouldn't interfere in the selection process, which will be conducted by the Ivy Tech's 14 trustees, all of whom he appointed. The school system was expected to award a $120,000 contact to a firm this week to conduct the search.