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Vance Hartke, Indiana Liberal

When Hartke left Evansville for the U.S. Senate in 1958, he was the first Democrat to represent Indiana in the Senate for two decades.

Senator Vance Hartke speaks with Monticello, Indiana Mayor Capper at an informative meeting for citizens after the 1974 tornado.

For the better part of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, Indiana has been known for its conservative slant toward politics, as well as political and social change. On occasion, however, individual politicians have challenged that mold.  Hoosier-born and bred Senator Vance Hartke was one of those people.

Hartke was a small-town Indiana boy, born in Stendel, Indiana (Pike County) in 1919. He graduated from the University of Evansville, served in World War II, and then returned for a law degree from Indiana University. Hartke and his wife Martha settled in Evansville, where he pursued a legal career but also began forays into politics.

In 1955, Hartke became the mayor of Evansville and began to show his bent for liberal social policies by integrating the city swimming pool, years before other Indiana cities integrated many of their public facilities. Hartke left Evansville for the U.S. Senate in 1958, the first Democrat to represent Indiana in the Senate for two decades.

Hartke worked on a wide variety of issues during his tenure in the Senate, supporting Democratic presidents Kennedy and Johnson on civil rights issues, Medicare and Medicaid, the Peace Corps, environmental legislation, and student loan programs. He also worked hard for his Indiana constituency, helping to bring federal funds to the state for agriculture, flood control, pharmaceutical research, and transportation, among other projects.

Hartke became known most widely, however, for his growing opposition to the Vietnam War. Beginning in 1963, Hartke began to question U.S. support of the corrupt South Vietnamese government; by 1965, he was calling for greater government transparency in communicating the goals of the war to the public; in 1966 and 1967, he was speaking out against U.S. bombing campaigns and the growing cost of the war.

Hartke had handily won re-election in 1964 but his 1970 campaign, in the midst of Richard Nixon’s continuing escalation of the war, saw him barely eke out another six year term. In his 1976 campaign, Hartke lost to Richard Lugar, rising Republican star and former mayor of Indianapolis.

Hartke retired to a legal career in Indiana and Washington, D.C. When he died in 2003, his obituary in The New York Times recalled the best-known part of his long political career. The headline read “Vance Hartke, 84, Antiwar Senator from Indiana, Dies.”

Sources: Geoff Paddock, Indiana Political Heroes (2008); The New York Times, July 29, 2003

A Moment of Indiana History is a production of WFIU Public Radio in partnership with the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations. Research support comes from Indiana Magazine of History published by the Indiana University Department of History.

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