Weinzapfel calls out Rokita for ‘purposely muddled’ response to mask mandate

Controversy over Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb’s statewide mask mandate has spilled over into the race for attorney general, with Democratic candidate Jonathan Weinzapfel accusing Republican candidateTodd Rokita of purposefully declining to stand with the governor.

Following Holcomb’s announcement on Wednesday that he would implement the COVID-19 mask mandate starting Monday, Weinzapfel issued a statement Thursday supporting the move. Then on Friday, he accused Rokita — who said only that the Indiana General Assembly should clarify the governor’s emergency powers — of issuing a “purposely muddled” statement that “creates unnecessary confusion over his support of Governor Holcomb’s executive order and his legal authority to issue it.”

The disagreement between the two attorney general candidates comes after Republican Attorney General Curtis Hill on Wednesday released an official opinion saying the governor cannot enforce the mask mandate and criminalize a violation without authority from the Legislature.

“Without properly delegated authority from the General Assembly, the proposed order would not have the force and effect of law,” Hill wrote in his Wednesday opinion, which is advisory and non-binding. “The General Assembly would need to specifically and clearly allow for a mask mandate by law.”

Holcomb signed the executive order mandating face coverings on Friday, but the enacted order did not include a criminal penalty.

Weinzapfel disagreed with Hill’s legal opinion, saying in a Thursday news release that Holcomb, a Republican, “clearly has the authority during a public health emergency to institute a statewide mask requirement and I would gladly defend it in court.”

“The future of our state is at stake and I hope my Republican opponent and elected leaders from both parties join me in standing by this order,” the Democrat added.

Rokita issued his own statement late Thursday saying the General Assembly should clarify the governor’s power under the Emergency Management and Disaster Law, though he did not call for a special session.

“Our laws did not anticipate the situation we have today and it has raised valid concerns about individual liberty while protecting public health,” the former congressman and secretary of state said.

Weinzapfel — the former mayor of Evansville and a former Indiana state representative — criticized Rokita’s response on Friday.

“While Congressman Rokita might have learned to speak out of both sides of his mouth in Washington, D.C., it’s not going to fly here in Indiana,” Weinzapfel said in a news release. “We are facing a resurgence of this virus across the state and Hoosiers need and expect leadership, not more political doubletalk.

“… The fact that Congressman Rokita refuses to support Govenor Holcomb on something so basic to the health and safety of our citizens, and on something he clearly has the legal right to do, is disqualifying,” Weinzapfel continued. “Just like Curtis Hill, Todd Rokita is more worried about pleasing his rightwing base than doing what’s best for Hoosiers.”

In an interview with Indiana Lawyer, Weinzapfel accused Hill of running the Office of the Attorney General with “hyperpartisanship” and said Rokita would do the same. The Congressman, however, said Weinzapfel’s accusations of partisanship are meant to deflect from the fact that he is “bad on the issues.”

Earlier this month, Rokita defeated Hill in a four-person race for the Indiana Republican nomination for attorney general.  The GOP candidates repeatedly advocated for party unity to keep a Republican in the AG’s office.

As he finishes out his term, Hill’s opinion on the mask mandate came at the request of five Republican senators. He opined that if Holcomb wants to impose a mask requirement, he should call a special session of the General Assembly.

Hoosier Democrats had earlier called for a special session in August to address myriad issues,  though Republican leaders have said they don’t see a need to call lawmakers back to Indianapolis.

Two of the senators who requested that Hill weigh in have since said that they don’t intend to pursue legal action to stop the mandate.

For his part, Holcomb on Thursday was standing behind the mandate.

“I don’t live under the threat of lawsuit,” Holcomb told reporters, according to the Indianapolis Business Journal. “We do our research before we speak.”

Holcomb’s requirement that Hoosiers ages 8 and up wear masks in public places comes as Indiana reports a record-breaking 1,011 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Friday and four more deaths. Total deaths in the Hoosier state have reached 2,687.

Meanwhile, a recent poll found that three out of four Americans support wearing masks to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The Times of Northwest Indiana contributed to this report.

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