by Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
INDIANAPOLIS — In 2006, Indiana congressman Mike Pence found himself in an unlikely place: Sitting across from U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, the unabashed liberal Democrat whose beliefs about the interventionist role of federal government were polar opposite from those of the Republican Pence.
The men had found a common concern: Both thought the nation’s immigration laws weren’t working and each had put forth proposals, though different, that could ease the way for illegal immigrants to find legal work in the U.S.
Their plans would falter, but Pence said he liked the idea of reaching across political ideology to find a connection.
And he liked the surprised look on Kennedy’s face when he told him: “I think I’m the only conservative Republican in Congress that has a bust of your brother in my campaign headquarters.”
Pence, 53, tells that story to explain how President John F. Kennedy, the scion of Irish Catholic immigrants, could inspire a young Irish Catholic lad growing up in Columbus, Ind., to later seek public office.
Pence also tells the story to explain how he’d govern if he were elected the next governor of Indiana.
“When I wrap up my career in the House, I’ll leave Congress with warm personal relationships on both sides of the aisle,” said Pence, who had to opt out of seeking a seventh House term when he decided to run for governor.
“It’s owing to the fact that people who know me know I’ve always said, ‘I’m a conservative, but I’m not in a bad mood about it.’ I’ve always believed you can disagree without being disagreeable.”
Pence is mild-mannered but not mild in some of his views. He’s a staunch fiscal and social conservative who went from being a Democrat as a teenager to a Republican as a college student, after he was inspired by Ronald Reagan’s optimistic view of life and sharp call for limited government. The transformation occurred around the time he met his wife, Karen, and became an evangelical Christian. The Pences now have two sons.
Pence went to Hanover College to study American history, before earning his law degree at Indiana University. One of Pence’s personal heroes is George Washington, who put a premium on civil public discourse while other Founding Fathers were feuding.
Another hero is the late Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican congressman who was a staunch defender of “traditional” values, an ardent abortion opponent and the chief manager of the impeachment case against President Bill Clinton.
“Henry Hyde took strong stands but always with a gentle hand,” Pence said.
Last year, the pro-life Pence authored what was called the “Pence Amendment,” which would have ended taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood. While Planned Parenthood is not permitted to spend federal funds on abortions, critics such as Pence say the federal dollars used for other expenses frees up funds for abortions.
He won big support for it in the House, but the amendment, tacked onto a continuing budget resolution, nearly derailed the critical budget deal between the Obama administration and Congress.
Pence’s Democratic opponent, John Gregg, has tried to portray Pence as too divisive for Indiana, telling voters that Pence would pursue a “social issues” agenda.
“That's all he’s been about,” Gregg said. “We in Indiana need to stay away from divisive issues — we can’t even agree on class basketball and time zones.”
Pence, meanwhile, has focused his campaign message on jobs, education, taxes and the economy. His “Road Map for Indiana,” which he touts at every chance, outlines the goals of a Pence administration. It includes his call for a 10 percent cut in the state’s income tax rate, but not much in the “social issues” area, other than a pledge to “promote marriage” by requiring state agencies to draft a “family impact statement” whenever they adopt new rules and regulations.
Pence’s campaign has been defined by his refusal to deploy negative attacks on his opponents. Asked, for example, what he thought about Gregg’s attempt to portray Pence as an extremist (Gregg has called Pence an “elite attack dog” of the Republican far-right), Pence said: “I wouldn’t have an opinion on that.”
It’s not always how Pence has campaigned. In 1990, at the age of 31, he launched a brutal but unsuccessful effort to unseat a longtime incumbent Democratic congressman, Phil Sharp. Pence called it “one of the most divisive and negative campaigns in Indiana’s modern congressional history.” He later wrote about it, in a 1991 essay called “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner.”
“It is wrong, quite simply, to squander a candidate’s priceless moment in history, a moment in which he or she could have brought critical issues before the citizenry, on partisan bickering,” Pence wrote.
Pence said his successful 2000 campaign for Congress, and all the campaigns since, had been driven by a different set of rules: “Do unto your opponent as you would have them do unto you.”
Since deciding to run for governor, Pence has raised more than $13 million, twice that of his Democratic opponent. That comes from another one of his rules: “Campaigns,” he said, “need to be about winning.”
• Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.