Vice President of the United States: Who Is Mike Pence?

Wednesday, March 01, 2017
Mike Pence (photo: Aaron P. Bernstein, Getty Images)

Publicly embarrassed by the Michael Flynn scandal, Vice President Mike Pence, who calls himself “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order,” is already having difficulty navigating an administration run by a man with dubious fidelity to any of those three values. According to the version of events the White House eventually settled on, President Donald Trump knew for two weeks that National Security Advisor Flynn had lied to Pence about his calls with Russia, but fired Flynn only after his lying became public. This created the distinct impression that Trump was okay with the lying to Pence, but not with the publicity.


But Mike Pence may have the last laugh: unlike Flynn and everyone else working for President Trump, he cannot be fired. If Trump is forced to end his presidency prematurely, Mike Pence would become president.


Michael Richard Pence was born June 7, 1959, in Columbus, Indiana, one of six children of Nancy Jane (Cawley) and Edward J. Pence, Jr., a gas station manager. Pence graduated from Columbus North High School in 1977.  He was a youth coordinator for the Bartholomew County Democratic Party in 1976 and voted for Jimmy Carter against Ronald Reagan in 1980. He earned a BA in history at Hanover College in 1981, and a JD at Indiana University’s School of Law in Indianapolis in 1986.


Like many young people, Pence was radicalized at college—but toward the Right rather than the Left. Although he grew up a Catholic and a Democrat, Pence left both church and party while at Hanover, a small Presbyterian school. At a Christian music festival in Asbury, Kentucky, during his freshman year at Hanover, “I gave my life to Jesus Christ and that’s changed everything,” he later told the Christian News Network. To the disappointment of his parents, Pence became an evangelical, “born-again” Christian, and voted for Ronald Reagan in 1984. Pence’s journey away from the Catholic Church was gradual. He continued to work as a Catholic youth pastor and as late as 1994 he self-identified as an “evangelical Catholic.” As his political career progressed, Pence's use of this controversial phrase faded.


After graduating law school in 1986, Pence practiced law. He became a precinct committeeman for the Marion County Republican Party and ran two losing campaigns for Congress in 1988 (when he was only 29 years old) and in 1990. In the second, Pence lost big when it was revealed that he was using campaign donations to pay his personal expenses, which was not yet illegal, but was widely seen as dishonest and unethical.


After his second loss, Pence published an essay in Indiana Policy Review, “Confessions of a Negative Campaigner,” in which he opined that “a campaign ought to demonstrate the basic human decency of the candidate. That means your First Amendment rights end at the tip of your opponent’s nose—even in the matter of political rhetoric.”


After his two electoral failures, Pence restarted his political career through the conservative Indiana Policy Review Foundation (IPRF), of which he was president from 1991 to 1993. Although IPRF describes itself as a “non-profit education foundation focused on state and municipal issues,” it is actually part of the State Policy Network, (SPN) an $83 million “web of right-wing ‘think tanks’ in every state across the country.”


Although SPN insists its purpose is educational not political, an investigation by the Center for Media and American Democracy concluded that “SPN and its member think tanks are major drivers of the right-wing, ALEC-backed agenda in state houses nationwide, with deep ties to the Koch brothers and the national right-wing network of funders, all while reporting little or no lobbying activities.”


In 1992, he began to host “The Mike Pence Show,” a talk radio program airing throughout the state, including Indianapolis. Describing himself as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf,” Pence pushed the same kind of right-wing politics, but without the shouting. From 1995 to 1999, Pence also hosted a weekend political talk show from Indianapolis.


Finally winning a seat in Congress in 2000, Pence built a strong reputation on the right by vocally opposing gay rights and women’s rights, while also voting against two of President George W. Bush’s signature accomplishments—the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and the Medicare prescription drug expansion of 2002. He also advocated abolishing the Department of Education. Although he served in Congress for twelve years, none of the 90 bills and resolutions he authored became law. Nevertheless, Pence rose to become the Republican Conference Chairman, the third-highest-ranking Republican leadership position. In 2011, he said, “I was Tea Party before it was cool.”


Pence left Congress after the 2012 elections, when he won a close race for governor of Indiana, defeating Democrat John Gregg 49.6%-46.4%. In office, Pence governed from the right, especially on so-called “social issues,” i.e., women’s rights and LGBT rights. Most notably, Pence signed a law that would have allowed businesses to defend charges of discriminating against LGBT people on free exercise of religion grounds.


Pence denied the law had a discriminatory intent, but refused to say it would not have a discriminatory effect during a disastrous television interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, who repeated the question six times. Soon thereafter, widespread criticism of the law and threatened boycotts forced Pence to reverse course and sign a follow-up law intended to provide protections for LGBT people. 


Pence’s social conservatism extended to signing a restrictive anti-abortion law, which the courts promptly struck down, and a measure to defund Planned Parenthood, which provided HIV testing and prevention to the poor. Within two years, however, southern Indiana was experiencing an HIV epidemic as a result.


By 2016, Pence’s ultra-conservative politics—the American Conservative Union called him “the most conservative vice presidential nominee the country has seen in 50 years”—were beginning to rub even conservative Hoosiers the wrong way, and Pence’s poll numbers for re-election were weak. Donald Trump’s decision to make Pence his running mate saved Pence from what, at best, would have been a tight rematch against John Gregg.


One week after his inauguration, Pence became the first sitting vice-president to speak at the annual anti-abortion March for Life in Washington, D.C. On February 23, 2017, Pence told the Conservative Political Action Conference that “America's Obamacare nightmare is about to end.”


On December 8, 2015, the day after candidate Trump called for a temporary halt to Muslims being allowed to enter the United States, Pence tweeted, “Calls to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. are offensive and unconstitutional.” Yet, when Trump, as president, signed an executive order banning the entry of Muslims from seven countries. Pence stood behind him, smiling and nodding his approval.


Mike and Karen Pence, who met at a Catholic church in Indianapolis, have been married since 1985. They have three children: Michael, Charlotte, and Audrey.

-Matt Bewig


To Learn More:

Official Biography

Mike Pence’s Journey: Catholic Democrat to Evangelical Republican (by Jonathan Mahler and Dirk Johnson, New York Times)

The Radical Crusade of Mike Pence (by Stephen Rodrick, Rolling Stone)

Trump’s VP: 10 Things to Know about Mike Pence (by Brian Eason, Indystar)

How Mike Pence Used Obamacare to Halt Indiana’s HIV Outbreak (by Brianna Ehley, Politico)

Mike Pence-How the Governor-Elect Found his Conservative Voice and a Strategy for Winning the Race: Keep it Quiet by Craig Fehrman, Indianapolis Monthly)

Confessions of a Negative Campaigner (by Mike Pence)

Here are some of the Weirdest Columns Mike Pence Wrote in the ’90s (by Patrick Hogan, Fusion)


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