IS MIKE PENCE SCANDAL-FREE?

Author: Liz Hynes

IS MIKE PENCE SCANDAL-FREE?

Many see the Indiana governor as Trump's straight man, but he's no stranger to controversy.

Weeks before any official pick was announced, the Trump campaign made clear that its ticket’s vice presidential candidate would play an especially pivotal role within a Trump presidency. In a May interview with Huffington Post, former campaign manager Paul Manafort disclosed that Trump’s vice president would be “an experienced person to do the part of the job [Trump] doesn’t want to do... He sees himself more as the Chairman of the Board, than even the CEO, let alone the COO.”

The title of CEO/COO has now fallen to Indiana governor Mike Pence. This virtually unprecedented delegation of power could make Pence the most influential vice president in history. Pence’s addition to the ticket, coupled with Manafort’s revelation, has brought Pence’s decisions as governor of Indiana under national scrutiny. While some may view Pence as a safer, steadier choice to offset Trump’s volatility, he too has had a career fraught with controversy. 

One of Pence’s most publicly controversial moments as governor involved his passage of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which aimed to protect Hoosiers’ rights to religious expression. The bill was met with wide backlash from opponents who claimed the bill would enable business owners to discriminate against LGBT groups. Critics often cited the (rarely occurring) example of a baker refusing to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, saying this kind of behavior would be legal under the new law.

Pence has repeatedly insisted that the bill was about inclusivity rather than discrimination — about protecting rather than restricting rights. The bill even included an amendment meant to protect LGBT people (added later after resistance to the bill in its original form). However, intense media backlash and a highly-scrutinized damage control PR campaign has left Pence struggling to change the bill’s narrative. His backtracking angered liberals and conservatives alike: Those on the left thought his actions were “too little too late,” while conservatives felt they had been “stabbed in the back.” The spectre of this bill has done little to improve the Republican ticket’s poor standing with the LGBT community and even puts his reputation with some conservatives into question.

Though the religious freedom bill is the most discussed issue haunting Pence, another less-cited controversy is Pence’s handling of a 2015 HIV outbreak in Indiana’s Scott County. The disease spread primarily due to injecting opioid drugs with dirty needles. Health officials across the country encouraged Pence to set up a needle exchange program, which is often regarded as the quickest, cheapest and safest way to curtail the spread of syringe-spread diseases. 

Those who oppose these programs usually cite concerns that a government that provides clean needles inadvertently encourages drug use. This is an ethical quandary that even proponents of needle exchanges share. Being opposed to such programs himself, Pence hesitated, waiting over two months before finally acquiescing. By the time he finally approved the exchange, roughly 90 cases of HIV had been reported within Scott County.

Pence was nationally lambasted for his hesitation, especially after internet users unearthed his congressional campaign’s website from online archives. In his platform, he promised to renew the Ryan White CARE Act — a congressional act that provided funding for sufferers of HIV/AIDS — only after a thorough audit. The audit would need to determine that “federal dollars were no longer being given to organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate spreading of the HIV virus.” Needle exchange programs naturally fell into this category. 

But the real issue was the sentence that followed: “Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.” Many critics interpreted this as Pence suggesting that taxpayer dollars be used to fund conversion therapy, a practice attempting to change sexual orientation which has been outlawed in several states. Others assumed Pence was referring to abstinence-only education, which has been largely criticized, since many of the 27 states that permit it are also the states with the highest rates of teen pregnancy. Whatever “sexual behavior” Pence had in mind, the revelation of his statements did not play well in the wake of the HIV outbreak. Some political analysts theorized his actions may have cost him his 2016 gubernatorial reelection bid, had he not dropped out to pursue the vice presidency.

Another instance in which Pence failed to control an unpopular situation involved his attempt in 2015 to create Just IN, a taxpayer-funded, state-run Indiana news outlet. Just IN would not only aggregate local news, but would also “break news … publishing information ahead of any other news outlet,” according to a press release. This attempt at forming a government-owned news outlet led many to respond with outrage, saying it infringed on First Amendment rights. The uproar from Hoosiers resulted in Pence’s hasty termination of the project, dismissing the entire operation with a statement that it had all been a “misunderstanding.” In a political career as long and controversial as Pence’s, this incident is but a blip on the radar. However, when combined with his running mate’s tendency to revoke the press credentials of media who offer unflattering portrayals, it raises eyebrows.

Pence has become the darling of the Republican party this election season. His calm consistency offers a refreshing balance to his more volatile running mate. After the reveal of Trump’s 2005 comments in which he bragged about what famous men were allowed to do to women, many high-profile Republicans rescinded their support — some have even decided to write Pence’s name in place of Trump’s. As refreshing and reassuring a change as Pence might seem, he comes with his own fresh set of controversies. If Pence wins the White House — and an extremely hands-on vice presidency with it — he will have to contend with the political controversies of his past.