What Pence Believes

The vice president’s two-time gubernatorial opponent on his adversary’s political values and what he’d do in the Oval Office.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Mark Wilson/Getty Images and Still from Gregg for Governor.
John R. Gregg, an Indiana Democrat who ran against Mike Pence for governor twice.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Mark Wilson/Getty Images and Still from Gregg for Governor.

Before Mike Pence accepted Donald Trump’s invitation to run as his vice president, the Indiana governor was locked in a tight re-election campaign. The Democratic candidate, John R. Gregg, also ran against Pence in 2012 and lost by just 2 percentage points. By 2016, Pence’s reputation had been battered by an HIV crisis that he exacerbated and national outcry over the state’s anti-LGBTQ “religious freedom” law. The race looked like a toss-up—until Pence dropped out, clearing the way for his less-controversial Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb to run. Holcomb beat Gregg by 6 percentage points in a state where Trump trounced Clinton by 19.

Although Pence aggressively pursued his agenda as governor, his role as vice president has thus far been limited. That may be by design: On Thursday, CNN reported that Pence and his team are growing weary with Trump’s endless scandals and may be taking steps to insulate the veep. With impeachment talk spreading on Capitol Hill, some pundits and politicians are speculating about the possibility of an impending Pence presidency.

On Thursday, I spoke with Gregg—an attorney who has returned to private practice—to get a clearer picture of Pence as a politician, and what we might expect if his longtime political adversary becomes the 46th president of the United States. Our interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mark Joseph Stern: How long have you known Pence?

John R. Gregg: Mike and I went to law school together. I’ve known him for 35 years. He called me two days after the election. I said, “Mr. Vice President, congratulations to you! My best to you and [your wife] Karen.” He said, “Well, we wanted to call and check on you.” We laughed and chatted and swapped a couple texts. In early 2013, after he won [the governor’s race], he had me stop by the governor’s office to see him. We sat there and shot the bull for about an hour. Whenever I was out on the campaign stump, he would always come up if we were in a joint parade. We’d always search each other out. There is a chivalry about him. He has a chivalrous nature.

With that said, we don’t go fishing or hunting. We don’t go out and eat. But we’ve always been friendly toward one another. My differences with him were philosophical, not personal. I never felt he wanted to be governor. It was just a stepping stone to where he’s ended up now.

How would you describe his political style?

Mike is a pleasant person to be around. I don’t talk politics with him because I don’t like that ultraconservative philosophy. We talk baseball, Indiana history, sports, family. Mike Pence the congressional candidate, the gubernatorial candidate, works very, very hard—but he’s still very personable. He’s very good with the media. And he stays on message. I’m saying that as a compliment. In the 2012 campaign, when we were closing the gap, we had a couple of debates and he never got off message. He is an extremely disciplined candidate. From the moment he became the vice-presidential nominee, he stayed on message.

What do you see as his chief values?

He’s socially conservative in a lot of areas. If there is something that he opposes, like abortion or gay rights or gun control, if it is based on his moral compass, his idea of right and wrong, good and bad—he won’t waver from it. It doesn’t matter how much political pressure there is: His Christian faith guides him. His wife Karen is his confidant, and that’s to his credit. They have a good marriage. Back in law school, he was very much excited about what we then called the Reagan Revolution. He believed in limited government, a balanced budget, tradition, the original intent of the Framers of the Constitution.

I have no problems with Mike’s personal beliefs, but he can’t leave these social issues alone. It’s when we start down that road of dealing with these social issues that there are no wins for us, in Indiana and anywhere. In Indiana, every time we deal with social issues, whatever it is, it ends up in litigation. It’s a publicity nightmare, and it distracts us from fixing our roads and sewers. It takes away money to improve schools and quality of life.

If he gets elevated to president, it’d be interesting to see if he’d go back to dealing with social issues. I can assure you that he believes strongly in those issues—which is his right. I just didn’t feel that they were the things for government to deal with.

Why do you think he accepted the vice-presidential nomination?

Mike wasn’t popular in Indiana as governor. He was in trouble in the 2016 race. He had taken on so much water in Indiana. I know that Mike felt like he was in a real race against me; it was a neck-and-neck race when he left. This was an opportunity to get to the national level. So he seized the opportunity. That’s where he’s always wanted to be—the national level, where they talk philosophy, and it’s not about building roads and coming up with infrastructure plans and fixing our schools.

What do you think Pence makes of Trump?

[Laughs.] I really believe in my heart of hearts that there are times that Trump says and does things that cause Mike Pence—a man of principle and honor, a guy with a chivalrous nature—to just cringe. Karen, too. I don’t think Mike swears; I don’t recall ever hearing him swear in 35 years. I’ve always felt like there are things Trump tweets about, says, and does that make Pence kind of bite his lip.

But he’s where he wants to be. If you asked our entire law school class to name two people who’d end up in politics, they’d give you the names Mike Pence and John Gregg.