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March 19, 2013

Karen Pence forging her role as First Lady

INDIANAPOLIS — As the mother of three young children when her husband was first elected to Congress, Karen Pence heeded the advice of some friends who encouraged her to move her family to the Washington D.C. area rather than stay behind in Indiana.

It was a decision she never regretted. In a city filled with famous and important people, the children of an Indiana congressman didn’t get treated as if they were something special. Nor did the congressman himself.

Now the First Lady of Indiana, Karen Pence recalls the 12 years spent in the nation’s capitol with now-Gov. Mike Pence with fondness. “He’d come home at night and I’d ask him to walk the dog or take out the trash,” she said. “It was a very normal life.”

She tells the story with laughter, as she walks a guest through the official Governor’s Residence, where she and her husband and the youngest of their three children moved in mid-January.

Friendly and open, Karen Pence, 55, calls it an “honor” and “privilege” to be living in the 1928-built, English Tudor-style mansion in one of Indianapolis’ loveliest neighborhoods. But the move also means a much more public life for a family that guards its privacy.

She’s approaching it with humor, noting that it’s gotten harder for her to slip into the Kroger’s grocery store unnoticed.  

“We left the lights on one night when we’d come over here before we’d actually moved in,” she said.  “There was a story running the next day: ‘The Pences have moved in. The lights are on in the residence.’  And we hadn’t even moved in yet.”

An artist and teacher, Mrs. Pence is still deciding what issues she’ll champion in her role as First Lady. She wants to wait to announce those issues until May, after her husband gets through his first legislative session with a General Assembly that’s proving hard to control.

But she’s already settled comfortably into the role of a welcoming First Lady. Since recovering from the emergency gall bladder surgery she underwent just days after her husband was inaugurated in January, she’s hosted nearly a dozen events at the Governor’s Residence, opened her own office in the Statehouse, and started visiting classrooms around the state.  

“I see myself as an encourager right now,” she said.

Her husband hasn’t had an easy start in his new job. The media has criticized him for being too scripted, legislative leaders in his own party have rebuffed his signature campaign promise to cut the state’s personal income tax rate, and Democrats have criticized his education budget as too meager and too focused on private-school vouchers.

Mrs. Pence is staying out of the politics of it. She defers questions about her husband’s public policies to others, tells endearingly funny stories about him as a spouse and father, and warmly greets both Democrats and Republicans at the receptions she’s been hosting at Governor’s Residence.

“It wouldn’t occur to us to just have the Republicans, it wouldn’t even occur to us,” she said. “You know, most of my family is Democrat. So we just don’t even think that way.”

The Pences’ decision to move into the Governor’s Residence marked a departure from their immediate predecessors. Former Gov. Mitch Daniels and his wife, Cheri, opted to stay in their home in Carmel, while using the Governor’s Residence as place for official social functions.

The house is large, at more than 10,000 square feet. But much of it is public space, open for tours and used for meetings. Upstairs is the private space, where the Pences live fulltime now, with their youngest, who is in high school; two older children are in college.

In early January, Howey Politics Indiana put Gov. Pence at top of its annual HPI Power 50 list. Karen Pence was on the power list, too, with a description that began: “Multiple Republican sources tell us that the incoming First Lady will take more of an activist Judy O’Bannon type role during her husband’s first term.”

That prediction is coming true. Mrs. Pence and Judy O’Bannon, the well-known widow of Democratic Gov. Frank O’Bannon, have become fast friends. Before the Pences moved into the Governor’s Residence – where the O’Bannons once lived – the two women met for lunch.

Mrs. Pence came away with a “whole notebook of notes,” she said, and kind feelings for the former First Lady: “I told her, ‘I want to be like you when I grow up.’ ”

When her husband was in the U.S. House of Representatives, Mrs. Pence ran an orientation program for the spouses of newly elected members to Congress.

Her advice to those spouses: “I always told them: ‘There’s no ‘right’ way. You just have to be yourself.’ ”

That’s the advice she’s heard from several of Indiana’s former First Ladies with whom she’s met.  “They all had same message,” she said. “Just be yourself.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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