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.