By MAUREEN HAYDEN
On a shelf in the home office of Gov. Mike Pence are some cowboy spurs and an old pair of riding boots — signs of how the first-term executive and his family relax in their spare time.
Last summer, one of Pence’s daughters cleaned stalls in a horse barn at a state park, performing a humbling but needed public service.
Pence is a rider of motorcycles, too, evidenced by the helmet that also rests on a shelf in his office at the official Governor’s Residence, a lovely 1928 Tudor-style house that he and first lady Karen Pence routinely open for public tours.
Also on those office shelves: Rows and rows of books, including spy thrillers by novelist Tom Clancy and Lewis Lehrman’s “Lincoln at Peoria,” a scholarly look at a lesser-known Lincoln speech that marked the then-candidate’s re-entry into national politics.
Since taking office early last year, Pence has been criticized by the media as too scripted. His reliance on talking points frustrates a Statehouse press corps demanding deeper answers. More than one verbal skirmish has broken out in his Statehouse office.
But his strength — one that may feed the talk of his higher political ambitions — remains his personal likability.
It was evident when he and his wife invited the noisy group of Statehouse reporters to the Governor’s Residence for an informal reception last week.
Relaxed in shirtsleeves, he accompanied us as we peeked into the formal kitchen’s cupboards, surveyed his office shelves, sipped soft drinks on the patio, and enjoyed a spirited tour led by the residence’s official butler, Dexter Powell, who’s served seven first families.
I’d visited the residence before, but it was the first visit to the home for many in our group. For the eight years when Pence’s predecessor was in office, the house wasn’t a home. Gov. Mitch Daniels and his wife never moved in, preferring their private residence instead.
After the six-term congressman won the 2012 governor’s race, the Pences moved in, along with their three children (all now in college), a dog, two cats and a rabbit.
For comfort and frugality, they brought with them their own furniture for the small private section of the residence. They bought the battered desk in Pence’s congressional office and moved that in, too.
The Governor’s Residence is an elegantly designed home that covers 10,000 square feet and includes 6 acres of landscape and lawn in an historic neighborhood on the Northside of Indianapolis.
But the Pences don’t live in a mansion; much of that space is for public use, and open for tours that can be scheduled by going to the first lady’s website, www.in.gov/gov/firstlady.
On the campaign trail, candidate Pence was a happy warrior, and he remains so today. The governor’s job, though, hasn’t proven to be an easy one for him. For two legislative sessions in a row, he’s gotten few of his legislative priorities passed intact. From the super-majority Republicans who control the General Assembly, the GOP governor has had to settle for a portion of what he wanted in tax cuts and preschool funding.
But that personal likability factor remains strong, for now, as he steps into what appears to be the testing of presidential — or vice presidential — waters. As he increases his visibility, in speeches to national groups and appearances on national news broadcasts, some big-moneyed backers are touting his candidacy.
Pence is deferring any decision until later in the year. For now, he maintains his friendly persona, even in a roomful of critical press. He’s embodying one of his favorite, and frequently repeated, sayings: “I’m a conservative, but I’m not in a bad mood about it.”
— Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.