Mike Pence profile: A deeply committed conservative with Irish roots

The US vice-president, who is visiting Ireland, is a serene presence at Trump’s right hand

US vice-president Mike Pence and his wife Karen Pence arrive at Shannon airport for the start of an official visit to Ireland. Photograph: Jacob King/PA Wire

US vice-president Mike Pence and his wife Karen Pence arrive at Shannon airport for the start of an official visit to Ireland. Photograph: Jacob King/PA Wire

 

When US vice-president Mike Pence touched down in Shannon on Monday, he was on familiar territory. The 48th vice-president of the United States has visited Ireland several times in a personal capacity.

Like millions of Americans, Pence traces his lineage to Ireland. He was particularly close to his maternal grandfather, Richard Cawley, who emigrated from Tubbercurry, Co Sligo in 1923, settling in Chicago.

Cawley married an Irish-American woman called Mary Maloney, whose family had emigrated from Doonbeg, Co Clare. Though Pence grew up in Indiana with his five siblings, he spent many holidays in Chicago with his grandparents.

At the annual St Patrick’s Day breakfast at his residence earlier this year, Pence paid tribute to his grandfather. Standing alongside Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, he recalled how he thought about his grandfather when he was sworn in as vice-president.

“People often ask me what I felt on Inauguration Day when I raised my right hand. As I looked out at that vast throng of Americans and took that oath, I thought about my grandpa. He was proud to be an American, but I can still hear that Irish brogue in my heart.”

During his time in Congress he opposed gay marriage and moves to extend rights to LGBT people

Like many Irish-Americans, Pence was raised in a Catholic family, but, as a young adult, he became an evangelical Christian. Religion appeared to start to play an increasingly important part in his life, while his politics also shifted right.

Having studied law, he worked as an attorney, and as a conservative talk-show host in the 1990s. He ran unsuccessfully for a congressional seat twice, and was eventually elected to Congress to represent Indiana in the House of Representatives in 2000.

Running mate

After three terms in Washington he was elected governor of Indiana in 2013, a post he held until 2017 when he was picked by Donald Trump to become his running mate.

Trump’s choice of Pence was a surprise, but was widely seen as an effort by the thrice-married New Yorker to prove his conservative credentials to the Republican base. Pence had established his reputation as a reliable conservative while in Washington and in the governor’s mansion in Indiana.

“I was Tea Party before it was cool,” Pence said in 2011, a reference to the right-wing movement that emerged from Republicanism in the 2000s.

US vice president Mike Pence greets supporters as he arrives at a campaign rally for President Donald Trump in Cincinnati, Ohio, on August 1st. Photograph: Bryan Woolston
US vice president Mike Pence greets supporters as he arrives at a campaign rally for President Donald Trump in Cincinnati, Ohio, on August 1st. File photograph: Bryan Woolston

During his time in Congress he opposed gay marriage and moves to extend rights to LGBT people, while he also advocated cutting funding for Planned Parenthood, a US abortion provider.

But it was as governor of Indiana that his views attracted most controversy. In 2015, he signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which allowed businesses to act according to their religious beliefs. It was perceived by some as being a reaction to the introduction of same-sex marriage in the state in October 2014. Within weeks, an Indiana restaurant became the first business to announce it would not cater for a same-sex wedding, citing the law.

There was a huge backlash from corporate America, with business titans such as Apple chief executive Tim Cook denouncing the move.

Pence was forced to amend the act, and the controversy was expected to harm his re-election chances as governor, before he was named as Trump’s running mate, taking him out of the race.

The 60-year-old evangelical remains a steady and loyal figure in the Trump administration

Pence has defended his stance, arguing that the act was not intended to discriminate against LGBT people. He has also distanced himself from allegations that he supports gay conversion therapy, following calls during his 2000 congressional campaign for federal money to be directed to groups that promoted “safe” sexual practices.

Raised eyebrows

Other comments by the former governor have raised eyebrows.

He once said he would not dine with a woman who was not his wife. He also told an interviewer in 2002 he does not consume alcohol at an event unless his wife is present.

Over the past tumultuous 2½ years of the Trump presidency, Pence has successfully kept a relatively low profile. While the White House has seen an unprecedented churn of senior officials, the 60-year-old evangelical remains a steady and loyal figure in the Trump administration. He is often pictured at arm’s length from the president, a smiling, serene presence, just out of the foreground, a visual reminder of the delicate power dynamics that characterises the Trump-Pence relationship.

As a former member, Pence is regularly dispatched to Congress to negotiate thorny legislative issues, from budget discussions to foreign policy votes.

But, just as was the case for his predecessors, Pence is only one step away from the presidency.

For many Democratic voters, the prospect of a Pence presidency, given his strongly conservative views, is just as alarming as four more years of Trump in the White House.