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What’s in a name? For Greg Pence, the VP’s brother, it could be a seat in Congress
Most Republican heavyweights have been pushing for Greg Pence, the brother of Vice President Mike Pence, to fill the seat of Rep. Luke Messer.
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Since his brother became vice president, Greg Pence has become more involved in politics. Wochit
Congressional candidate Jonathan Lamb had just pulled out of a casket factory parking lot in Lynn, Ind., when he suddenly threw his pickup truck into park in the middle of a country road, a few yards ahead of an intersection.
With no explanation, the Muncie entrepreneur jumped out of his pickup truck and sprinted over to the side of the road to place three campaign signs in the ground before rushing back to the car, tie flying in the wind.
“He likes to do everything himself,” says campaign director Matt Ritzenthaler, who stayed behind in the truck.
And for a large part of the congressional campaign, the 36-year-old, first-time candidate has had to do most everything alone, including largely self-funding his campaign to the tune of $450,000.
Lamb has been all but abandoned by most of the big shots in Indiana Republican politics in a favor of a bigger, more powerful name: Pence.
GOP heavyweights are pushing for Vice President Mike Pence’s older brother Greg to fill the 6th district seat held by Rep. Luke Messer, who is now running for U.S. Senate.
It’s the same heavily-Republican district Mike Pence represented when he was in Congress — a large swath of eastern Indiana that stretches from Muncie south to Columbus and on down to Madison on the Ohio River.
But the power of the Pence name isn’t the only thing that’s making it difficult for Lamb.
He’s finding it hard to campaign against Greg Pence, a businessman who owns two antique malls, because Pence has kept a low profile and potentially has access to nearly unending campaign cash through big-dollar donors who support the vice president
Greg Pence hasn’t participated in debates, routinely doesn’t disclose his campaign stops until after-the-fact tweets and avoids the give-and-take of in-person and telephone interviews with IndyStar and national media outlets.
Pence, 61, did answer some IndyStar questions submitted by email, explaining that he’s focusing his time on personally meeting voters one on one.
“My priority is to meet with people here in the 6th District and listen to them to see how I can help serve my community and country, again,” Pence, a veteran Marine, said in an email. “Nothing is more important than getting to meet with someone one-on-one and talk about our shared experiences here in the 6th District.”
It’s that personal touch and Greg Pence’s embrace of the Trump-Pence agenda that Republican leaders say they find appealing.
Tom Wilson, the Franklin County GOP chair, said Greg Pence was more personable and genuine than most politicians.
“I think he’s a good Republican,” concluded Wilson, who said he isn’t endorsing a candidate in the race but did invite Pence to speak at his county’s Lincoln Day dinner.
“He has those conservative values. I think he’ll try to do what’s right with the people. He’s a Trumpster, he admitted that, so can’t be all bad then in my opinion.”
Robert Dion, a political science professor at the University of Evansville, said Pence’s approach to the campaign shows he is laying low in an attempt to limit potential gaffes,
“This is a frontrunner strategy that seeks to run out the clock and avoid contact with any possibility of an unflattering exchange with a voter, reporter or an opponent,” Dion said.
In Lamb’s eyes, the help Greg Pence has received from associates of his brother is equal to nepotism.
“It should be embarrassing for the (Trump) administration that Donald Trump’s climb to power was: ‘We’re going to drain the swamp because of the good-old-boy network.’ Nepotism is the problem,” Lamb said. “Now here we’ve got the sitting vice president trying to put his brother in power.”
Invitations to Lincoln Day dinners that allow Greg Pence to speak, but not Lamb, are an example of the benefits offered to the vice president’s brother, Lamb said.
Greg Pence also has received big fundraising help from the vice president, who headlined an event for him at Trump International Hotel in Washington. The New York Times reported Donald Trump Jr. also will headline an additional fundraiser for the elder Pence.
Consequently, Pence leads the pack of 6th District candidates in campaign spending at nearly $1 million, with Lamb coming in next at $458,521. No other Republican even comes close to those totals.
While the district leans heavily Republican — Messer won nearly 70 percent of the vote in 2016 — Democrats are engaged in their own primary battle with far less money. Kenneth J. Lave tops the Democrat candidates in fundraising with $5,400 in his bank account, followed by Jim Pruett with $2,696. No other Democrats have raised any money.
While Pence has been able to count on fundraisers and big party names, Lamb’s campaign is largely self-funded. He initially gave his campaign $800,000, then paid himself back $350,000. He’s raised at least $41,000 from other sources.
Lamb knows the cards are stacked against him.
“The reality is even if I dropped in another million dollars into the campaign, he would find a way to raise two. If I dropped in two he would put in six,” Lamb said. “Whatever we do, they’re going to counter balance.”
And despite all the money that’s been spent on Pence’s warm and fuzzy campaign commercials and the power of his name, Lamb said voters are still left to wonder who Greg Pence really is and what he stands for.
“How can we educate the voters on what the true issues are if the perceived heir-apparent to the seat won’t talk and grant interviews?” Lamb asked. ”The voters aren’t able to learn what Greg Pence is about, except for the millions of dollars that the PACs are dropping in to tell us he’s a Marine vet.”
Who is Greg Pence?
For the bulk of his professional life, Greg Pence has largely immersed himself in business and left it to his younger brother to climb the political ladder.
Greg Pence’s political views are largely unknown, aside from the general positions listed on his campaign web site and comments he’s made to his hometown Columbus newspaper, The Republic.
When talking policy, Pence emphasizes his support for the Trump-Pence agenda, specifically pushing for improving veterans care, growing the economy, reforming healthcare, fixing rural infrastructure and protecting the country’s borders.
But how does he compare on the religious issues that have sometimes brought Vice President Pence a political bruising, particularly the vice president’s opposition to many issues important to LGBT Americans?
In an email response, Greg Pence says he values his Christian roots as much as his brother. One key difference, however, is that Greg Pence has remained in the Catholic church throughout his life, while Mike Pence turned to evangelical Christianity.
But Greg Pence said that difference doesn’t lead him to have a different views than his brother.
“I love my brother Michael and there is no daylight on issues between him and me,” Greg Pence said in an email.
Greg Pence has a different way of conveying his faith, though, friends say.
John Hammond, a Republican national committeeman, said Pence tends to lead with economic and business issues, rather than religious teachings, when it comes to his policy views.
“Pence expresses (his faith) through service and it would certainly be a more private expression and practice of his religion,” Hammond said. “But I think it’s extremely important to (him and his family).”
That authenticity also comes through in Pence’s general demeanor, Hammond said.
“He is a very approachable, accessible Southern Indiana Hoosier,” Hammond said. “Greg has a more down-to-earth, less formal style with anybody he encounters.”
A business focus
Most of Pence’s campaign ads center on his business experience, his devotion to President Donald Trump’s agenda and his time as a Marine.
He’s been heavily involved in business since he received his MBA from Loyola University of Chicago in 1985. (He also has a bachelor’s degree in theology and philosophy from Loyola.)
Following in his late father’s footsteps, Greg Pence in 2000 started his four-year stint as president of the Kiel Brothers Oil Company, a chain of over 200 convenience stores throughout Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky.
The company’s profits started to fall as gasoline prices fluctuated and cigarette taxes increased, and in 2004, the chain announced it was filing for bankruptcy. Pence resigned that same day.
“Greg Pence chose to resign in order to pursue other opportunities,” said Kyle Robertson, spokesman for the campaign. “Everyone knows the oil and gas industry changed rapidly in the 1990s and early 2000s, and many small, independent companies like Kiel Brothers were not able to survive because of the national consolidation.”
Six months after Pence left, he was hired as the second-in-command at the Indiana Department of Environmental Management with a $91,000 a year salary to help streamline the agency, despite his lack of environmental experience.
At the time he was hired, Mike Pence was on the rise in Indiana politics, serving in Congress.
“I sat down with Gov.-elect Mitch Daniels and discussed how I could help with his transition. I was offered the job with IDEM,” Greg Pence said in a written statement to IndyStar.
While he worked at Kiel Brothers, IDEM cited the company for oil spills and failure to comply with storage regulations, resulting in fines.
Greg Pence left the IDEM job after two and a half months in March 2005, saying his work was finished. During that time, several deputy director positions were eliminated, seven employees were dismissed and he helped review internet technology, contracts and human resources.
“(Gov. Mitch Daniels) thought I needed some business help,” Commissioner Tom Easterly said in an IndyStar article in 2005. “Now Greg is convinced I don’t need it.”
Pence told the IndyStar that he left the job to take a higher paying job closer to home. In 2006 he started working as the director of fuels at Circle K Convenience Stores.
That same year, he and his wife bought the first of two antique malls, the Exit 76 Antique Mall in Edinburgh, and later purchased the Bloomington Antique Mall.
Lamb points to the Kiel Brothers bankruptcy as an example of why he is a more successful businessman than Pence.
“Failure is a part of life,” Lamb said. “But the concerning part about the vice president’s brother is that he is unwilling to be transparent and upfront with the voters about his failure and share his business resume.”
Lamb, who graduated from Ball State and has an MBA from North Carolina State, worked as a commodity trader after graduation and has started seven small businesses. His most recent endeavor is to patent electric, autonomous tractor technology, that he hopes to lease out to farmers to use, much like an Uber service.
He’s also the author of the recently released book, “Economics is Like Sex,” which features an image of Ben Franklin wearing a Marilyn Monroe-style white dress. The cover, he said, has generated some negative feedback.
The tariff difference
One economic issue that Pence and Lamb disagree on is Trump’s tariff policy, which has led to higher prices on steel and agriculture products.
Pence supports the president’s tariff policy. He told The Republic there are bad actors on the international trade front and President Trump is taking a strong stance on behalf of American companies to ensure the U.S. gets the best deal possible.
Lamb opposes the tariffs and during campaign stops this month he found businessmen who agreed with him. Those businessmen said they had already felt the impact of higher priced goods.
“Right now, it’s causing a big boost in our costs and not helping us any in competing,” said Charlie Shaw, the CEO of a casket-making company Astral Industries, Inc. ”We didn’t have a level playing field before, but now it’s really tilted even more.”
Joe Baldwin, the operations manager of the Indiana division of Maxwell Farms, echoed that sentiment about an hour later, saying the tariffs other countries have slapped on agriculture products in response to Trump’s tariffs have hurt his company.
Lamb, an economist, said the issue is an example of why Greg Pence won’t represent the 6th District very well.
“That’s why we think it’s important we have someone whose going to be a representative of our district and not just a puppet to his brother,” Lamb said.
But it’s Pence’s family ties to the vice president that make him so appealing to Republican powerbrokers.
Dion, the political scientist, said party leaders are playing their cards just right by siding with a candidate who can get other people to open their wallets.
“The most valuable commodity in a campaign is name recognition,” Dion said. ”So party leaders are always looking for someone who is well-known because that person will have a leg up, and it just goes without saying that certain last names are valuable.”
Call IndyStar reporter Kaitlin Lange at (317) 432-9270. Follow her on Twitter: @kaitlin_lange.
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