By BRIAN A. HOWEY
    
INDIANAPOLIS – In politics, first and last impressions are impactful. Through that prism we view the four-year term of Gov. Mike Pence, who arrived on the Hoosier political scene 29 years ago as an aggressive and ambitious partisan. He left in a similar mode, achieving a lifelong dream to serve in the White House. But his departure essentially occurred in July. While he accepted a paycheck from Indiana taxpayers through December, his national ambitions left a festering stew in his wake back home.
    
Unlike undefeated Govs. Doc Bowen, Robert Orr, Frank O’Bannon and Mitch Daniels, his political career began with two congressional losses. He transformed himself from an economic conservative to a social warrior, augmented by his statewide radio and TV shows of the 1990s, positioning himself for a 12-year congressional career that commenced in 2000 in a district tailored for a Republican.

His governorship stands out as the only one to attain office with less than 50% of the vote in more than half a century, for its three-and-a-half-year duration, though the record books will put it at a full four years, and the fact that he withdrew from a second nomination after Donald Trump nominated him for the vice presidency.
    
The Pence legacy will be bookended by two key cornerstones: The economy thrived during his tenure, with the state reaching record employment while the jobless rate declined by more than 4%. But his own reelection prospects were compromised by social issues he didn’t seek; unlike strong governors of the past, he failed to stop some of the most divisive issues before reaching his threshold. On others, such as a constitutional marriage amendment, he floated above the fray, trying to straddle a progressive Hoosier corporate community while not alienating his base.
    
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act would never have seen the light of day in the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Daniels. It would have been stopped short of a committee hearing in the General Assembly, particularly as he weighed a presidential race or a potentially tough reelection rematch. Gov. Pence and his team didn’t establish the command and control structure of strong governors like Daniels, Orr and Doc Bowen. Nor did he and his team earn the fear of legislators or the respect of state bureaucracy.
    
And the final impressions of Gov. Pence will enter the playbook for future governors. Following the 2016 General Assembly session, Pence essentially checked out as a full-time governor. There were no media avails following sine die. A heroin epidemic raged across the state with hundreds of overdoses and Pence was silent. More than 1,000 East Chicago Hoosiers were uprooted from their homes due to a lead contamination crisis, and the Pence administration mustered $100,000, but no visit or empathy. He did, however, visit Republican Greentown, where lead was found in the town’s pipes. The I-69 Section 5 road project stalled, and Pence was silent.
    
He made a significant miscalculation when he underestimated Donald Trump’s powerful rhetoric that held a major swath of the Republican Party in a persistent trance. He endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz, only to watch Trump maul him in the Republican primary. His endorsement of Cruz was so mealy mouthed that Trump poked fun at him. But when dozens of other Republicans passed on the veepstakes, Pence anted up. He was locked in a dead heat with Democrat John Gregg, his favorables in the WTHR/Howey Politics Indiana poll were upside down, and the four polls we conducted in 2016 revealed Pence as one of the most polarizing political figures in modern Indiana history.
    
In October, his fav/unfavs stood at a tepid 47/45%, but his stature increased to 50/44% in November as he spent the last few weeks standing up for Trump’s character. In the April WTHR/Howey Politics Poll – the last one conducted with Pence poised for the gubernatorial nomination – Pence was upside down with Hoosier voters. His approval standing at 44% with 41% disapproving, terrible numbers for an incumbent governor. With female voters, Pence trailed Gregg 52-41%, and independent women voters 54-40, following a trend from September 2012 when he led Gregg among women by 13% in a Howey DePauw Poll, before losing the gender in the general election by 5%. This comes after Pence dropped Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann from the ticket, replacing her with Lt. Gov. Eric Holcomb.

A stepping stone dogged by controversy
    
The worst-kept secret was that the Pence governorship was designed to burnish his national resume, giving him four years of “executive experience.”
    
But the RFRA issue of March 2015 seemed to derail his national ambitions. Signing the legislation in what is now known as the “last supper photo,” leaked out from a private signing ceremony, Gov. Pence found himself in a national and state social media firestorm. Pence failed to effectively defend the law. “Some of the media coverage has been shameless and reckless,” Pence said. “This new law in Indiana, the same one that 30 other states have, does not discriminate against anyone.”
    
Pence insisted that the RFRA was only a necessary legal response to the Supreme Court Hobby Lobby case from the year before. After the firestorm built, the law was not created to be “a license to discriminate or right to deny services to gays, lesbians or anyone else in this state,” he said. “And it certainly wasn’t my intent. But I can appreciate that that’s become the perception.”
    
While Gov. Pence had aimed his economic development establishment at luring high tech industries, many of them recruit gay employees. It exposed the fissures in the Indiana Republican Party, between the economic strand and Pence’s social conservatives. Under intense pressure from the NCAA, corporate Indiana and Republican legislative leaders, Pence acquiesed to a “fix,” rolling back some of the RFRA provisions. “We will fix this and we will move forward. That’s what Hoosiers do,” he declared.
    
While the corporate community, Democrats and the LGBT community called for an expansion of civil rights to cover sexual orientation, Pence refused to join the discussion and did not push for legislation. “I think that’s a separate issue,” Pence said. “It’s not my position; I’m not advocating for it.”
    
When Howey Politics Indiana polled his standing in late April 2015, Pence’s favorable/unfavorables stood at 35/38%, his job approval fell to 45% approve and 46% disapprove (down from 60% earlier in the year), and he found himself in close head-to-heads with three potential Democratic gubernatorial challengers, polling well below 50%.
    
As 2015 closed, Pence was presiding over an economy with a 4.4% jobless rate while asphalt was pouring into roadbeds at a furious pace. But Pence found himself confronted by Catholic Charities as he attempted to stop the resettlement of a Syrian refugee family that had been carefully vetted over the previous 18 months. It was Pence’s reaction to the Paris ISIS terror attack, where one of the perpetrators held a fake Syrian passport. He joined some 25 Republican governors in the immediate hours after the attack, calling for a Syrian refugee ban. It put Pence on a collision with Bishop Joseph Tobin.
    
“I listened to the governor’s concerns regarding security and prayerfully considered his request that we defer from welcoming them until Congress had approved new legislation regarding immigrants and refugees,” Tobin said in a statement. “I informed the governor prior to the family’s arrival that I had asked the staff of Catholic Charities to receive this husband, wife and their two small children as planned.”
    
This was followed by a perplexing press conference where Pence defended his “ban” that in reality never had any teeth, no statutory origin or judicial precedent. The facts about this Syrian family and the one that detoured to Connecticut just after he announced his “ban” had left Syria well before ISIS formed and metastisized, and had gone through a two-year vetting process. It came as the New York Times reported that of the 780,000 refugees legally entering the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001, none of them had been caught or even linked to a domestic terror attack. When reporters pressed him, Pence said his administration wouldn’t deny state benefits to resettled refugees. So the ban amounted to political theater.
    
When it was struck down by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Richard Posner issued a scathing rebuke. “The governor of Indiana believes, though without evidence, that some of these persons were sent to Syria by ISIS to engage in terrorism and now wish to infiltrate the United States in order to commit terrorist acts here,” Posner wrote. “No evidence of this belief has been presented, however; it is nightmare speculation.”
    
When Trump proposed a complete ban on Muslims entering the country, Pence called it “offensive and unconstitutional.” It would become another issue where once on the national stage, Pence would morph.

Medicaid and HIP 2.0
    
As a presidential campaign loomed, Pence had his greatest policy achievement in the winter of 2015 when he convinced the Centers for Medicaid/Medicare Services to grant his version of Medicaid expansion. It was something he had spent more than a year lobbying President Obama and HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell for, including once on the tarmac of the Evansville airport with the president.
    
“We’ve got to be about solutions that are state-based,” Pence said. HIP 2.0 was to be his Exhibit A. “I’m urging Congressional leaders and Republican governors to look to our reforms,” Pence continued. “It will be an open question. I believe what Congress should do is give the states an alternative to the state exchanges. Take the tax credits and create more choices in the market place. It’s a flexibility thing.”
        
Since CMS approved the Pence waiver in 2015, enrollment has gone from 193,573 in 2015 to 359,612 in 2016 and a projected 457,739 in fiscal year 2020. It lowered emergency room use by 7%, prompted 60% of its recipients to receive preventive care, while 96% are satisfied with their coverage and 93% make the $8 to $25 monthly contributions on time, and 98% would enroll again. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1,489,805 people in Indiana are covered by Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program, including 782,960 children and 133,444 seniors and people with disabilities covered by both Medicaid and Medicare. An estimated 224,000 Hoosiers have health insurance today because Indiana expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
    
Asked in 2015 if HIP 2.0 was his top policy achievement to date, Pence (who has not responded to most interview requests from Howey Politics Indiana and most Indiana media outlets in 2016 and 2017) puts it in the context of his administration’s 2012 campaign “Roadmap” which promised two planks on jobs and investment, two on education, one on workforce development and the final, “improving the health and well-being of Hoosiers.”
    
“When I look at what we’ve done, I would say it’s a significant advancement for the health and wellbeing of Hoosiers,” Pence explained.

Pence and the economy
    
Since the 1980s when Gov. Robert Orr made a concerted effort to open up the Pacific Rim to investment, one of the most critical measuring sticks for an Indiana governor is job creation, morphing from an early 20th Century model of education, roads and public safety. On this front, Pence can claim legitimate success. In four years, the Indiana Economic Development Corporation counted $15.49 billion worth of investments in the state. In July 2015, Indiana claimed its employment highwater mark with 2.61 million Hoosiers in the workforce. Between 2012 and 2014, according to the IEDC, more than 125 foreign companies announced plans to grow or locate in Indiana, pledging to invest $4.6 billion in Indiana and create 13,300 new jobs.
    
Commerce Secretary Victor Smith observed, “Gov. Pence started on day one by freezing new burdensome regulations, which increase the cost of doing business and stifle job creation. During his first legislative session, he led the charge for the largest tax cut in Indiana history and followed that up in 2014 with a new tax cut giving Indiana one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the country.
    
“In 2015, Gov. Pence directed Indiana’s early payout of our federal unemployment insurance loan, saving Hoosier businesses an additional $327 million in taxes. Plus, throughout his time in office, Gov. Pence worked to invest more than $800 million in new money for Indiana roads and bridges, securing Indiana’s status as the Crossroads of America.”
    
Smith added, “More Hoosiers are working now than ever before in Indiana’s 200-year history and our economy is the envy of the nation. Our unemployment rate has dropped from 8.4% to 4.2% and stands at its lowest point in 15 years. Our state has added 168,000 more Hoosier jobs since Gov. Pence took office.”
    
According to the IEDC, the state wage average increased from $17.05 an hour in 2005 to $20.10 in 2013, and $21.55 in 2016. John Thompson, chairman and CEO of Thompson Distribution Company and member of the IEDC Board of Directors, observed that the average wage of IEDC projects was $25.43/hour, which is 20% higher than the state’s average wage of $21.21/hour. “We are seeing growth in new industries like aviation and aerospace, life sciences and technology that traditionally offer high-skilled, high-wage jobs, while jobs committed to the IEDC continue to boast wages above the state average,” Thompson said.
    
Other economic telltales include the Regional Cities Initiative that spread $120 million worth of projects funded by a tax amnesty program to three regions of the state. “Through the Regional Cities Initiative, Gov. Pence powered Indiana communities a financial incentive to collaborate as regions to invest in quality-of-place projects using public-private partnerships, transforming communities into places where people are excited to live, work and play,” Smith said. “In turn, this will attract and retain the talent companies need to continue to grow. Today, the Regional Cities Initiative is wildly popular and a major success.”
    
Even with the success of that program, Pence found himself sideways with legislative GOP leaders when he expanded it from two to three $40 million regions. As we’ve often witnessed during the Pence governorship, decisions were made through a strictly political prism. That would be $40 million of potential 2016 ribbon cuttings during a tough reelection battle.
    
On the cusp of his vice presidential nomination in June 2016, Pence unveiled a $1 billion investment proposal for the next decade to advance innovation and entrepreneurship in Indiana. “As a state, we have worked diligently to establish a pro-growth business climate in Indiana and our efforts are being recognized across the nation,” Pence said at the 2016 Innovation Showcase in Indianapolis at Dallaria in Speedway. “We cut costs, lowered taxes and reduced regulations to allow job creators to invest in what matters most, in their businesses and in their employees. Indiana is ranked first in the Midwest for business and first in the nation for small business regulations.”
    
“With years of forward-thinking leadership in entrepreneurship and startup creation, Indiana is already recognized as a startup-friendly state,” said Dan Hasler, president and chief entrepreneurial officer for the Purdue Research Foundation.
    
“These welcomed new initiatives will propel Indiana to the next level of economic development and job creation. Indiana has the potential for so much more,” Hasler said.
    
Pence and education
    
Another hallmark of Pence’s term was his stance on education. He would claim record investment for education in his two biennial budgets. But he sparred constantly with Democrat Supt. Glenda Ritz, formed and then scrapped a year later a parallel agency (Center for Education and Career Innovation) to the Indiana Department of Education. The result, as described in the press was a process “so convoluted it seems impossible to know who’s responsible for what and whom to hold accountable for student outcomes.”
    
After the demise of CECI, he pushed for the State Board of Education to appoint a chair, instead of the elected superintendent. “It’s time to take politics out of education in Indiana, or at least out of the State Board of Education and allow that body to get back to the business of focusing on implementing the policies that the people of Indiana have embraced and enacted, and seeing them faithfully through to their completion,” he said in a statement that many saw as overtly political.
    
The fighting became so intense that Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President David Long threatened to intervene. While his successor, Gov. Eric Holcomb, has moved to make the superintendent an appointed position, Pence refused to take that step.
    
In 2014, Pence became the first governor in the nation to rescind Common Core, replacing it with what his education opponents and Chamber President Kevin Brinegar would call “Common Core Lite.” Pence explained, “I believe when we reach the end of this process there are going to be many other states around the country that will take a hard look at the way Indiana has taken a step back, designed our own standards, and done it in a way where we drew on educators, we drew on citizens and parents, and developed standards that meet the needs of our people.” The state had spent more than $120 million on the Common Core standards, and no one could put a price tag on the amount of money the state has spent on student assessment programs since 2011, though some believe it could be as high as $250 million.
    
The Common Core rescinding became one of his key talking points as he prepared for a 2016 presidential run.
    
Pence’s other key policy legacy was the expansion of vouchers and charter schools. By the time he left office, more than 30,000 students where using state vouchers. Pence also pushed the legislature to remove a $4,800-per-year cap on tuition benefits for children in elementary and middle school.
    
Beyond his sparring with Supt. Ritz, the other big controversy was Pence’s rejection of $80 million in federal pre-K funds in 2015, a move that confounded everyone from Ritz to legislative Republican leaders. Pence’s rationale was that the state didn’t want to be rushed into a program and the federal funds would have too many “strings attached.”
    
But Gov. Pence in 2014 pushed a $15 million program that gave scholarships of up to $6,800 for children in low-income families in five urban counties to attend preschool programs. It initially included about 2,500 pupils. “It’s safe to say that had it not been for his strong leadership, we wouldn’t have had the pilot preschool program we have now,” David Harris, the founder of the Mind Trust, told the New York Times.
    
Pence also signed legislation that scrapped the ISTEP testing program, but left office with no credible replacement, leaving the Indiana General Assembly to grapple fitfully with what comes next.

Pence and abortion
    
Throughout his political career, Pence has been a tireless advocate for right-to-life issues. After signing a half dozen or so anti-abortion bills, Pence can take credit for helping to lower the state’s abortion rate. It was already in sharp decline during the Daniels administration, where abortions declined from 10,686 in 2005 to 8,808 in 2012. During the Pence era, abortions declined further, from 8,179 in 2013, to 8,118 in 2014 and 7,957 in 2015.
    
Pence stoked controversy in 2016 when he signed House Enrolled Act 1337, which precludes abortions for the reason of fetal abnormalities. “Throughout my public career, I have stood for the sanctity of life. HEA1337 is a comprehensive pro-life measure that affirms the value of all human life, which is why I signed it into law today,” Pence said. “I believe that a society can be judged by how it deals with its most vulnerable – the aged, the infirm, the disabled and the unborn. HEA1337 will ensure the dignified final treatment of the unborn and prohibits abortions that are based only on the unborn child’s sex, race, color, national origin, ancestry, or disability, including Down syndrome.”
    
Betty Cockrum, who heads Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, condemned the bill. “It is clear the governor is more comfortable practicing medicine without a license than behaving as a responsible lawyer, as he picks and chooses which constitutional rights are appropriate.”

Epilogue
    
From Pence’s career perspective, his governorship was a political success. He’s vice president of the United States. Both he and President Trump heralded his Indiana record numerous times over the past nine months. With the Trump presidency commencing in chaotic fashion, there is widespread speculation that Pence might have a good chance of becoming the 46th president within the next four years.
    
During his governorship, it seemed that most major initiatives were developed and executed through the prism of a future presidential bid. In 2013, it was an income tax cut that Bosma and Long pared back, fearing they would be left holding the bag. In 2014, it was rescinding Common Core, which became a staple in his national speeches. In 2015, RFRA was to be his calling card for social conservatives looking for someone to back in the 2016 presidential primaries. That one blew up in his face.
    
From a Hoosier perspective, the economy grew under Pence, but so did widespread frustration that vast segments of the population and the Republican constituency were being left behind inthe American dream. Donald Trump exploited that issue, even if it collided with the legacy Pence sought to portray.
    
Pence’s missteps on social issues and poor staff work placed him in a more tenuous political position than he should have been.
    
Pence always seemed tormented about his social advocacy and the political realities. He evaded interview requests from Howey Politics Indiana during his 2012 gubernatorial campaign, then during a visit to our office three days before his inauguration in January 2013, pled for a “do over.” By 2016, he was in the same mode, refusing to reconcile his rhetoric and legacy with topical questioning.
    
Yet, travel with Gov. Pence several times over the past four years found him easily mixing and bantering with his constituents. I remember asking Indiana Republican Chairman Jeff Cardwell after an October 2014 swing through Southern Indiana why the governor’s media operation didn’t allow more such coverage. “Let Pence be Pence,” I said.             

There was no good answer to that, other than an inherent paranoia within the tight Pence inner circle that the media was out to get him, with it all wrapped in a veneer where he claimed to revere press freedoms (including a bill he vetoed in the Indiana General Assembly last spring that was overridden this week). Pence was reluctant to allow himself to be held accountable for his actions.
    
This is a political figure that tightly grasped a small set of talking points and was reluctant to expose himself to any effort to pierce that facade. When an interview was granted, the answers were long, windy and repetitive. There would be fewer questions.
    
Thus, Gov. Pence stands in a unique corner of Hoosier political history. He survived his governorship, when it could have been a profound source of momentum. He abandoned a reelection bid by taking one of the greatest political risks in modern American history.
    
And here he is, a heartbeat away.