As Mike Pence returned to Trump Tower on Monday to lead transition meetings, he clasped the hand of his wife, Karen Pence.
Even among political spouses, the Pences have a reputation as a tight-knit team, a sort of two-for-one deal. In Indiana, Karen Pence was known for being not only an exceptionally active first lady but also as the governor’s closest confidante and adviser. Now, as her husband prepares to assume the vice presidency, she has continued to accompany him on the road and to high-level meetings.
The Trump team did not respond to a Heat Street inquiry about Karen Pence’s attendance or participation in the transition meetings. But over the past six months, she’s been a reliable presence beside her husband.
Back at Trump Tower to start another busy week of transition meetings. pic.twitter.com/NvhLvvsfT6
— Mike Pence (@mike_pence) December 5, 2016
Karen accompanied Mike Pence to early meetings with Trump this summer, sitting in on a July 2 meeting at the Trump National Golf Club, as well as a July 15 meeting at Trump Tower. In his “60 Minutes” interview, Trump even gave her a shout-out, mentioning how she was on the phone when he formally asked Mike Pence to become his running mate.
And as Pence has attended transition meetings, discussing top Cabinet positions, Karen has come along with him to Trump Tower at least twice in the past three weeks.
“Even if she’s not officially in meetings, they’re together enough that they’re going to have conversations about policy,” says Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics. “Karen is going to have an awful lot of access. How much input she has, I think, is more about the dynamic between the two of them.”
The 59-year-old governor’s wife grew up in Indiana, spending most of her adult life working as an elementary school teacher. She’s dabbled in business, founding a small company that sold charms to help family members keep track of their bath towels. She’s also a woman of interesting hobbies, painting and at one point getting a pilot’s license to fly airplanes.
But in recent years, Karen Pence has emerged as a quiet– but powerful– behind-the-scenes force in Indiana politics. “I see myself as an encourager right now,” she told local media in 2013; that same year, CNN described her as Mike Pence’s “most senior advisor, his most trusted aide and equal.” As governor, Pence had a literal red telephone on his desk with a direct line to Karen; meanwhile, on the campaign trail, he described his wife as “the highest ranking official in the state of Indiana.”
“Everything we do in public life, we do together,” Pence told the Indy Star during his first year in office. When making major life decisions, including about politics, Karen Pence said, “We’ve always approached it as a team.”
Indiana’s Howey Politics listed Karen Pence alongside her husband on its annual Power List in 2013, describing her activist role in his administration. Despite emergency gallbladder surgery, she managed to open a statehouse office and host nearly a dozen gubernatorial events within Pence’s first two months in office, the Herald Bulletin reported in 2013.
“She’s a true life partner to Mike Pence,” said Michael McDaniel, a political consultant and the former chairman of the Indiana Republican Party. “Clearly they counsel. … He likes having her there, she likes being there.”
McDaniel says while Karen Pence will likely advise her husband, “I don’t see a big policy role.”
Downs, the director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics, said he expected she’d “probably fall on the side of more active,” adding that such a role wasn’t unprecedented. “You think at a presidential level, someone like Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama– they were very active,” he said.
Karen Pence’s time as Indiana’s first lady hints at some of her possible priorities. Given her teaching and painting background, she focused on education, also emerging as an advocate for art therapy. She also founded the Indiana First Lady Charitable Foundation, a nonprofit focused on education and families that also partnered with art organizations.