A Columbus businessman who has five grandchildren and is approaching retirement age said it’s understandable that people wonder why he’s decided to launch a congressional bid at this stage in his life.

Greg Pence’s answer to those questions is that he was moved to do so.

“The president of the United States (Donald Trump) along with my (younger) brother (Vice President Mike Pence) have inspired the heck out of me for what I think they’re going to do for the middle class and for the U.S. economy, and help people in this country,” said Pence, 61. “So, I went, ‘Sign me up; send me in, coach.’ Just like when I joined the Marine Corps. That’s my passion in this.”

Pence is seeking the Republican nomination for Indiana’s 6th District, which includes 19 counties stretching geographically northeast to southeast, and covering some of the central and south-central regions.

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Vice President Pence served that district for 12 consecutive years before making a successful run for governor in 2012, and joining Trump as his running mate in their victorious 2016 presidential campaign. Republican Luke Messer has represented the 6th District for more than five years, but he’s giving up that seat at the end of the year to launch a bid for U.S. Senate.

The race for the 6th District seat is full of candidates from both parties: along with Pence are Republicans Mike Campbell, Cambridge City; Thomas Ferkinhoff, Richmond; Jonathan Lamb, Muncie; and Stephen MacKenzie, Fortville; and Democrats Jeannine Lee Lake, Muncie; K. (Jasen) Lave, Covington; Jim Pruett, Greensburg; and Lane Siekman, Aurora.

Pence said that when he served as statewide finance chairman for Messer’s Senate campaign, he received encouragement from 6th District residents to consider running for the position. That made him seriously consider the idea, he said.

“I looked into the mirror and said, ‘If not me, who?’” Pence said.

Sometime in September, he asked his brother Mike what he thought of such a plan, and the vice president expressed full support, Pence said.

What makes him a good candidate, Pence said, is his military and business background; his help with political campaigns for his brother, Messer and U.S. Sen. Todd Young; his stage of life and experiences; and knowledge of the district.

“I think I can get out there as a freshman congressman, get up to speed quickly and represent the district, I believe, better than some of the other options out there,” Greg Pence said.

The issues

Once Pence decided to launch a congressional bid, he said he traveled the district to meet with as many county Republican Party chairpersons as possible to learn what was important to them. He connected with 16 of them.

What was of concern, he said, are the same issues he’s talked about as being important: help for veterans, fiscal responsibility, sanctity of life, Second Amendment rights and helping the middle class.

Pence also said he supports the agenda of Trump’s administration.

“I agree with his tax reform, his immigration reform and then health care reform,” Pence said. “I’m not a spokesman for the Trump administration. I want to be a spokesman for the people of the 6th District. But I think he’s taking the country in the right direction in a general sort of way.”

One of the hot-button issues regarding immigration has been the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, an immigration policy dealing with people who came to the United States as minor children of undocumented parents.

Pence said he believes former President Barack Obama’s executive order that created the DACA program is unconstitutional and needs to be fixed, but a just solution is needed when it comes to the young immigrants.

A U.S. border wall is needed in the sense of tougher immigration policies, not necessarily one with bricks, he said.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with locking doors and securing our border, and making sure who can come in, and whose coming in. And then if you’re illegally here, you’re illegal,” Pence said. “The just issue is, ‘How do we deal with people who have been here a long time?’ I don’t have the answers for that. I’m looking forward to the president expanding that.”

In December, Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, his legislation intended to help the economy. He’s also advocated for keeping manufacturing in and bringing it back to the U.S., Pence said.

That’s important, the congressional candidate said, because the middle class is struggling. A lot of communities in the 6th District have suffered as manufacturing and businesses have departed, Pence said.

Pence has personally been part of a business that failed.

When he was president of Kiel Bros. Oil Co., he tried to sell the company as it faced declining profit margins. After a proposed sale fell through, the company filed for bankruptcy in 2004.

When big-box marketers and grocery stores started getting into the gasoline business, it affected the profit margins of oil companies, particularly smaller distributors, he said. Kiel’s margin fell from 50 cents per gallon to 8 cents, Pence said.

“The smaller distributors couldn’t compete anymore,” Pence said.

As a result, companies such as Kiel Bros., Johnson Oil, Swifty and Dairy Mart eventually disappeared. Some sold to larger corporations, some went bankrupt and others liquidated.

Unlike previous decades when a person could work for a company, put children through college, retire with a pension and maybe travel in retirement, Pence said, people are having difficulty putting their children through college, and retirement is becoming less of an option.

“If I was elected to Congress, I would champion business being brought back to the 6th District, so that we can help the middle class that we have watched struggle more and more and more,” Pence said.

Pence said he also would like to see greater workforce-development efforts to help veterans find jobs after they leave the military.

In addition to the economy, another issue of national concern is drug addiction, particularly opioids.

About 1,000 Bartholomew County residents are estimated to be addicted to opioids, according to the Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention in Bartholomew County, and 30 people died from drug overdoses last year, Bartholomew County Coroner Clayton Nolting said.

In October, Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency.

Pence said he has spoken with sheriffs around the district, the president of the state sheriff’s association and a lot of caregivers about the issue. He said he has also reached out to Jeff Jones, a leader with the local ASAP initiative, about setting up a meeting to discuss addiction and the opioid crisis.

“I think we really need to focus on a federal level, on not only the support to communities and states, but most of these people have gotten addicted by the prescription drugs. I think we need to take a very deep look into how that has contributed to the opioid crisis,” Pence said.

The candidate said he also thinks the economic deterioration of the middle class and a sense of hopelessness have contributed to the problem.

“If we can help people out in their life — better opportunities economically — I think we can help them through the addiction. But if there are no jobs …,” Pence said.

Campaign process

Meetings with sheriffs about the opioid problem and county chairpersons about multiple issues of concern have been part of a busy schedule for Pence since he announced in October that he would run for Congress.

He estimated that he’s attended about 200 meetings and events since then. Pence said that’s made for some long days, but he’s enjoyed them.

“It’s a lot more fun than I thought,” Pence said of the campaign process.

It has involved assembling a campaign staff, recruiting volunteers to help spread the word about the candidate, raising money to support the congressional bid and meeting Republicans in the district.

Pence said he has attended Republican Party functions, small meet-and-greets, visited manufacturing plants, attended chamber of commerce luncheons and dinners, and met with veterans and National Rifle Association groups.

The candidate said he’s appreciative of the support he’s received, such as the $125,000 raised at a Nov. 27 event at Zaharakos, owned by Pence supporter Tony Moravec.

“We had the largest fundraiser in Columbus, Indiana, that has ever happened, thanks to the support we got in this community. Our fundraising is tremendously funded by donors,” Pence said. “That was a humbling testimonial for me, that the Republican members of this community said, ‘Yeah, you’re a good guy.’”

Through the end of December, Pence had raised $565,114, according to Federal Election Commission records. One of his Republican opponents, Jonathan Lamb, had raised $582,638 by the end of 2017, according to FEC records, but $550,000 of that total was a loan by Lamb to his campaign. By contrast, individual donations accounted for $475,382 of Pence’s total, FEC records show.

Pence bio

Who: Greg Pence

What: Businessman, Republican candidate for Indiana’s 6th congressional district

Age: 61

Birthplace: Indianapolis

Resides: Columbus

Education: Columbus North High School graduate, 1975; bachelor’s degree in theology and philosophy from Loyola University of Chicago; Master of Business Administration degree from Loyola University of Chicago, 1985; Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs, post-graduate work.

Background:

  • United States Marine Corp, 1979 to 1984
  • Union Oil Co. (Unocal), 1985-87, sales representative
  • Marathon Oil Co., 1987-88, territory manager
  • Kiel Bros. Oil Co., 1988-2004, vice president 14 years, president two years
  • Co-Venture Resources, 2005-06, partner
  • Circle K convenience stores, 2006-10, director of fuels
  • Pence Group LLC, 1994-present, owner
  • Exit 76 Antique Mall in Edinburgh, 2006-present, owner with wife
  • Bloomington Antique Mall, 2008-present, owner with wife
  • PMI LLC, 2014-16, owner

Community involvement: St. Bartholomew Catholic Church (finance committee), IUPUC Board of Advisors, Bartholomew County Redevelopment Commission, Easter Seals of Columbus, Columbus Waterfront Committee member, former chairman of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce

Family: Wife, Denise; four grown children, Nicole, Lauren, Emily and John; five grandchildren

Author photo
Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at johannesen@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5639.