By Rafael Hoffman
NEW YORK – The announcement that Indiana Governor Michael Pence will be the GOP candidate for vice president was greeted by many in the Republican camp with hopes that the tested politician would add the experience and stability in what has been a highly nontraditional campaign. For those involved in advocacy on behalf of the Jewish community, his ascent was welcomed, as he has largely been a champion of issues of importance to the klal.
Rabbi Yisrael Gettinger of Indianapolis’s Congregation Bnei Torah has worked closely with Governor Pence over the past decade and shared very positive impressions with Hamodia.
“He is a man of principle … a very competent administrator; he’s improved the economic situation, gets along very well with people, and comes across as a modest man,” he said.
A key policy that has won Gov. Pence particular praise in Orthodox circles has been his steadfast support of Indiana’s robust private-school voucher program, one of the nation’s most generous. Rabbi Gettinger pointed to his fight to expand the state’s support of non-public schools as a sign of his strength of character.
“He has to stick his neck out and go against the teachers’ union for vouchers. They’re very powerful and it was not easy for him, but he did it,” he said.
Hart Harsen, a prominent member of the Indianapolis Jewish community, has shared a close personal relationship with Gov. Pence for over two decades. In addition to praising his “wonderful” character, Mr. Harsen said he is unparalleled among politicians in his connection to the State of Israel.
“I can’t think of anyone [in a similar position] who cares like he does for the safety and wellbeing of Israel.”
Rabbi A.D. Motzen, the national director of state relations for Agudath Israel of America, was careful to point out that his organization does not endorse any candidate and focuses on building a positive relationship with whoever wins office, but he affirmed Gov. Pence’s “close relationship with the frum community.” Rabbi Motzen has also worked with the governor and his office, mostly relating to the school voucher program.
One key area in which Rabbi Motzen felt Gov. Pence would add to the presidential race was in his “strong grasp of policy.”
“He really gets the details and is very, very thorough,” he said.
Elliot Barkey, who has led the Jewish American Affairs Committee of Indiana and is a professor of political science, said that the Trump campaign’s tapping of Gov. Pence could signal a move towards a more “conventional” approach to politics.
“It’s not only about being practical, but it’s a move towards working in a way that could actually get things done,” he said. “Pence is a good man and a very serious man. That will help to unify the party and add gravitas to the campaign, which some people might have thought has been lacking.”
Gov. Pence enjoys strong support among social conservatives, and won wide praise for his support of a state bill protecting religious liberty, modeled after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). However, in the aftermath of its passage, the legislation fell under strong criticism from civil rights groups and left-wing political and media voices who said it would lead to discrimination against certain groups.
The governor subsequently signed a follow-up bill and made statements that he claimed “clarified” the original legislation’s intentions. However, the move was seen by many as a reversal that undercut the bill’s effectiveness.
While he expressed praise for Gov. Pence’s outspoken support for private-school vouchers, Israel, and other areas of concern to the Orthodox community, regarding the religious freedom issue, Rabbi Motzen said that the Agudah had strongly supported the original text and was “disappointed” about it subsequently being amended.
Rabbi Gettinger, who testified and lobbied for the first bill’s passage, said that critics of the governor’s actions misunderstood the nature of the second bill and said labeling his actions as a reversal is “inaccurate.”
“He didn’t backtrack, it was only a clarification; the point was to protect religious practice, which the bill still does,” he said.
Rick Bently, an Indianapolis-based askan, also thought the events surrounding the religious-liberty bill did not besmirch the governor’s record on the issue.
“The whole thing got spun and misrepresented; it became a witch-hunt,” he said of the backlash Gov. Pence faced at the time. “They were doing damage control; it was a pragmatic move.”
Prof. Barkey said that the close relationship the governor has enjoyed with Indiana’s Orthodox community is one that goes beyond standard political alliance-making.
“It’s not just a relationship of convenience,” he said. “He feels a close personal kinship with the frum community and truly cares about the issues that are important to us.”
Updated Tuesday, July 19, 2016 at 5:27 pm