Pence Out of Step With Big Business in Gay-Rights Confrontations

  • Indiana governor forced to back off conservative crowd-pleaser
  • Employers said Pence’s restrictions would be bad for companies

Trump Selects Indiana Governor Mike Pence as VP

Mike Pence ran for governor of Indiana in 2012, touting himself as “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order.” That helped get him elected, but devotion to his faith put him at odds with corporate interests and a changing cultural landscape.

Pence, Donald Trump’s running mate, felt the political ground shift as normally Republican-friendly chambers of commerce and prominent Indiana employers objected to his championing efforts to ban gay marriage and sanction what the businesses saw as discrimination. They included Eli Lilly & Co. and Cummins Inc.

Pence, 57, signed a Republican-approved Religious Freedom Restoration Act in March 2015 that let businesses refuse to serve gays and lesbians on religious grounds. Businesses, including Lilly, viewed the law as legal cover for bigotry and pushed for its reversal. The controversy drew unwelcome attention to the governor and his state, prompting Moody’s Investors Service to say the measure threatened the economy and undermined tourism revenue in Indianapolis, the state’s economic engine.

Facing business-travel suspensions and boycotts, Pence and lawmakers amended the measure a week later to make clear that discrimination wouldn’t be allowed. The governor said it had “become a subject of great misunderstanding and controversy across our state and nation.”

Still, Pence’s selection by Trump has the potential of attracting religious and social conservatives to the ticket led by the thrice-married and often coarse-talking billionaire. By many measures he is the conventional companion to the unconventional candidate.

Pence, who after being named running mate abandoned his Indiana re-election bid, has seen his approval ratings drop in the past year. A May survey of 600 registered voters in the state showed 40 percent approved of his job performance while 42 percent disapproved, and he was locked in a tight contest against Democrat John Gregg, whom he defeated four years ago by 3 percentage points.

Pence’s unpopularity is due in part to his handling of gay rights issues. He also was powerless to stop the loss of 2,100 jobs from the decision in February by United Technologies Electronic Controls and Carrier Corp. to shift operations to Mexico. Trump used the announcement to argue against free trade agreements and promised to bring the jobs back to Indiana.

James Brainard, the Republican mayor of the Indianapolis suburb of Carmel, said Pence was in an almost no-win situation when he entered the Religious Freedom Restoration debate.

"I think when Pence got into it, he got into it not realizing how passionate people are on this wedge issue," Brainard said. "Could it have been done differently? Probably. But you don’t judge someone on just one issue."

That controversy wasn’t Pence’s first run-in with Indiana’s major employers. In early 2014, two local chambers of commerce and employers led by Cummins, the world’s largest maker of big diesel engines, and Lilly, the biggest U.S. maker of insulin products, each gave $100,000 to a campaign against putting a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay unions on the November ballot.

Executives for Cummins, which has 46,000 employees in more than 60 countries and its headquarters in Columbus, and Indianapolis-based Lilly, with about 38,000 workers worldwide, joined a coalition called Freedom Indiana to block the amendment. They said they need to recruit engineers, scientists and other “knowledge” workers, and that the amendment would impede them -- especially when employees can work in states where gays and lesbians can marry.

A decade after voters in 11 states approved gay marriage bans, Indiana Republicans moved in 2014 to enshrine the prohibition in the state’s constitution. Large employers saw the ban as a clear message to talented workers to avoid the state. The momentum behind the measure soon died.

Pence’s setbacks in his home state reflect the reversal in public attitudes that, a decade ago, delivered big Republican political victories across the nation. As Pence was pushing for the constitutional ban, 17 states and the District of Columbia had already legalized gay marriage, and more would come. The U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in June 2015.

Historically, businesses had tended to avoid divisive cultural issues, out of fear of a backlash from employees, shareholders and customers. The fast-food chain Chick-fil-A Inc. faced calls for boycotts from supporters of gay marriage in 2012 when its chief executive said his company endorsed the “biblical definition of the family unit.”

The business blowback to Pence, a six-term congressman and former talk radio host who considered his own run for president, struck other governors who took similar stands.

Arkansas Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson was also forced to appease businesses, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., that said a so-called religious freedom bill in 2015 would allow discrimination against gays and lesbians. North Carolina Republican Governor Pat McCrory is dealing with job cancellations and boycotts after he signed a law requiring people to use bathrooms corresponding to the gender on their birth certificates.

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