Is Mike Pence unfair to women, gays? Those who work with him slap down Democrats' criticism

Maureen Groppe

WASHINGTON – As Vice President Mike Pence increasingly becomes a punching bag for Democrats running for president, some of his defenders are punching back.

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, Pence's press secretary and the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services took to Twitter Thursday after Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., criticized Pence for his self-imposed rules to avoid infidelity temptation. Those include not eating alone with a woman other than his wife.

"Any suggestion that the @VP has not supported women is blatantly false and disrespectful," tweeted CMS Administrator Seema Verma, who worked with Pence when he was Indiana's governor. "He has been a strong supporter and mentor to me throughout my entire career and, I would not be where I am today without his guidance."

And on Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell went after South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg's comment to Buzzfeed News that it's chilling to people in the LGBTQ community to see Pence in a position of power.

"For those of us in the LGBT community who deal in facts, we are chilled by recklessly repeated gossip," Grenell tweeted. "Mike Pence is a humble Christian who loves God, and all His creation. I know him. You obviously don’t."

Administrator Seema Verma, Vice President Mike Pence

Pence's record on gay rights has been a particular target for Democrats lately.

Asked on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" Wednesday whether Pence is an "honorable man," Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said he is not.

"Anyone who engages in the kind of homophobia and attacks on people who are different from himself is not an honorable person," she said. "That's not what honorable people do."

As Indiana's governor, Pence signed into law a “religious freedom” bill that critics said was a license to discriminate against gay people.

Pence’s record also includes advocating for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, opposing measures to protect gay men and lesbians from discrimination in the workplace, and opposing expanding the definition of hate crimes to cover offenses based on a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Recently, Pence has defended his wife against criticism for teaching at a Christian school that bans gay students and employees.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who reportedly had regular conversations with Pence in the first year of the Trump administration, quickly backtracked last month after getting criticized for calling Pence a "decent guy."

“There is nothing decent about being anti-LGBTQ rights, and that includes the Vice President,” Biden tweeted.

Pence told Fox News Thursday that Biden, who is deciding whether to run for president, caved to liberal pressure.

“They got an awfully big field on the other side," Pence said on "Fox & Friends." "The reality that you see on the Democrat side is it's largely being driven by the most extreme liberal elements in their party. And the way Joe Biden caved in to liberal activists after making a kind comment toward me is evidence of the pressure that all of their candidates are going to face."

Harris made her comments about Pence to NBC's Andrea Mitchell. 

"I disagree when he suggests it's not possible to have meetings with women alone by himself," Harris said. "I think that's ridiculous. The idea that you would deny a professional woman the opportunity to have a meeting with the VP is outrageous."

During his 12 years in Congress, Pence had rules to avoid any temptations to stray in his marriage, or even trigger rumors of impropriety. If Pence needed an aide to to assist him after regular working hours, the aide had to be male. 

He told Gannett News Service in 2002 that the practice didn't discriminate against women staffers because the aide wasn't there to provide policy advice.

His other rules included never dining alone with a woman other than his wife, and not attending an event where alcohol was being served unless his wife was there.

In a 2002 interview with The Hill, Pence called it, "building a zone around your marriage."

"If there's alcohol being served and people are being loose, I want to have the best-looking brunette in the room standing next to me," Pence said of his wife, Karen.

When the Washington Post revived that comment in a 2017 profile of Karen Pence, his version of the “Billy Graham rule” entered pop culture as "the Pence rule."

“I am proud to say I am one of a few women who Mike Pence dines with alone,” Pence's daughter Charlotte wrote in a book about her dad published last year.

And now female aides are joining the defense, disputing the charge that Pence discriminates against women.

"Hi, @SenKamalaHarris: I’m a female Senior Advisor to Mike Pence & am wondering why you are repeating this false claim?" tweeted his press secretary, Alyssa Farah. "He’s elevated women to positions of leadership throughout his career & relies on their advice & counsel. Get your facts straight."

Conway, who was Pence's pollster before both teamed up with Donald Trump, tweeted that Pence "elevates, not excludes, women, giving equal weight to our opinions/advice."

"And he’s a gentleman," Conway said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Is Mike Pence unfair to women, gays? Those who work with him slap down Democrats' criticism