WASHINGTON – Since her husband was elected vice president in 2016, Karen Pence has had to navigate the non-elected but public role of second lady.
A watercolor artist, Pence has collaborated with her daughter on a series of children’s books about the family rabbit.
And her return to the classroom this year to teach art at a Christian elementary school drew headlines because the school bans gay students and teachers.
As Pence steps up her involvement in the 2020 reelection campaign, she talked with USA TODAY about her campaign role and other issues.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
QUESTION: You’ve increased your social media presence and recently participated in a “Women for Trump” event in Minnesota. Is this an expansion of your campaign role?
Pence: That’s an interesting question to me because I’ve been campaigning since 1987 so it’s kind of funny for people to think that I’m suddenly campaigning. It may have that appearance, though, to people.
Actually, it’s been kind of fun. I think now the campaign is starting to realize that I want to be part of the campaign. I want to go and do what I can and do my part. And so they’re sending things my way more and more.
‘Put me in, coach’:Second Lady Karen Pence embraces bigger role on 2020 campaign trail
QUESTION: Is this very different from what you did in 2016?
Pence: I think in 2016 we were just planning it day by day. Where are we needed?, Where do we need to go? In 2016, (my daughter) Charlotte and I campaigned on the trail almost every single day. If I wasn’t there, Charlotte was there … I just think it probably would’ve been too much to organize it, to use us more. It was better for us to go as a team.
QUESTION: Are there particular places you’ll be deployed most?
Pence: No. It’s really all over the place. I’m kind of the low man on the totem pole. Mike likes to say, ‘If you want hundreds, you invite Mike Pence. If you want thousands, you invite Donald Trump.’ So for me, it’s maybe like, 100 or 200.
A lot of the things I go to are things that wouldn’t really fit the vice president or the first lady. And they’re things that I’m like, ‘I can go. I can go do this. Put me in coach.’
QUESTION: It’s been reported that you were upset with your husband on election night because of Trump’s unexpected victory. Are you trying to show your loyalty to the ticket?
Pence: Don’t believe everything you read. I’d like to know where that story came from. Because everybody was so exhausted. I don’t even remember, 3 or 4 a.m., whatever it was. So all I can figure is someone must have seen me make a face or something like ‘I’m hungry’ or ‘I’m tired’ or something and decided I was disappointed in the race or something.
Honestly, and we said this over and over and over, on the 2016 campaign trail, the excitement was – we’ve been in this for a long time. We’d never seen that kind of excitement. We really did think we were going to win. We really, really did. So, it’s funny that that story got written. I don’t know where that came from.
I love being part of this ticket, part of this administration.
QUESTION: Polls show Trump has lost support among women. Do you have a particular message for them?
Pence: So, for me, I just think if a woman is looking at whether or not to vote for Donald Trump, one of the things she has to look at is the jobs. She has to look at the fact that this is someone who cares about women reaching their full potential, about women being empowered. To me, that’s a very strong woman’s issue.
QUESTION: A lot of the concerns, though, seem to be about Trump’s behavior. Are you essentially acting as a character witness?
Pence: I think there are people out there who feel like they know me so when they hear me say something, maybe it reassures them. But I just have to go out and do my part. So when you see me out on the campaign trail, I’m out doing my part. Because I see a president who cares about this country.
The thing that we said so much at that Women for Trump rally was, ‘Promises made and promises kept.’ Just look at what he said he was going to do. And if those are things you wanted him to do, then you should re-elect him. If you wanted him to do something different from that, then that doesn’t jibe for me. It’s like, if you wanted someone to improve the job rate, he did. If you wanted someone to strengthen the military, he did.
QUESTION: What do you think is accurate about your public image and what isn’t?
Pence: That is the funniest thing about this job, is that there’s so little privacy, really. And people have an opinion about everything. I mean, people tell me all the time they like my hair long. And these are people who I’ve never met before. And I’m like, ‘Oh, OK, Hi. I’m Karen.’
I’m probably never going to get used to that. But this comes with the territory. So while I’m not elected or appointed, I know that I’m in a public role. And there are so many benefits from that, that they outweigh the negatives.
People are going to talk about me. They’re going to have opinions. They’re going to misinterpret something they read or see. That just comes with the territory. I just kind of let that stuff roll off my back.
QUESTION: Does that include the criticism you got for returning to Immanuel Christian School, which doesn’t allow gay teachers or students?
Pence: The reason I went back to teach was because they asked me. Their art teacher left and they said, ‘You set up this curriculum. You know the room. You know everything. Any way you could fill in?’ That’s why I went back.
I think, too, Jill Biden taught. And I think there’s something about maybe being in this role, where I’m in this role because of my spouse’s position, that it’s very rewarding to keep that little piece of me. That’s really my love, is teaching art to elementary kids.
But it was an issue about religious liberty. I think that’s really where the focus should be. I don’t think people should be attacked for their faith.
QUESTION: A gay person might say that your faith is attacking them for who they are.
Pence: I don’t make that connection. This country was founded on religious liberty. And I think we have to be careful about infringing on anyone else’s beliefs. I think that if you have someone who has a certain belief, that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily judging you.
For example, there are people who have certain dietary restrictions because of their faith. I don’t feel like they’re judging me if I eat that food. So I think that’s where I see it gets carried away.
That’s unfortunate if somebody feels judged. It certainly would never, ever, ever, be my intention for anyone to feel judged by me. Definitely not. But I’m just a person who believes in the Bible, so it shouldn’t be right for someone to attack me for my beliefs. That’s kind of where I end up on that issue.