Pence inner circle includes old, new hands
The Associated Press December 16, 2012 11:26PM
Updated: January 18, 2013 6:22AM
INDIANAPOLIS — Inside the Indiana Statehouse, people will occasionally joke that Gov. Mitch Daniels is the always smartest man in the room.
Taken literally, the surface statement is accurate. But the punch line stems from Daniels’ management style, which is centered on his assessments of the politics and the policy of the situation.
That, among other things, will change when Mike Pence takes over the governor’s office. Pence’s staff says he likes to chew over an issue extensively before presenting it to the public, and wants to hear from multiple sides before making up his mind.
As Pence builds his administration ahead of his January inauguration, his leadership style will define both his immediate staff and those who will lead Indiana’s various departments and agencies. Asked last week about how his team would be different from Daniels’, Pence explained dryly: “Well, I chose them.”
He then turned serious: “The challenge that we’ve had, and we’ve taken it in a deliberative way, is to be thoughtful and to be discerning about not only recruiting people to our administration, but also retaining men and women who have served us with great effect.”
Many of the department heads he’s announced so far are carryovers from the Daniels administration.
But Pence’s inner circle is one all his own. A top Pence staffer said the group consists of longtime aide and Chief of Staff Bill Smith, incoming First Lady Karen Pence, budget director Chris Atkins, political director Chris Crabtree and incoming Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann.
Each one brings a different strength, ranging from from longtime advisers like Smith to people Pence learned to trust during his campaign like Ellspermann. The staffer spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because Pence and his team don’t divulge strategy publicly.
Atkins, a veteran of Daniels’ budget team, played a central role in vetting policy proposals, the staffer said; and Crabtree, a former chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman, worked with a network of local Republican chairmen during the campaign.
And Pence has long touted his close relationship with his wife, Karen, leading off his ad campaign with the story of how they met. The first lady’s role in political advising will mark a 180-degree turn from the Daniels administration, where Cheri Daniels specifically asked to be kept out of the spotlight.
The inner circle has already helped Pence fill key posts, and will be there as he crafts his first budget and begins work on his first legislative agenda. They will also play a key role as he decides whether a White House run is in his future.
That circle has also been something of a mystery to many in Indiana politics, largely because Pence is new to the Statehouse. Daniels’ insistence on keeping his own counsel on politics and policy is well-known in the Statehouse, but Republican Party Chairman Eric Holcomb and longtime Daniels friend Mark Lubbers have led a small group of trusted confidants.
Lubbers said it’s hard to pin down similarities between any governor’s inner circle because each one is so different and has to mesh with the executive they’re working for.
“It’s less a tale of the tape, than it is an assessment of the capacities of the individuals to work together. And, more than anything, to do what their boss what wants, not what they want,” Lubbers said. He drew an analogy to former Indiana University basketball coach Bob Knight’s style of team-building, which focused on the dynamics between the players and less on individual superstars.
Lubbers cited former Gov. Robert Orr, who relied on a small, tight-knit group, during his eight years in office in the 1980s. Orr eschewed a chief of staff, he said, and instead had a group of top aides who split the duties. Lubbers worked the press; veteran Republican operative and RNC committee member John Hammond worked with lawmakers; and Ken Kobe, executive director for lobbying firm Barnes and Thornburg, ran the budget.
“I’ve had a couple of opportunities to visit with Gov.-elect Pence, and I think he’s very in tune with this. He certainly understands teamwork,” Lubbers said. “I would be very surprised if they don’t get off to a very good start.”