Since Donald Trump was elected, those opposing him have been asking if Mike Pence would be worse. With talk of impeachment ramping up again after Trump admitted to discussing Joe Biden in a call with the Ukrainian president, that question has taken on a renewed urgency.
Mostly, it’s posed as a hypothetical question, a thought experiment. Pence is more tightly connected to the Republican establishment; could that make him more effective? Would his religious extremism make him even harsher on LGBTQ and abortion rights? Would he at least be less likely to pitch us into nuclear war, a little quieter, maybe, just—less embarrassing?
The people best equipped to answer these questions are those who lived under Pence’s reign of fear when he was governor of Indiana.
“I wouldn’t feel any safer with him as president,” Akeeshea Daniels, a resident of the lead-poisoned northwest Indiana city of East Chicago told me. In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency found lead at more than 100 times the federal safety limit in her home, part of a public housing complex that was built on a former lead smelter.
News of the lead contamination crisis in East Chicago broke as Pence hit the campaign trail that summer. It shed light on health problems that had plagued residents of the mostly Black and Latino city, like Daniels, who has rheumatoid arthritis and hypertension, and who has lost half her bone mass. She underwent a full hysterectomy at 29. Now in her 40s, she has teeth loose enough to move with her tongue. As Daniels came to terms with the poisoning of her family, Pence never came to the city, although he returned home from campaigning after a tornado hit the mostly white Indiana town of Kokomo. In one of his final acts as governor, he refused pleas to declare a state of emergency to help East Chicago residents.
I met Daniels in the early days of Trump’s presidency, when I traveled to Indiana to understand Pence’s threat from the perspective of those who lived it. Like many, I assumed that if Trump lasted as president, he was bound to be heavily influenced by the more experienced Pence. That assumption seems to have been borne out, at least when it comes to the administration’s efforts to roll back rights for LGBTQ people and women—long among Pence’s pet projects. Trump, on the other hand, expressed support for Planned Parenthood and, at times, LGBTQ people on the campaign trail before shifting course and declaring that women who have abortions should be punished and transgender soldiers should be banned. It’s not hard to see Pence’s influence as the administration stacks cabinet posts with extremists and advances the wishlist of the religious right.
While in Congress, Pence was an early leader of the Republican crusade to defund Planned Parenthood, a cause for which he threatened to shut down the federal government in 2011. As Indiana governor, he signed at least eight anti-choice bills, including the sweeping HEA 1337. One of its tenets, which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in May, required burial or cremation of all miscarried or aborted fetuses. Beyond a legacy of obstructed abortion access, these measures created a climate of fear that still resonates.
During my trip to Indiana I met Ali Brown, an Indianapolis-based woman who was pregnant just before HEA 1337 was set to take effect. Her midwife, confused and fearful about the broad implications of the law, told her to carry around Ziploc bags so she could save bloodied clothes and pads as evidence if she miscarried. Adding to Brown’s terror was the plight of Purvi Patel, who had been sentenced to 20 years in prison the previous year after delivering what she said was a stillborn fetus and disposing of it in a dumpster. Prosecutors accused her of taking abortion-inducing drugs, even though none were found in her system. (Patel was released in 2016 after her feticide conviction was overturned.) Along with the case of Bei Bei Shuai, jailed after attempting suicide while pregnant, Patel’s case helped make Indiana a cautionary tale for the criminalization of pregnancy.
“I felt like I was a walking attempted murder,” Brown told me.
Her son, Dylan, was born one week before Pence was sworn in as vice president.
Another Indiana resident, Kate Marshall, felt as if Pence had enshrined into law a traumatic experience she’d had a year earlier. After Marshall lost a much-wanted pregnancy in 2015, chaplains at a Catholic hospital where she had surgery to remove the remains tried to bully and shame her into burying her 11-week fetus in a cemetery plot. Marshall, grieving and sobbing, defended her choice to send the remains for testing to determine the cause of her miscarriage. One of the chaplains accused her of “sending my baby’s remains into a medical slush pile,” Marshall later wrote in a complaint against the hospital. (Ultimately, Marshall prevailed, though not without significant distress.) A year later, pregnant with her daughter Evelyn, Marshall watched the passage of HEA 1337 with trepidation.
“It felt terrible, I felt vulnerable once again,” Marshall told Rewire.News. “I did feel worried that then I would be subjected to a very similar situation, and that it wouldn’t even just be from a religious hospital, it would be the state.”
Pregnant women are not the only Indiana residents who lived in fear on Pence’s watch.
In 2015, Pence signed legislation enabling discrimination against LGBTQ people in the name of religion. A photograph that came to symbolize the religious extremism of his governorship showed him signing the legislation while surrounded by monks and nuns. In a subsequent CNN interview, Pence refused to say if the measure would enable discrimination, or whether he thought such discrimination was a good idea. Protests broke out nationwide. Businesses threatened to boycott the state. A headline on the front page of Indiana’s leading newspaper read, “Fix This Now.” Pence signed a revised version of the bill.
But his actions left a lingering fear among LGBTQ residents. Kimberly Keener felt that fear in 2017, when she and her transgender son, Lincoln Saldivar, arrived at an appointment to find that the doctor who prescribed him hormones had abruptly disappeared. Keener, remembering Pence’s actions, briefly wondered if transition-related medical care had become illegal in the state. (It hadn’t.) Rickie LeDuc, who began her transition around the time the bill was introduced in the Indiana legislature, remembers how the political climate added to the stress of coming out at the age of 40, which felt less like a choice and more like a matter of survival. Cristy, the mother of a transgender daughter, struggled to describe the atmosphere of marginalization for LGBTQ people and their families in the state. “It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t live here but—it’s Mike Pence’s Indiana,” she said.
Indiana is a vast state, full of cornfields and churches, with vibrant pockets of resistance. After my trip, I felt how deeply Pence’s leadership hurt the most vulnerable people under his jurisdiction: pregnant women, transgender people, and people of color, including those who are victims of corporate pollution and negligence. Already, with Pence as vice president, the Trump administration has continued this pattern, advancing policies that enable discrimination and favor corporate polluters at the expense of those in their path.
The people I met in Indiana showed me that the defining experience of a Pence presidency would be all-consuming fear. Two years into Trump’s presidency, that may feel all too familiar. Pence’s greatest threat, in other words, may lie not so much in how different he is from Trump, but in how much his presidency, for the most marginalized among us, would feel the same.