Cleveland (CNN)On his first day in the governor’s office, in January 2013, Mike Pence showed off the new red phone he had installed on his desk. It was, he touted, a direct line from Karen Pence to him, and remains probably the best symbol of her power and influence in his life.
Not long after that state workers finished decorating the very first first lady’s office inside the Indiana Statehouse — just a short walk from Mike Pence’s own office.
Despite the high-profile trappings, Karen Pence’s role as his most senior adviser, his most trusted aide and equal, is rarely seen. More often, people notice her advocacy for art and even her — now suspended — small side business selling towel charms
The Pence campaign did not make Karen Pence available for an interview this week as it stormed into town ahead of his Wednesday speech to accept the Republican Party’s nomination for vice president. But Mike Pence hinted at her integral role in his Tuesday speech to the American Conservative Union.
“I’m joined today by the highest ranking official in the state of Indiana, the future second lady of the United States, Karen Pence,” he said to applause.
It’s been a long ride for Indiana’s first couple — from 1983, when Mike Pence met his future wife at a mass in Indianapolis’ St. Thomas Aquinas church, just across the street from the governor’s mansion where they now live.
Karen Pence, who grew up just down the street from the church where they met, retold their first date in a campaign ad five years ago during Pence’s run for governor.
“When I first met Mike Pence, it was love at first sight. On our first date, we went ice skating at the Pepsi Coliseum at the state fairgrounds. We skated around for a little while, then he reached over and took my hand,” Karen Pence said in the spot.
The ad airs a photo of the young couple, including Mike Pence with dark brown hair. Now Mike Pence’s hair is shock white, and he is taking the national stage in a way few expected even just a few months ago.
Karen Pence has played an integral part in the rise of Mike Pence to that stage. In Indiana Republican circles it is taken as gospel that no one else has the governor’s ear like she does (which is not always a given for every first couple.)
But her public image belies her incredible influence. Karen Pence is a former art teacher, and art therapist — as first lady she began an art therapy program at Indianapolis’ largest children’s hospital.
Karen Pence’s art was often auctioned off at local Republican fundraiser during Mike Pence’s run for governor and throughout his tenure.
Donald Trump hinted, in an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” how influential Karen Pence is, saying that she was on the phone with him when he called Trump to say he was interested in joining the ticket.
Those who know the Pences best say that Karen Pence was seamlessly involved in the management of the state.
The four years of the Pence administration in Indiana — a package of tax cuts, expansion of Medicaid, conservative education reforms and more — have all had Karen Pence’s influence at varying levels.
“It was pretty customary for Mike to get kind of down to the end and say, ‘I’m gonna sleep on it, pray about it and speak to Karen,’ ” said one ally, who described her integral role in shaping policy. The Pence ally spoke on condition of anonymity because few people talk openly about her role.
Mike Pence’s sister-in-law, Denise Pence, said she’s known Karen Pence for about four decades and described her as both smart and strong.
“Karen Pence is a pillar of strength,” Denise Pence said Monday. “She is wonderful, wonderful asset to Michael and they complement each other. They make decisions as a family.”
Mike McDaniel a veteran Indiana Republican and former state party chairman, called Karen Pence the base upon which Mike Pence has built his life.
“I think their marriage is the whole strength upon everything he does,” McDaniel said. “I think she’s very important to him. I think he uses her for a sounding board for just about everything.”
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