U.S. Rep. Mike Pence appeared without fanfare, strode through the large bay doors of the fire station and chatted briefly with the brass.
It was about 4 p.m. on this October campaign stop when Pence walked the length of the garage, flanked by two fire engines. Nine-year-old Austin Miller asked the congressman for an autograph, as Austin’s father, Battalion Chief Ryan Miller, snapped photos.
The Columbus native took Austin’s piece of paper, lifted his right heel, bent his back, placed the paper across his right knee, signed his name and handed the paper back to Austin, rubbing the top of the boy’s head as the youth beamed at his newest treasure.
Pence, 53, knows how to handle these events with the right amount of politicking, reverence and humor, thanks to campaigning successfully for six terms in U.S. Congress — and twice more unsuccessfully. The Republican currently serves Indiana’s 6th District, which includes parts of Johnson County, as he is running for governor. Polls show he has a significant lead against his Democratic opponent, John Gregg.
Leaving the boy, Pence walked toward the garage’s northern end and engaged some of the firefighters in small talk. He asked them how long they had served and thanked the firefighters for their service and asked if they had everything they need.
To propel the proceedings to the more formal portion of the visit, he showed his bare wrist and said, “You never want to listen to a politician who forgot his watch.”
“We’re here until 7 o’clock in the morning,” quipped firefighter Jim Miller of Brownsburg, prompting laughter from his colleagues and the congressman.
The group headed toward the other end of the cavernous garage, where fire officials had set up three chairs — for Pence, Fire Chief Bill Brown and Roger Johnson, a Pence supporter and former state fire marshal — next to a new fire engine. Ten firefighters sat on chairs in a semicircle facing them. Two more stood behind them and snapped photos as Pence told the group that he has a unique affinity for public safety personnel.
An uncle was a police officer in Chicago; a cousin was a firefighter, Pence said.
“I do understand what you and your families go through,” he said.
It’s not a 9-to-5 job, he said, and firefighters and police officers always have danger hanging over them and always have to put the safety of others ahead of their own.
“I just want to thank you for that,” Pence said.
He also told the group he has had a lot of success securing Homeland Security grants in the 6th District, and he would continue to push for such grants as governor.
Pence posed for a photo with the group in front of the fire engine before shaking hands and heading to his next campaign stop at a nearby restaurant.
Miller, whose son Austin had gotten the autograph earlier, said Pence’s visit solidified Miller’s support for the candidate.
The nearly 14-year firefighter said he generally votes Republican and appreciates Pence’s attitude toward public safety.
“Training is a big thing,” Miller said.
Property tax caps and the lower property tax revenues related to the recession have forced departments to make cuts, Miller said.
“Eventually you have to look at your training budget,” he said.
Brown, fire chief since June 1, said the department covers 54 square miles with 77 firefighters.
The town of about 22,000, about 10 miles west of Interstate 465 on the west side of Indianapolis, is heavily Republican, Brown said. All of the town council’s five members are Republicans.
Brown, too, said he would vote for Pence — though as a 33-year veteran of the Indianapolis Fire Department, he believes in cooperation and said he was still undecided in the race for U.S. Senate between Democrat Joe Donnelly and Republican Richard Mourdock.
When somebody like Mourdock says, “My way or the highway ...,” Brown said. “No. We’re all Americans. To accomplish anything, you have to have bipartisanship.”
A few minutes later, Pence encountered a slightly less Republican crowd at the Pit Stop BBQ and Grill, a racing-themed diner with race car replicas and racing stripes along counters.
Pence walked into the restaurant shortly before 5 p.m., a little early for the dinner crowd. Only a handful of tables had customers. Pence approached two women and introduced himself, prompting one of them, Carolyn Lyncks, to say, “I recognize you.”
After some small talk with Lyncks and fellow diner Beth Adams, Pence headed to a reserved table in another room where Brownsburg politicians and business leaders were waiting.
Lyncks said she will vote for Pence’s opponent, John Gregg.
She said Pence is “probably a good man, but that’s not my party.”
Lyncks taught U.S. history for nearly 40 years at nearby Ben Davis High School and said she worried about jobs, medical insurance and the cost of education.
“Teachers just seem to get blamed for everything,” she said.
Adams said she, too, worried about the high cost of medical insurance. She was still undecided on the governor’s race.
A recent widow at age 52, Adams said she feels as though she is now getting punished for deciding in her younger years to not go to college and instead be a stay-at-home mom. She oversees a Home Depot store and formerly ran a licensed day care and said she has to work two or three part-time jobs to make ends meet.
Pence, meanwhile, told the 14 politicians and business owners sitting around his table that the state needs to focus more on adult and vocational training.
Many businesses around the state have job openings but cannot find qualified employees, he said.
The state must focus on providing pathways to college — but also to other types of secondary education, including technical certifications, Pence said.
Columbus has been one of the state’s leading communities in providing such opportunities, Pence told the group, and other communities can do it, too.
Pence frequently lightened the mood around the table, quipping things such as “I’m a conservative, but I’m not in a bad mood about it.”
Rick Bolt, an urban developer who has lived in Brownsburg for 30 years, said he especially liked Pence’s thoughts on secondary education. Bolt said the state’s institutions of higher learning have lost touch with the job market.
Peering through glasses from under a forehead of bushy, gray hair, Bolt said he and his wife, a dentist, are big Pence supporters because of his fiscal conservatism and because he understands the importance of infrastructure.
Shortly after the meeting, Pence sat in a booth in an adjacent room, sipping Diet Coke through a straw, and talked about the importance of such campaign stops.
Meeting people in the communities, listening to their challenges and ideas is “absolutely invaluable” to prepare for a job such as governor, Pence said.
The congressman said he saw at the restaurant an energetic group of people who want to help move Indiana forward.
“That was refreshing,” he said. “You’re hearing that all over the state. Most Hoosiers think Indiana is going in the right direction, and they’re right.”