WASHINGTON — Melissa Hart broke a lot of ground when she became the first Republican woman sent to Congress from Pennsylvania following the elections of 2000. But to her, the real stars were other members of that cutting-edge House freshman class of 2001 — especially two guys she still refers to as “Jeff and Mike.”
That would be Jeff Flake and Mike Pence, then two of 28 new Republicans who quickly emerged as leaders of a freshman class that was shining before they took their oaths of office.
“The most striking thing about them is the depth of their governmental experience. These are not, for the most part, rookies,” Washington Post columnist David Broder wrote at the time.
That class met even before the nation knew who the next president was to be. Hart recalls the confidence and determination of class members, and how Pence and Flake quickly provided a foundation and framework for the new GOP members as they began their service as the first class in the 21st century.
“They both came here with the right reasons and respect for the process, what they saw as American values and that a lot of people who were elected with us would see,” Hart said during the interview. “Regular Americans, believing that faith was okay, that people should get more freedom and the government should not take their freedoms away.”
She and others in that class recall how Pence and Flake became close friends, sharing ideas and family dinners, complementing each other’s leadership ideas and driving to move issues forward.
Flake went on to the Senate, Pence to the governorship of Indiana and their friendship remained deep and strong, Hart recalled.
And then came Donald Trump.
Flake’s outspoken concerns about Trump as a candidate and as president was in sharp contrast to Pence’s support and eventually acceptance as Trump’s running mate. The close friendship wound up on the heap of destroyed friendships and alliances. It was part of the carnage from Trump experienced by many others as the GOP coalition of populism and establishment found itself in internecine conflict.
Trump’s attacks on Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) infuriated Flake, the junior senator from the state. He was further incensed at the silence of his Republican colleagues against Trump’s comments.
The dislike of Trump and his debasement of the GOP and democratic values generally convinced Flake not to attend the 2016 Republican convention. He reconsidered when Pence was announced as Trumps’ running mate but stayed away in the end.
That, according to published reports, shredded what was left of the friendship in Pence’s view, according to reports at the time.
One year later, Trump’s continual attacks on Flake further estranged the friends. It was further frayed when Flake wrote the “Conscience of a Conservative,” which was published in the summer of 2017.
Because of the estrangement, and because of Pence’s position as vice president and confident to Trump, Flake did not give Pence a heads-up when he decided not to seek reelection.”I didn’t want to put him in a bad position of knowing that and not sharing it. He’s a trusted friend,” Flake said then, according to published reports.
Neither Flake nor Pence would respond to requests for comment or even say when the last time was that they communicated.
All this seems very far from when they first met and joined arms.
Pence and Flake, as well as Hart, were singled out by Broder and others as stars of the class of 2001 — suggesting that the new House members of both parties would be key leaders for the nation in the decades to come.
“And the freshmen look brainy. Many of them are graduates of elite public and private universities. Two of the Republicans, Arizona’s Jeff Flake and Indiana’s Mike Pence, have run conservative think tanks,” Broder wrote in 2000.
Flake headed the Goldwater Institute and Pence led the Indiana Policy Review, both solid conservative think tanks. As Hart recalls, they joined forces over passions for opposing wayward ideas from the George W. Bush administration, working on marginal income tax rate cuts, and making clear U.S. foreign policy served U.S. interests. Both scored 100 percent ratings from the American Conservative Union.
“They were very different but very personable, interesting and thoughtful,” Hart said. “As it progressed during our time there, I dealt with Mike more directly in the morning breakfast group. He was jockeying for position to be a leader. Always the guy who wanted to be in a position where he could take a role and run with something.”
“Jeff was less interested in that, but he had his niches. I served on Judiciary (committee) with him, where all the hot box stuff is,’” Hart said
In short a good team for the class and the party, she said — a class that contained two other future senators, governors and lieutenant governors, a cabinet secretary and a House Majority Leader.
Politico reported the one time chums last communicated when Pence was in Arizona twice campaigning. The first time they met was at the airport, since Flake declined to attend a Trump-Pence campaign rally. The second time was when Pence campaigned at a church in Mesa, just east of Phoenix.
According to Politico, “Flake texted Pence to tweak him about campaigning less than a mile from Flake’s home. ‘Can you help me trim some hedges?’ Flake asked. Pence replied: ‘As long as we can carve in “Trump-Pence” in the hedge.’ Flake says he texted him back: ‘Small hedge. Only have room for “Pence.” ‘ ‘Ha, ha,’ Pence responded.”
So a glimmer of the friendship still was there.
Of course that may be extinguished if Flake challenges Trump in 2020 or runs as a third-party candidate, a scenario few believe will happen.
Or it may grow stronger if in 2020 or 2024, it is a Pence-Flake ticket.