Mike Pence may be a Republican congressman from Indiana, but his roots are firmly in the Irish Catholic Democratic tradition. Pence’s father was the son of an Irish immigrant who came of age in fifties and sixties America. Naturally, it was a big deal when John F. Kennedy became the first Irish Catholic president. In fact, according to one profile of Pence, he still has a boxful of JFK memorabilia. Of course, since the days of Camelot, the Pence family has changed and Irish America has changed. Pence, for one, became an evangelical Christian. He also abandoned his family’s Democratic roots and, as so many Irish Americans did, supported Ronald Reagan and joined the GOP. Today, Pence, is the third most powerful Republican in the House of Representatives. And today, Pence’s party has some tough choices to make, specifically when it comes to immigration. This will surely be a hot issue come 2010, when Peter King or another Republican must articulate a Republican immigration policy when they run against Kirsten Gillibrand for the Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton. For now, there are signs that the Republicans may remain a party with no clear message for immigrants, their children or even their grandchildren, who have settled in the heavily ethnic Catholic enclaves of New York and New Jersey as well as crucial swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. This was evident in a long analysis of the Republican Party and former GOP leader Newt Gingrich that appeared in this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. The article basically said that there is a significant group in the Republican Party that believes the GOP has failed not because it is too harsh, but too “soft on immigration” and other issues conservatives hold dear. “This intramural disagreement raises basic questions for Republicans about what kind of party they actually want to be in the 21st century. Is the Republican future going to continue to rely on country-club denizens and the rural bloc, or should it aim more for working-class Catholics or recent immigrants?” Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this article, though, is that a towering figure such as Gingrich “seems to have decided not to choose sides in this debate.” Pence, on the other hand, has become an interesting voice on the immigration debate. Initially, he was one of those Irish Americans comfortable evoking his immigrant roots even as he argued that we should have a more restrictive immigration policy. In 2005, while debating an immigration measure, Pence said, “As the grandson of an Irish immigrant, I believe in the ideals that are enshrined on the Statue of Liberty in New York City Harbor. America has always and will always be a welcoming nation, welcoming under the law any and all with courage enough to come to this shining City on a Hill.” Then came the inevitable “but.” “But a nation without borders is not a nation.” Pence then went on to discuss the litany of problems which immigrants, legal or not, supposedly cause. This, of course, put Pence squarely in the mainstream of the Republican Party. At the time, in the wake of George W. Bush’s 2004 victory over John Kerry, this seemed a safe place to be. But Pence’s voice became an important one in the debate over immigration. He spoke to many groups (including the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform) and tried to carve out a more moderate compromise position on an emotional topic. In this sense, again, Pence’s journey as an Irish American is an important one. Pence has since become the House chairman of the Republican Conference, making him essentially the third most powerful Republican in the House of Representatives, after Eric Cantor (minority whip) and John Boehner (minority leader). So assessing where Pence stands on the issue of immigration is an important gauge of where the Republicans will be going on this issue. Last week, Congressional Quarterly noted that Pence is “urging the GOP to move away from its strict opposition to granting eventual legal status to undocumented workers.” Pence himself said, “I broke from House conservatives to promote a compromise bill on immigration. I still hope we can find middle ground.” In the wake of Barack Obama’s historic presidential win, the Republican Party must continue soul searching if it is to emerge as a stronger national party. It took a step forward in naming African American Michael Steele as party chairman. Of course, what did Steele do this week? Apologize to radio firebrand Rush Limbaugh. That’s probably a step back. (Contact Sidewalks at tomdeignan@verizon.net)

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