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Issue Date:  June 16, 2006

Democrats seek to woo Catholics back to the fold


In the not too distant past it would have been redundant for the Democratic National Committee to hire a “Catholic Outreach” coordinator. Those duties -- negotiating with a powerful cardinal, lining up support from an influential union leader, getting out the big-city vote -- were handled by party chairman whose names (Farley, Flynn, Hannegan, Boyle, McGrath, McKinney, Bailey, O’Brien) read like roll call at an Ancient Order of Hibernians meeting.

Today, however, the creation of such a job is considered not only pragmatically essential but symbolically important, a mea culpa of sorts for neglecting the white ethnics once core to the Democratic base.

A Catholic outreach director will be hired by the Democratic National Committee as early as this month, rounding out an inside-the-beltway religious organizing team at the party’s Capitol Hill headquarters that includes staffers devoted to promoting the party’s message to Muslims, African-American churches, mainline Protestants and Jews.

It’s the latest indication, say some observers, that Democrats have learned a key lesson of John Kerry’s failed 2004 presidential campaign. “I’m very encouraged that the Democratic Party seems more open and amendable to being inclusive and welcoming to pro-life Democrats like me,” said Raymond Flynn, former mayor of Boston and Bill Clinton’s ambassador to the Vatican. “They’ve been far more receptive this year than anytime I can recall.”

“The last cycle was a wake-up call,” said Leslie Brown, coordinator of the national committee’s “faith in action” effort. “When you lose [the Catholic vote] with a Catholic candidate then you’ve got to go back” and address the problem, she said.

Kerry lost the white Catholic vote to President Bush by 13 points, and by an even greater margin in the key swing state of Ohio. Which is why Brown and her boss, committee chair Howard Dean, are not the only Democrats thinking about Catholics:

  • Among 1,224 white Catholics surveyed Feb. 23-May 25 on their preferences for the House of Representatives, 48 percent favor Democrats, while 42 percent favor Republicans, according to Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner polling data. That’s a 14 point shift from 2004, when Republican candidates outpolled Democrats among white Catholics by an 8 percent margin. Democrats need to pick up 15 seats to control the House for the first time since 1994.
  • Anxious to retake the closely divided Senate, pro-choice Democratic leaders such as New York Sen. Charles Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, recruited Pennsylvania’s popular pro-life state treasurer, Robert Casey, to challenge two-term incumbent Rick Santorum. Casey leads Santorum 49-36 percent, with 12 percent undecided, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released in early May.
  • Party leaders put Virginia’s new Catholic governor, Timothy Kaine, out front in January. “Our faith and values teach us that there’s no higher calling than serving others,” Kaine said in his nationally televised response to the president’s State of the Union address. On the stump in his 2005 gubernatorial campaign Kaine spoke frequently of how his faith influenced his policy positions.
  • Catholic Democrats in the House of Representatives, both pro-life and pro-choice, issued a “Statement of Catholic Principles” Feb. 28 ( NCR, March 10). “We envision a world in which every child belongs to a loving family and agree with the Catholic church about the value of human life and the undesirability of abortion,” said the statement, signed by 55 House Democrats. “Each of us is committed to reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies and creating an environment with policies that encourage pregnancies to be carried to term. We believe this includes promoting alternatives to abortion, such as adoption, and improving access to children’s health care and child-care, as well as policies that encourage paternal and maternal responsibility.”

The Catholic House Democrats were responding to prominent members of the American hierarchy who challenged the pro-choice Kerry’s Catholic credentials in 2004 and, at least by implication, their own standing as Catholics. “It was in response to a characterization of the Catholic members [of Congress] as basically sinners and nonbelievers, which is not true,” Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D-Texas) told a May 10 forum hosted by the liberal Center for American Progress on “How Catholic Progressives View the Role of Faith in Governance.”

“If you’re a public official for any appreciable amount of time there will come a time when there will be public policy issues that will conflict ... with a particular teaching of the Catholic church,” said Gonzalez.

Mining for ‘values voters’

The evolving Democratic strategy to win the Catholic vote is based on two pillars: engage, and hopefully diffuse, the debate over abortion and other hot-button social issues while simultaneously broadening the discussion over “values” to include issues such as health care, education, the environment, wages, corporate greed, public corruption, and immigration.

Catholic Democrats are “very responsive to a broad initiative to reduce unwanted pregnancies and the number of abortions” even when offered by a pro-choice legislator, pollster Stanley Greenberg said in a March 2005 memo titled “Reclaiming the White Catholic Vote.” (Greenberg, incidentally, is married to Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., primary author of the “Statement of Catholic Principles.”)

Democratic polling, said the Democratic National Committee’s Brown, demonstrates that “the wedge issues from the last [election] cycle are not what most values-voters identify with.” That doesn’t mean that these voters “don’t have an opinion” on the social issues, said Brown, but that issues such as health care, the economy and Iraq now trump the social policy concerns.

Further, wrote Greenberg, while division among white Catholics “is an invitation for Republicans to take their cultural war to a new level ... there is no reason why Democrats should fail to battle for the dislodged Catholic voters. These voters can be won back, both with reassurance on values and security and a broader agenda that recognizes Catholic support for tolerance, progress, a strong family and a strong middle class.”

Dealing with the hierarchy

It’s one thing, say Democratic strategists, to reach out to Catholics in the pews, quite another to placate vocal members of the hierarchy and conservative Catholic opinion-shapers who used their pulpits in 2004 to challenge Kerry and other pro-choice Catholic office seekers. Party officials are still spooked by Kerry’s run-ins with high-profile bishops and by attacks from the conservative Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights against two operatives hired during the campaign.

In early August 2004, the Rev. Brenda Bartella Peterson was forced out of her post as the national committee’s director of religious outreach after the League revealed she had joined 31 other religious leaders in filing a friend of the court brief in support of removing “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. Previously, the Kerry campaign silenced religious outreach coordinator Mara Vanderslice after the Catholic League issued news releases that labeled her soft on anti-Catholicism because she had engaged in civil disobedience with, among others, the AIDS activist organization, Act-UP.

The tangling continues.

Speaking at the International Congress on Churches in Mexico City in November 2005, San Antonio Archbishop Jose Gomez said, “This debate stopped being an abstraction when in the last presidential election one of the candidates was a Catholic who calls himself devout and who has, however, defended the most radical positions in favor of abortion.” Continued Gomez, “Catholic cannot say that he is Catholic, and at the same time disagree with the doctrine of the church in essential matters. In order to be a Catholic, we need to believe like a Catholic, to act like a Catholic and to speak like a Catholic.”

No wonder Gonzalez was nervous when scheduled to meet with Gomez.

“We have a new archbishop in San Antonio,” Gonzalez, referring to Gomez, told the May 10 panel on Catholic progressives. “It took me about three months to get up the courage to sit there with him and discuss things because I knew that I was basically not on the ‘right side’ of three major issues. The good news is that we spent very little time on one of those issues and then spent a lot of time on immigration, [where] obviously I’m right in line with the Catholic church.”

The debate over immigration legislation has provided an opening for Democrats anxious to align themselves with the church hierarchy when they can. Case in point, the April 28 visit of Cardinals Roger Mahony and Theodore McCarrick with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Catholic Sens. Edward Kennedy and Richard Durbin. “We need the church’s voice now as much as ever to urge Congress and the president to get the job done -- and to do it in a way that upholds our best values and traditions as a nation of immigrants,” Kennedy told the press following that meeting. (Later that day Mahony and McCarrick, joined by Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, met with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and held a similar news conference.)

The Democrats’ delicate dance with the hierarchy is evident in the hiring of the national committee’s Catholic outreach coordinator.

“We need someone who will not alienate the institutional church,” said a Democrat familiar with the hiring process. “Someone with credibility who understands how to organize within the church and understands the politics of [the church] and is able to navigate through that while also understanding the complexity of the issues in the Democratic Party.”

Meanwhile, with decidedly Democratic roots but a nonpartisan mission, the newly-formed “Catholic Alliance for the Common Good” hopes to take the message promoted by the American bishops in their 2003 statement on “Faithful Citizenship” to a broader audience. That statement, which reiterated Catholic social justice teaching in light of a range of contemporary issues, was generally welcomed by Democrats. It was, however, supplanted in many dioceses by a pamphlet distributed by the conservative group “Catholic Answers” which emphasized the “nonnegotiable issues,” foremost among them abortion, on which Catholic voters should base their votes.

“We hope to promote the ‘faithful citizenship’ agenda, especially as we move into the next election cycle,” said David O’Brien, professor of history at Holy Cross College and an Alliance board member. Other board members include Elizabeth Bagley, former Clinton administration ambassador to Portugal and a major Democratic fundraiser; former Hillary Clinton chief of staff (and former NCR board member) Melanne Verveer; former U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops associate general secretary Frank Doyle; and Pax Christi USA executive director David Robinson.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, June 16, 2006   [corrected 06/30/2006]

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