Diego Union Tribune
October 20, 2004
Courting the Catholic voter
Battle intensifies in Ohio, other battleground states
By George E. Condon Jr.
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
LAKEWOOD, Ohio – They're skeptical of their own bishops, disappointed in the Democratic Party and indifferent to Sen. John Kerry's religion.
Still, many Roman Catholic voters in this part of perhaps the most hotly contested battleground state are leaning toward Kerry, who would be the second Catholic president.
But lengthy discussions with 30 Catholic voters in this suburb west of Cleveland suggest that the days of an overwhelming Catholic vote for Democrats are long gone.
With the help of religious voter guides being distributed at many parishes, President Bush is making inroads with his opposition to abortion and placing limits on funding for embryonic stem cell research.
Bush is having a tougher time persuading Catholics who cite the church's teachings on social justice and poverty. Many of those Catholics remain tied to Democratic moorings that in many families go back generations to Al Smith in 1928 and John F. Kennedy in 1960, the only other Catholics nominated for president by a major party.
In many ways, the last two weeks of this campaign will be a battle for Catholic voters such as those in Lakewood.
Totaling 64 million, Catholics are the ultimate swing voters in presidential elections. They have gone with the winner in every election since 1972, except for 2000 when 53 percent supported Democrat Al Gore.
"When you talk about voter groups, there aren't many bigger," said Jeff Jones, managing editor of the Gallup Poll, whose latest survey gives Bush an edge among white Catholics.
John Zogby, who polls Catholic voters for Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., said the Catholic vote has been remarkably volatile this year.
"It's been really fascinating," he said. "Kerry was leading by as much as 10 a couple of weeks ago among Catholics. Then Bush was leading by as much as 10. And now Kerry is up by around 8 or 9 points."
Zogby's numbers are for all Catholics, including Latinos. Like Gallup, he shows Bush narrowly ahead among white Catholics, who tend to vote in stronger numbers.
"Clearly, Kerry has got to win the Catholic vote in order to win the election," Zogby said. "These are the ethnic Reagan Democrats and they can swing back and forth depending on the economy. Will Kerry reach them on the economy and health care, or will Bush reach them on conservative values?"
Their political importance is heightened because so many of them live in states that are undecided.
Catholics make up 37 percent of the population in New Mexico, 32 percent in Wisconsin, 31 percent in Pennsylvania, 27 percent in New Hampshire, 26 percent in Nevada, 23 percent in Michigan and 20 percent in Ohio and Iowa.
In Lakewood, they are being wooed with competing voter guides at their parishes, not-so-subtle warnings from their pulpits and tugs at their consciences between one candidate who hews closely to church teachings on abortion issues and the other candidate who summons them to follow what bishops have said on war, the death penalty, poverty and social justice.
One of the most publicized voter guides this year is being distributed by the El Cajon-based group Catholic Answers.
Unlike guides that include the positions of U.S. bishops on a wide variety of issues, Catholic Answers only lists five issues that it calls "non-negotiable" – abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, cloning and gay marriage.
President Karl Keating of Catholic Answers estimated that 3 million Catholics would get his guide through their parishes and an additional 15 million through newspaper advertising.
A cross section of 30 Ohio Catholics agreed to meet in three focus groups organized by Copley News Service to discuss the election. They were in complete agreement on only two things – it hardly matters to them that Kerry shares their religion and they don't like it when their bishops or priests try to tell them which candidate to vote for.
Harry Hewitt, 53, who is in corporate real estate in nearby Rocky River, recalled going to a high school football game when he was growing up in Tennessee and seeing anti-Catholic "Kill the Fish Eaters" signs. Against that backdrop, he considered the election of Kennedy "an absolutely great, fantastic day."
But those days of bigotry are over, he said.
A Bush voter four years ago, he is switching to Kerry largely because of the deficit and the war in Iraq. He said the senator's Catholicism is irrelevant today.
"We were so proud because we were Catholic and he (Kennedy) was Irish," said Rosemarie Feighan DeJohn, 58, a county human resources worker. But today, she added, "It just doesn't matter."
John Myers, 43, a lawyer who lives in Cleveland, also said Kerry's religion is immaterial. But he acknowledged that some change would be welcome. "We've had nothing but Protestant presidents except for a thousand-day period," he said, referring to the number of days Kennedy was in office.
Larry Cirignano, executive director of the Boston-based Catholic Citizenship group, contends that Kerry's Catholicism hurts him with some Catholic voters.
"People jump out of their chairs when he calls himself a Catholic and then says he is pro-choice. It hurts him," said Cirignano, whose group is headed by Raymond Flynn, the former mayor of Boston and former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.
But none of the 30 Catholics in the focus group here agreed with Cirignano.
Asked about the bishops who have threatened to deny communion to Kerry because of his support for abortion rights, most of the 30 expressed anger. Part of that stems from continued discontent with the way their diocese handled the cases of more than 100 Cleveland-area priests alleged to have abused children.
"I'm just appalled that they would make a political statement," said Aggie Hoskin, 58, of Lakewood.
"It's none of their business," said Kathleen Minadeo, 41, a personnel clerk in Lakewood. "They can say what they want to say, but they can't tell me who to vote for."
Hewitt, a conservative who often votes for Republicans, agrees "unequivocally" with the bishops on abortion. But, he said, "I think the bishops should butt out."
Threatening to deny a sacrament, Myers said, "is wrong and completely unacceptable and outrageous."
Neil Huber, 65, a staunch Republican from Westlake who drives limousines, opposes abortion and supports Bush. But, he said, "I just don't think the pulpit is the right place for political speeches."
Citing the sex scandal, Kay Hodar, 66, a Cleveland retiree, said:
"When we were young, they told us how to live. They told us when to have children . . . And yet they were hiding all this garbage. Now, how can they tell us how to live if they were not honest and above board and protecting us?"
Kerry had strong support in this group. Patrick Sweeney, 65, a conservative former Democratic state representative who has broken with his party to vote for Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, now drives a car with bumper stickers promoting Kerry and Sen. George Voinovich, an Ohio Republican.
His disdain for Bush is so deep that he said he would vote for "Charles Manson if he were the (Democratic) nominee."
But even though he once served as the Democratic leader in the Ohio House, Sweeney is angry at his party and its treatment of Catholics. "I feel ostracized by the Democrats because of my positions, specifically (school) vouchers," he said.
He added that by letting the teachers unions set party policy, "The Democrats look incredibly anti-Catholic on vouchers."
Kerry's support of abortion rights also bothered several of these voters, including Hewitt. "Being a Catholic and going to a Catholic grade school, a Catholic high school and a Catholic university, I have a severe problem with pro-choice," he said.
But his unhappiness with Bush is so deep, particularly because of the deficit and his conduct of the war in Iraq, that Kerry will be the first Democrat he has voted for in seven presidential elections.
Myers said he will vote for the senator from Massachusetts but said he is disappointed in the Democratic Party for seeming to turn its back on Catholics. "Frankly, the Democratic Party has gone so extreme on the choice/life issue that it is almost like a litmus test for some Democrats."
Laura Olson, an expert on religion and politics at Clemson University, said many Catholics are voicing this complaint and feeling unwelcome in the party of their parents.
"An even more profound thing that Catholic voters are picking up is that the Democratic Party is casting itself as very much a secular party," she said. "They do have to be more open to the fact that there are a lot of voters out there who are open to religion."