The Other Green Vote

Parties Vie for Support of Irish Americans

Posted March 16, 2004 at 6:21pm

When Ed Gillespie was elected chairman of the Republican National Committee in July 2003, he made a point of highlighting his Irish heritage and his father’s rise from a poor immigrant to a successful small-business owner.

His Irish roots have since become a standard theme in Gillespie’s speeches, and when he talks about tax cuts or “wealth creation,” the RNC chairman frequently cites a message the Irish government posted on ships that ferried immigrants to the United States during the potato famine of the mid-1800s.

“It read, in part, ‘In the remote parts of America an industrious youth may follow any occupation without being looked down upon or sustain loss of character and he may rationally expect to raise himself in the world by his labor,” Gillespie said in separate speeches delivered in Arkansas, Delaware, North Carolina and Virginia over the past five months. “Wealth is not idolized, but there is not degradation connected with labor. On the contrary, it is honorable and held in general estimation.”

The RNC chairman, who is scheduled to march in the 243rd New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade today, acknowledges that persuading Irish Americans to vote to re-elect President Bush and support Republican candidates is one of his top priorities.

“It is a vote we care very much about,” Gillespie said.

There are more than 34 million people living in the United States who claim Irish ancestry, according to data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau, and Republicans are trying in particular to encourage conservative Irish-American Democrats to back Bush in November by suggesting that their politics are more in line with the GOP’s economic and social goals than with the Democratic agenda.

“I think you hear the president talk about personal responsibility, family, faith and entrepreneurial spirit,” said Kevin Madden, a spokesman for the Bush-Cheney re-election committee. “Legions of Irish Americans came to this country simply because they wanted a piece of the American dream — own a home, raise a family and build a better life. Those themes are the foundation of the president’s agenda.”

Francis Duggan, co-chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based National Assembly of Irish American Republicans, described these targeted voters as “Reagan Democrats,” a group comprised in part of Irish, Italian and Polish Americans whose support is credited with helping elect President Ronald Reagan in 1980.

“We are going to be reaching out to a lot of the people that the Democrats seem to ignore,” Duggan said. “The military, law enforcement and civil servants.”

But Democrats said they have no plans to overlook the Irish-American vote and argue that their party and presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), has a long history of championing issues considered important to the Irish community.

“I think that Kerry will do very well with Irish Americans largely because they want to vote Democrat and they are probably not only going to consider security in terms of defense but also in terms of economic status,” said Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), a leading voice on Irish issues. “I think as the election season plays out, the success the Irish have had in America in terms of economic achievement and education achievement is almost unparalleled, and they are aware who helped them in their steep climb.”

While much was made last year about Kerry’s assumed Irish heritage, his Democratic supporters note the Massachusetts Senator represents a state with a large Irish-American population and has learned at the elbow of a man who is an icon in that community, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). The election of Kennedy’s brother, John F. Kennedy, to the presidency in 1960 was a galvanizing political moment for most Irish Americans.

“I know there is some issue about whether [Kerry] is Irish or not,” said Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), a leading spokesman on Ireland. “But he cut his political teeth in a state that is known for its Irish-American politicians.”

While most observers expect Kerry to carry the states with major Irish population centers — such as California, Illinois, Massachusetts and New York — in November, both parties are focusing their outreach efforts on the 17 battleground states that are expected to determine the outcome of the presidential election. The Irish rank as one of the top three ethnic groups in each of these states, according to the Census Bureau.

Susan Davis, president of the National Assembly of Irish American Republicans, said she expects her organization and affiliated groups to raise and spend $1 million this year to help get Bush re-elected.

“We obviously are going to focus on the places where it would make a difference,” Davis said. “Less in New York City and more in Florida, for example. You are going to focus on states where you are going to make a difference.”

There are more than 1.9 million people who claim Irish ancestry in Florida alone, ground zero of the 2000 presidential election.

Not to be outdone, the Washington, D.C.-based Irish American Democrats have already sketched out a plan that focuses their campaign efforts on Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia and, should California emerge as a tossup, in that state as well.

“Those are the immediate states where we feel there is a large Irish community,” said Stella O’Leary, president of the group. “We are going to campaign for [Kerry] on an independent expenditure basis.”

In Pennsylvania, 2.1 million people describe their ethnic background as Irish, and next door in Ohio, 1.6 million people claim Irish ancestry. Both Pennsylvania and Ohio have been hit hard by the sluggish economy, and Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said he intends to target Irish-American voters not only in these two states but also several other battlegrounds.

Using its elaborate voter-identification system, McAuliffe said the DNC will send targeted mailings to Irish Americans penned by “prominent Irish American politicians” comparing Kerry and Bush on issues of interest as the campaign progresses.

“Obviously, the Irish vote is absolutely critical,” said McAuliffe, who was named Irish American Democrat of the year in 2000 by O’Leary’s organization.

Still, observers of Irish-American political culture note that Democrats no longer have a lock on that vote — an absolute given at the turn of the 20th century when immigrants owed their jobs and votes to powerful ward bosses.

Now, in addition to weighing a candidate’s domestic priorities, many Irish Americans also want to see an expressed interest in how a future president is going to help foster and maintain peace in Northern Ireland.

Kerry recently fired the first volley on the Northern Ireland issue when his campaign criticized Bush’s alleged lack of involvement in helping to bring the warring factions to the negotiating table.

“John Kerry believes that President Bush has failed to recognize the importance of building on the work of President [Bill] Clinton in facilitating the peace process,” the statement read. “There was not a U.S. ambassador in Ireland in more than a year. President Bush’s lack of urgency in naming a new ambassador to Ireland and the absence of presidential involvement in efforts to further the peace process are clear evidence that Ireland is not a high priority for the Bush administration.”

Kerry’s statement also called for the Democratic Unionist Party to work with its arch rival, Sinn Fein, and for the Irish Republican Army to “take further substantive measures” to hand over their arms. The Massachusetts Senator’s declaration received praise from within the Irish American community, according to Niall O’Dowd, publisher of the Irish Voice, an Irish-American newspaper.

“It has been perceived as very positive,” O’Dowd said. “You have got to remember just a few years ago we had a problem of getting the attention of any American politician.”

But O’Dowd noted that Bush has appointed two well-respected men to serve in the role of special envoy to Northern Ireland, Richard Haass, who has since resigned to become president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Mitchell Reiss.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) described Kerry’s statement as a “total fraud,” a charge that was echoed by Rep. Jim Walsh (R-N.Y.). Both Members are influential players on Irish issues.

“I have never seen John Kerry at any Irish event,” King said. “To me there is not one thing to be criticized” in Bush’s handling of the Northern Ireland situation. “That shows me how little he knows about the Irish peace process.”

But Neal defended Kerry’s decision to release the statement and questioned Bush’s commitment to the Northern Ireland issue before he was elected president.

“I think John Kerry was asked a question and he had to respond,” Neal said. “I am not sure that until George Bush was president he was ever at any Irish event either.”

Noting that it was former President Clinton who jump-started the Northern Ireland peace talks, McAuliffe charged that there never has been a Republican president who has exhibited a similar commitment.

“Name me one Republican president that has endeared himself on the Irish issue,” McAuliffe charged.

As both parties scramble to try to appeal to Irish voters, Ray O’Hanlon, a senior editor at the Irish Echo, an Irish-American newspaper, said if a candidate is able to “tap into that well of emotion with regard to Ireland … it could do you some good.”

“If you hit it right, it will gush for you,” O’Hanlon said.