‘Go fix those problems’: Why four Catholics are willing to serve in local public office 

‘Go fix those problems’: Why four Catholics are willing to serve in local public office 

Kansas State Senate President Susan Wagle. Credit: Kansas State Senate.
Kansas State Senate President Susan Wagle. Credit: Kansas State Senate.

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For 26 years, Kimberly Hahn homeschooled her six children. But once her youngest reached high school, he said he did not want to be home without peers and lonely.

And so, just two weeks before the homeschool year would have started, Kimberly and her husband Scott found themselves driving their last child to a Catholic boarding school in Pennsylvania.

“When we dropped him off and got home, I said to my husband: ‘Two weeks earlier I thought I was schooling for the year...what do I do now?’”

“And all he said was, ‘Maybe it's time for politics?’”

The Catholic faith of newly-confirmed Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett has been under intense scrutiny in the weeks leading up to her nomination, and even in years prior. In 2017, during her nomination hearing for the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, Barrett was told by Senator Dianne Feinstein that “the dogma lives loudly” within her, “and that’s of concern.”

But devout Catholic politicians exist at all levels of government, not just at the Supreme Court or in Congress.

CNA spoke with four Catholic politicians at the state or local level about why they chose to run, and how their faith has influenced their political careers. 

Politics was a long-time interest of Hahn’s, one that was first piqued when she was 12 and served as an honorary page to her grandmother, who was a state representative in the state of Washington.

“I saw my grandmother in action. It was very inspiring,” she said. Hahn, a Catholic, is now serving her fifth year and second term as Councilwoman at Large for the city of Steubenville, Ohio, which her family has called home for 30 years. Hahn is the only council member elected by the city, while the other six members are elected by their ward.

“When it comes to Steubenville, I feel like there's only so many times you can say, ‘Well, why doesn't somebody do something about X, Y, or Z?’ Then I realized if I ran for council, I could do something about that.”

Steubenville is a small, rustbelt city with a population of roughly 18,000, located 33 miles south of Pittsburgh on the banks of the Ohio River. The city is home to Franciscan University of Steubenville, which tends to draw many faithful Catholic students. Hahn said she is hoping her work on the city council will convince more faithful Catholic families to stay in Steubenville.

“I really want to help build up our community in very practical ways, so that more faith filled people want to move there and build up the community of faith,” she said.

And to do that, she added, “you need good housing, you need good roads, you need reasonable bills for water and sewer. You need a good police force. You need an active firefighting force, an ambulance service, good schools so that everybody has the option. Public, Catholic, Christian, homeschooling - all of those are great options in Steubenville.”

The hours a Steubenville city council member puts in during any given week vary incredibly - Hahn said she works anywhere between 10-50 hours per week, depending on what is happening in the city. She gets $100 a week as a stipend; it is not otherwise a paid position.

The flexibility suits Hahn, who is also an author, speaker, podcaster, mother to six and grandmother to 19.

As she spoke with CNA, she was on her way to help care for one of her newborn grandchildren. In a way, she said, she sees her role as a councilwoman as an extension of her motherhood.

“It's all about public service. It is not about fame and it's not about money,” she said.

“Really, for me, it's an extension of my motherhood, not in the sense of coddling, not in the sense of taking people's responsibility on myself, but in how I communicate the love of Christ in a practical way by helping people with their water bills and their sewer bills and having their streets be cleaner and that kind of thing.”

During her campaign, she knocked on 7,000 doors. She talked to everyone she could across the aisle. “And some people said ‘Well, I’m a lifelong Democrat.’ And I said, ‘That's okay, because if I get elected, I'm still going to represent you. What are your concerns?’”

One of the primary functions of a city council is to manage the city’s finances.

“Two years ago, for the first time in probably more than 20 years, we balanced the budget in the black,” Hahn said. They balanced in the black last year as well, and seem to be on track to do so this year, “even with all the COVID stress.”

“I love it,” she said of serving on the city council. “I find all of it fascinating. I really do. Reading about cathodic systems, about how often you should paint the inside of your water towers and what it takes to clean a digester or a plant - I actually find all of it fascinating.”

Kevin Duffy is a Catholic husband, father and freelance writer running for reelection for a second four-year term as a trustee of the Williamstown Township in Williamstown, Michigan.

“We're the legislative arm of the townships. We don't have day-to-day responsibilities, in terms of operation of township government, but we serve as a voice for constituents and a representative of the constituents. It's like a smaller version of state legislature or Congress,” he told CNA.

The duties of a township trustee are not too time-consuming, he said.  “It's one or two meetings a month, depending on what time of year it is,” he said. Sometimes it’s more, like during budget review. He receives a yearly stipend of about $5,000 for the position.

Before he ran for a township position, Duffy served in an appointed position on his county Parks and Recreation commission.

After an upbringing that “wasn’t great,” Duffy said he wanted to live a life of fulfillment and purpose for himself and for his family. His job pays the bills, he said, but he finds meaning and purpose in life outside of work - in spending time with his wife and children, in service to the Church, and in serving his community.

“It was...a desire to have an impact in my community. Your local government structure, like your school board or your city council, or in my case, our township board, has more of an impact on what happens in your everyday life than anything that happens beyond that,” he said.

A stark example of that in American life right now has been how each state has responded differently to the coronavirus pandemic, he noted.

“The decisions of our state government have a huge impact, at least here in Michigan, on how our everyday life is during this pandemic.”

Duffy said he is proud that as a township trustee, he helped bring back bus services to Northeast Ingham County.

“(O)ur local public transportation authority decided to cut service to those of us here (in) Northeast Ingham County,” he said.

“But there were people that did depend on it. There were folks that needed that to get downtown for jobs, or they needed that to get to their doctor's appointments or whatever it may be,” he said.

“So, I wrote an op-ed and submitted to the Lansing State Journal and it got published.”

Within four or five months, transportation authorities had restored at least some of the bus services to the area.

“That was something I was proud of,” he said. “That was the one spot where I was able to help out a little bit.”

When it comes to Catholics being involved in civic life, Duffy said he would point them to Pope St. John Paul II’s oft-repeated phrase, “Be not afraid.”

“It can be a little scary, but we have a responsibility, and we as Catholics understand the idea of the common good, the need to serve everybody,” he said.

“We're not called to be Republicans. We're not called to be Democrats. We're not called to be Libertarian. We're called to be Christian, and we're called to be servants of our fellow man, and to perpetuate the common good. I think that's something that we need to get back to.”

Carlos Santamaria is a lifelong Catholic who is running for a state senate position for California's 3rd district.

Santamaria had previously served as the vice chair for the Napa County Republican Party, but he said he felt called to do more after attending a leadership conference in Jerusalem last November.

“I spent over a week in the Holy City. And if that isn’t life changing, I don’t know what is,” he told CNA.

He decided to run for state senate, “especially when I came back and I found there were seven Democrats (in the state legislature) that were running unopposed.”

“I just wanted to represent my district. It was a calling. And I see so many anti-religious, anti-Catholic, anti-life (politicians),” he said, that he wanted to help bring about change.

One particular area of focus for Santamaria’s campaign is helping the homeless population. He plans “to use workforce development and career technical education to provide lifelong jobs and permanent housing” to people experiencing homelessness, and “to reintroduce these individuals into society before they go off the cliff into extreme, episodic homelessness, or chronic homelessness,” he said. 

He also wants to bolster small businesses, particularly those that are experiencing significant losses due to coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions.

“The current unnecessary Lock Down of our economy and small businesses has devastated many businesses and the lives of families in California,” Santamaria’s website says. “We need leadership that understands and supports small business rather than destroy them.”

Santamaria said he is strongly pro-life and pro-family, and that he plans on standing up for those issues, should he be elected.

“God put me here for a reason. If I can't express my feelings about life and about the sanctity and the value of life, then I'm not using my talents and this platform the way I should,” he said.

Senator Susan Wagle has been president of the Kansas State Senate for the past eight years, and she was the first woman to hold the post. She has served in positions in both the state house and senate for the past 30 years.

A Catholic convert, Wagle joined the Catholic Church the same year she was first elected to the Kansas House - in 1991.

Wagle said she had been a teacher and a business owner who had not considered running for political office, but both her business colleagues and her husband kept telling her that she would make a great legislator.

There were important issues at the time, Wagle said, including rapidly increasing property taxes. She said she actually tried to convince other people she knew to run for office at the time, but nobody wanted to sacrifice the time.

The thing that kept Wagle up at night was not property taxes, but the late-term abortion clinic in her hometown of Wichita.

“When I'd lay my head down on that pillow at night, I could actually hear those babies cry from the Tiller clinic down the street,” she said.

“I could just hear the slaughter down the street in my mind, and I thought, ‘that has to stop.’”

George Tiller was the abortion doctor at the clinic, and it was one of the only clinics in the world at the time that was performing third trimester, post-viability abortions.

Wagle said she had unwittingly walked into the clinic years prior, earlier in her marriage when she thought she was pregnant. The clinic advertised free pregnancy tests, and these were the days before over-the-counter tests.

As she waited for her test results, she was counseled to get an abortion. Wagle said she noticed a world map on the wall that had yellow pins all over it. When she asked what the pins were for, she was told that they represented the women from all over the world that the clinic had come to the clinic.

“And as years later, I learned that the reason people were traveling here from around the world was because other countries didn't allow third trimester abortion,” Wagle said.

Wagle was elected to the Kansas House of Representatives in 1991. By 1997, Wagle had helped to pass the Women’s Right to Know Act, which was the first law regulating abortion in the state.

“I carried it. We had a pro-choice house and pro-choice Senate. So I was able to advocate that we need informed consent for a late term abortion, that women should be informed about fetal development, about the procedure. And so I passed the first pro-life bill in the state of Kansas,” she said.

“And since then, we've passed more regulations. But when I went into the legislature, the money from the abortion industry financed most of the legislators. So it was a challenge.”

Looking back on her years of service, Wagle said she believes it was a calling from God, and that she has learned much about how to get along with many different people of all backgrounds.

“I've learned our faith is based on our relationship with God, and then we bring it to those who surround us,” she said.

“I've learned how to work with people who are very different than me, who have different experiences, different perspectives. And you learn how to be very relational and very kind and very optimistic about the founding principles that we’re based on and combined with the faith that we are a people created by God,” she said.

“And there's no better founding documents in all the world that have allowed the progress and the development of the human spirit than America,” she added.

Wagle, like Justice Barrett, is the mother of seven children - four of her own, and three of her husbands from a previous marriage. She said she sees Barrett as a woman of faith who is living up to her full potential.

“Amy is reaching her full potential. She's a mom, she's adopted children, she's pursued a career, and she has made it very clear that she will interpret the law and not write new laws. And she's the perfect advocate and voice for this moment in history,” she said, “...and we've seen where her faith is not a conflict, but that her faith makes her a very strong, successful woman.”

Wagle said she continuously relied on her own faith throughout her time in office. She said while she set aside specific times for prayer, she would also pray silently during meetings or legislative sessions. Prayers like “Lord, I need you right now” or “Please speak through me” or “Please help me to articulate this thought.”

“It was a constant reaching out for assistance,” she said.

Wagle encouraged Catholics who feel called to serve in public office to pursue that path, if they see changes that need to be made and if the right doors are being opened.

“Don't hide from public office. We need people who have our values in public office as our advocates. So I would say pursue the path and listen to that still, small voice that says, ‘Go fix those problems.’”

Tags: Politics, Catholic News, 2020 Election

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