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Why Irish American vote is more important than ever

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Niall O'Dowd / Who speaks for Irish America / Click here

Recently in The Irish Times writer Niall Stanage declared the demise of the Irish vote in America.

Stanage, from a Unionist background, may be working with an image of an earlier time, when all Irish American political needs were met by political dynasties, the Kennedys, the O'Neills, the Dodds, and in Chicago, the Daleys.

If that is what he is talking about then he is correct. That era has long since passed and the nature of American politics has changed.

The Irish vote is now part of what politicians and American political parties refer to as the "Catholic vote." This vote is primarily Irish American, with the Italians a close second.

This "Catholic vote" is the single most important vote in deciding American presidential elections. It is the famous swing vote which President Bill Clinton commanded in two elections and was the reason Gore lost Ohio and the presidency.

It is carefully monitored and polled by both political parties, and there are several consultancy agencies in Washington whose sole function is to chart this group of voters.

Why are the Irish crucial in these swing states? What we know is that they have inherited an Irish cultural tradition from the days of the Irish political machine. They vote.

Stanage's claim that the Irish vote "does not matter very much" would come as a surprise to Congressman Joseph Crowley of Queens, New York. He has less than 20% Irish in his district and yet they account for 45% of his vote. The other ethnic groups in his district are reluctant to vote.

With the margins of victory getting narrower, particularly in local elections, the constituent who can be relied on to vote is the one most wooed.

Governor Martin O'Malley was elected mayor of Baltimore which has a 70% black population. These are just two of many congressional members who rely on the Irish vote to provide the winning margin.

Of course, Crowley, O'Malley and Congressman Richard Neal, chairman of the Congressional Friends of Ireland, and the other congressional members who recently returned from a congressional delegation visit to Ireland, would be very surprised to hear that they do not "consciously think of themselves as Irish." They, along with their constituents are involved in more areas of Irish life and culture than can be listed here.

The other inherited characteristic of the Irish American voter is they relish participatory politics. In the 2006 congressional elections, the Democrats gained 31 new seats. Of these, 15 were Irish Americans.

In 2008, the Democrats added another 20 new seats. Of these, nine were Irish Americans.

Irish American Democrats, the group that I founded, gave money and/or organized fundraisers, for each of these newly elected congressional members. We are currently "grooming" 10 aspiring politicians in their twenties to run for congressional seats.

To what extent do crucial Irish American voters "consciously think of themselves as Irish?" Obviously the thousands of Irish Americans in 50 states who have contributed millions of dollars through Irish American Democrats’ Political Action Committee over the past 13 years consciously think of themselves as Irish.

No politicians have received more from Irish America than the Clintons. At one St. Patrick's Day breakfast Irish American Democrats raised $200,000 for the election of Hillary Clinton to the Senate.

As was commonly reported, Irish Americans raised millions for the election bid of Senator Clinton for the Presidency. One of our own, Declan Kelly, was at the very top of Senator Clinton's list of fundraisers.

Irish American Democrats unabashedly support candidates for office who promote peace, justice and prosperity in Ireland. We engage our candidates in discussions on how they can most use their influence to further Irish culture in the U.S.

And yes, we make no apology for our great concern that 50,000 Irish are working without documentation in America. We plan to use all of our influence, in cooperation with Hispanics and other ethnic groups, to promote the immigration bill that President Obama expects to introduce in January.

Twenty-seven European, Arab and Asian American political groups are represented in the Ethnic Coordinating Committee of the national Democratic Party. Of these 27 ethnic groups, Irish America has far and away the greatest number of representatives on Capitol Hill.

To illustrate the importance of the vote in American elections, blacks account for 13% of the American population and they have just one Senate member; Jews are 9% of the population and they have 11 senators.

Of the 100 member Senate body, Irish Americans represent one-fifth or 21 senators. At meetings of the Ethnic Coordinating Committee, the other ethnic groups regularly express their envy of Irish America and our ability to elect Irish to political office.

The unions are the financial backbone of the Democratic Party. The majority by far of these unions are headed by Irish Americans, including the president of the AFL/CIO, John Sweeney.

Along with their donations to the Democratic Party every one of these union heads contributes generously to Irish American organizations, including Irish American Democrats and the American Ireland Fund.

The campaign for the governorship of New Jersey is one of the two important political contests in 2009. As I write I am taking time away from the Irish Americans for Corzine campaign.

If Governor Jon Corzine of New Jersey retains his seat in November it will be because he got the Irish vote. If Stanage has any remaining doubt about the importance of the Irish vote he should contact the Corzine campaign and ask them their opinion on it.

On the question of the Irish American media, they are our partners in the mission to promote Ireland in America. Irish America magazine’s and Irish Voice awards to the Top 100 Irish Americans, the top Irish American lawyers, women, academics and business leaders give unprecedented profile to the achievement of the Irish in America. I remember one award ceremony, in which an Olympic medal winner said she was more proud to receive the Irish American of the Year award than to receive the Olympic Medal.

Stanage is now, thankfully, in a minority of critics of Irish America who insist on rehashing the ubiquitous image of the Irish as St. Patrick's Day drunks. Witness the line in his Irish Times piece in which he quotes Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College in New York, as saying, “I would imagine that the only time a lot of those (43 million) people consciously think of themselves as Irish is when they drink to excess” on St. Patrick’s Day.”

For those who are more in tune with modern Irish America, that image is $1,000 a plate dinners for 1,000 people at the American Ireland Fund. These dinners honor Irish American politicians and celebrities.

The millions raised at these events fund university programs, community programs and other social programs in Ireland. This level of financial giving and celebration of Ireland hardly qualifies for Stanage's description of Irish America as “nothing more than smoke and mirrors."

The huge interest in Ireland described here provides a boost to Irish businesses seeking to enter the American market. Many of those honored by Irish America magazine, like Tom Moran of Mutual of America, not only look to encourage Irish business in America, but also reach out a helping hand to young native Irish entering the business world in America.

The suggestion by Stanage that those of us who work with Irish American politicians, business leaders and academics are an obstacle to Irish American relations is so ludicrous as to be unworthy of comment.

Maybe it is time for the Irish at home to start giving back. How about a Top 100 Irish Americans awarded in Dublin? We here would much appreciate such a gesture.

Instead of criticism and scorn, is it time to say thank you to the Irish American politicians, the Clintons, the union leaders and the many, many people who are working here in projects to promote Ireland.

If more honors were handed out in Dublin, rather than New York, then maybe the Irish would be better acquainted with the goodwill, generosity and constructive role that Irish America plays.

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