Although not often mentioned on the campaign trail, the Irish are key to winning elections in the United States for two reasons: they love politics and they get out and vote. That’s according to Irish American Democrat Stella O’Leary.
Earlier this week O’Leary, a native Dubliner, was joined by the former US coraprirespondent for the Irish Times Conor O'Clery for a fireside chat, hosted by the Clinton Institute of University College Dublin and the Irish Network Dublin. The event took place in the beautiful Royal Hibernian Institute. Their lively and engaging discussion, “The American Presidential Election and its Relevance to Ireland,” touched on the topics of, among others, immigration reform in the United States and why it is that that the Republican Party is seeing such a show of support.
O’Leary’s career in politics began in 1995 when she was asked to “organize” a group Irish Americans who had banded together to ensure that Bill Clinton was reelected. The group feared that the Irish Peace Process might fail if he were not. This was the start of the Irish American Democrats, the first Irish political action group in the United States.
“It was unbelievable,” O’Leary said. “There were 35 Jewish political action committees. I went to find out how could this be and the reason is very interesting – the Irish never needed one. When they had a political question or favor they needed they simply got on the phone to Senator Kennedy, or Senator Leahy, or Chris Dodd…” Her list continued.
Over the years O’Leary has worked in Irish American politics from local elections to various presidential campaigns and now, under President Obama, as well as continuing in her role as the Irish American Democrats Founder she is among the Observers to the International Fund for Ireland.
O'Clery began their discussion by reminiscing on his career as a “pencil” (print journalist), touring the country with various presidential hopefuls from Ronald Reagan to George W Bush. He remarked on the fact that even on the road with Bill Clinton and Massachusetts’ Senator Edward Kennedy the Irish question was never raised. He asked O’Leary why is it that the “Irish vote” continues to be of importance in US Presidential elections and if Irish Americans were simply inclined to vote for candidates due to their cultural and economic policy.
“There's no question that on cultural issues the Irish American Diaspora is more interested in their heritage, I would say, apart from the Jewish people, they are the most interested in their heritage of any of the groups in the United States,” O’Leary replied.
“As you know [34.7 million] claim Irish heritage, but that wouldn't necessarily come out in political dialogue. From my point of view, at a certain point the Irish divided and they are now as far as Congress goes about 50% Republicans and 50% Democrats.
“The reason that they are so important to politicians in America is that they’re terrific voters. The Irish have a history of voting and right now, using computers, they can calculate, or estimate, exactly who's voting.”
She went on to illustrate the power of the Irish by using the example of Congressman Joe Crowley from Queens.
“Crowley has in his constituency, he has 18% Irish, in his Queens district. His vote come election is 45% Irish that's because the others are not voting, the Indians and Afghans and so forth. The Irish vote and so they're very important to American politicians. That holds for both sides,” said O’Leary.
“They're also very highly represented in Congress on both sides. Far more than other ethnic groups. One in four are Irish.”
This April the Irish American Democrats pledged their backing for Hillary Clinton’s campaign as the Democratic Candidate. It seems that Martin O’Malley, despite being a close personal friend of O’Leary’s, was out of luck. Last week O’Malley, former Mayor of Baltimore and Governor of Maryland, was in Washington DC to see a new group launched, “Irish Americans for O’Malley,” in a bid to rally Irish support.
However, the latest poll, reported by CBS, from South Carolina, shows O’Malley at just one percent with Hillary soaring at 69%, and Bernie Sanders in at 21%.
Although she spoke fondly of O’Malley, whom she worked closely with in the past, O’Leary said, “I would not even put him in the same category as Hillary Clinton when it comes to running for President. I don't think he has the international reputation or the connections or the background that Hillary has.”
She added, “A friend of Ireland is not necessarily somebody with an Irish name. It can be somebody who is capable of doing more for Ireland than another.”
The polls don’t lie and O’Leary doesn’t pull any punches. She told the Dublin crowd, “I honestly think that he [O'Malley] thought he was another John Kennedy and the Irish would rally around him and that he had the personality, as indeed President Clinton did. He came from nowhere, was the Governor of Arkansas. I think Martin saw himself like that, but it didn't catch fire.”
Although the Irish may not be mentioned much on the campaign trail, one contentious issue the Irish pay attention to is immigration. Currently, Obama’s hands are tied, both Republican congressional houses are doggedly against passing immigration reform. The question was put to O’Leary that "Even if Hillary gets to the White House will it be feasible to act on immigration?'
Sadly, based on her more than 20 years of experience in politics, her answer is 'not now.' O’Leary said the only thing that can happen is that the Republican Party takes a new “look at what they're doing with regard to the Hispanic community.”
As she pointed out, “California is Democrat for the foreseeable future because of the Hispanic community and they're moving in the Texas and Arkansas and so forth.”
O’Leary believes that the Republicans in the next cycle will have to be kinder to the Hispanics and “listen to them rather than announcing they're going to build a wall and do all kinds of dreadful things.”
She said “They'll have to look at immigration differently. If that scenario works out Hilary will hopefully have a better situation.”
She added, admitting to being a “little bit critical of the Irish” that the Republicans had for years been responding to the Irish charm in discussions over possible immigration reform but not being totally honest with them. She added that those who make promises, such as the new House Speaker Paul Ryan, are merely paying “lip service.”
O’Leary also hammered home the point, on several occasions during the evening, that the reason for the right-wing Republican success in the United States is that the public are sick and tired of the establishment and are listening as the GOP agree with their complaints.
Similarly, Bernie Sanders, whose views are considered socialist, is striking a chord with the young and disenfranchised. Despite the support the Senator from Vermont is witnessing on the trail, O’Leary insists that sadly “students don't vote. No matter how much you work...They just don't vote.” She doesn’t believe he’ll be a threat to Hillary when it comes to the Democratic candidacy.
The Republicans, on the other hand, remain a worry. O’Leary believes their form of politics is one of “exploitation.” She said those who have suffered financially over the past decade are angry and for the first time, perhaps since the 19th century, these politicians are agreeing with them.
“When they express their concerns,” O’Leary said. “The Republicans say, "Oh yes, yes. I agree with you. I'll build a wall. Keep out the immigrants. They're your problem." I think the Republicans feed into that anger.”
She added that there is a “great deal of resentment today in the white male community in America. They're dwindling in their numbers in relation to the rest of the ethnic groups, particularly the Hispanics and the Asians and the African Americans, and they feel the rug is being pulled out from under them.”
All of this points to what O’Leary calls a “worrying scenario” – those angry Americans are “going to get the person they want,” as all the frontrunners for the position are right-wing and “quite extreme.”
With the prospect of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate becoming a reality, whether the GOP want it or not, O’Leary is confident that Hillary Clinton will be the woman to lead the Democrats back to the White House.