Ex-mayor of Boston aims to build Catholic bloc

Alliance leader Flynn seeks political force parties will have to reckon with

May 18, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Raymond L. Flynn, who was Boston's mayor for nine years before becoming U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, is embarking on a new venture that will combine two of his passions: politics and his Roman Catholic faith.

Flynn has taken over leadership of the Catholic Alliance, a lay-run political advocacy group that was founded as an arm of the Christian Coalition before going independent three years ago. He replaced Keith Fornier, a deacon and lawyer, who resigned earlier this year from the non-church-affiliated group.

Tony Likins, a Washington political consultant and Catholic Alliance board member, called Flynn's appointment "providential."

"Catholic Alliance was seeking a higher profile, and Flynn's combination of political experience and pro-life credentials made him an ideal candidate," Likins said. "I think we all agreed we needed a higher-profile individual who embodied what we were trying to do to change the culture of death in this country. That high profile helped us to get the attention of the media and the public to what we're trying to do."

Flynn, 59, said his goal is to organize and energize Catholics into a formidable voting bloc that the Democratic and Republican parties would have to reckon with.

"The Catholic vote, arguably the most important swing vote in America, is clearly up for grabs," he said. "I hope the Catholic vote does not divide itself. It needs to be a strong voting bloc, and I hope that's what I'm able to do, to make the Catholic vote a strong voting bloc in America, not based on parties or a candidate per se, but on issues that are important to Catholics."

Forging a bloc, Flynn said, will involve "empowering Catholics, getting them more involved in the mainstream of political activity, particularly immigrants, whether it be people from Southeast Asia or the Hispanic community," he said. "Those are things we can do in a very nonpartisan way."

Flynn describes the political philosophy he will bring to the job as "pro-life, pro-poor, pro-family.

"Which is not just my political philosophy," he said. "It also happens to be the philosophy of the Catholic Church. If anybody's got a beef with Ray Flynn, they'd better talk to Jesus Christ about that one."

Obviously, said Likins, "he is a gifted, spiritual man who is in love with the Lord and in love with his faith."

Flynn, who was envoy to the Vatican from 1993 until 1997, aligns himself closely with Pope John Paul II, whom he first met when the future pontiff was archbishop of Krakow, Poland. During his tenure in Rome, Flynn alienated himself from the Clinton administration by criticizing the president for vetoing a bill that would have banned late-term abortions. As mayor of Boston, the son of an Irish dockworker was called the Lech Walesa of Boston politics for his close identification with the working class. When he returned from Rome, some called him a "John Paul II Democrat" for advocating the views of the pope.

Flynn believes that John Paul's articulation of Catholic teaching -- anti-abortion, advocating for families and the poor, anti-unfettered capitalism and anti-death penalty -- can attract Catholics, who once voted as a solid bloc.

"When the ethnic Catholics came to this country, they voted traditionally Democratic," he said. "The Democratic Party was the party of the people, the working class, immigrants."

That party loyalty continued through the mid-1960s -- Democrats and Catholics voted overwhelmingly for Lyndon Johnson in 1964 -- but began to erode beginning with Richard Nixon in 1968. By 1984, a majority of Catholics voted for Ronald Reagan.

"The famous Reagan Democrats, they were mostly Catholics for Reagan," Flynn said.

By 1992, most Catholics returned to the Democratic Party and voted for Clinton, and they supported him in even greater numbers in 1996. But there is no guarantee Catholics will continue to vote Democratic.

"Both parties in my opinion have moved away from Catholic philosophy. So you might say it's up for grabs," Flynn said. "Catholics are a large voting constituency without a party."

Until now, the Catholic Alliance, based in Oakton, Va., was a dubious choice for forging such a Catholic bloc. It was founded in 1995 as a sub-group within the Christian Coalition, which wanted to attract anti-abortion Catholics. But the partnership with evangelical Protestantism generated some criticism from the American Catholic hierarchy.

"At least a couple of bishops expressed their concern that this group might arrogate to itself the duty of giving moral instruction to Catholics and try and direct their votes," said William B. Prendergast, author of "The Catholic Voter in American Politics: The Passing of the Democratic Monolith," to be published this month.

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