His faith, party put Mooney at crossroads

Conservative senator could decide death penalty issue

Sun profile

February 24, 2007|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,Sun reporter

State Sen. Alex X. Mooney, the Republican lawmaker from Frederick who makes no bones about his anti-gay, pro-gun, anti-abortion views, is usually among the most certain of politicians. Even an ideologue, however, can find himself at a crossroads.

With his Catholic faith and conservatism at odds, Mooney is grappling with how to vote on a proposal to repeal the death penalty. As the other 10 lawmakers on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee appear to be deadlocked, it is looking likely that Mooney's vote could determine the outcome.

"It's certainly not an issue that's in my political favor to vote for," Mooney said of the repeal. "However, I'm down here to vote my conscience. I believe my constituents understand that."

Mooney, who represents one of the more conservative corners of the left-leaning state, is not a lawmaker commonly identified by his colleagues as flexible. He is, they say, a reliable vote for conservative causes.

So at the moment there are two schools of thought in Annapolis about Mooney's influence over what could emerge as the most charged issue of the General Assembly session. The first, common among Democrats who oppose capital punishment, could be called a head-shaking disbelief. The second is a more tacit understanding of the weight of the decision and a feeling that Mooney, like the rest of his colleagues, will have to follow his heart.

"I think he's genuinely conflicted," said Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat who has said he would break with his party to vote against the repeal.

Mooney, 35, was a philosophy major at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. It's fitting then that as he ponders the merits of breaking with his church to side with many in his party, or alternatively following his faith over the GOP position, he parses, reshapes and reconsiders his thoughts.

"Every day I think of new angles of this thing, to be honest," said Mooney, whose legislative Web site lists him as executive director of the National Journalism Center, a conservative media organization.

Possible amendments

Although representatives for the Catholic Church are lobbying for the repeal, Mooney argued yesterday that his faith does not forbid the death penalty in all circumstances. The killing of police and correctional officers should merit the toughest punishment, he said, as should acts of terrorism. Mooney said yesterday that he is weighing whether to introduce amendments to the repeal bill that would include those exceptions.

His colleagues also are saying privately that aides to Gov. Martin O'Malley, who testified last week in favor of the repeal, have reached out to Mooney to craft a compromise.

Mooney also said he doesn't see any inconsistency in being against abortion and for the death penalty, but pointed to former Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele as a potential political soul mate on the issues. Steele, a Republican and former seminarian, opposed both in keeping with his Catholic faith.

"Abortion is plain-up killing an innocent baby," Mooney said. "I believe the taking of a human life should be done to protect society from more killings."

There's nothing new about Mooney's dilemma; Catholic politicians of both parties have for years struggled to mesh their personal and political beliefs on the death penalty and abortion, in particular. Since John F. Kennedy ran for president, vowing that he would not take direction from Rome, many have sought to demonstrate independence from the church. Others embrace it as the doctrine that guides their policymaking decisions.

"Catholic politicians are not just Catholic, they're Democrats or Republicans, they're labor organizers or small business owners," said Mark J. Rozell, a George Mason University public policy professor who studies faith and politics. "The question is: Do they vote their religious identity first?"

Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican and fellow committee member who calls herself Mooney's "mom away from home," said he is "an extremely moral person."

"I think that while others may consider him to be a hard-core, brash Republican, there is a very sensitive caring side to Senator Mooney that not everybody has the opportunity to see," she said.

But the example Jacobs offered - Mooney's proposal to include the homeless in a state hate crimes statute - was met by some Democratic lawmakers with great skepticism. Some believed Mooney was attempting to water down a statute crafted to protect people from race and gender discrimination.

However, when the law was expanded two years ago to protect gays and lesbians, Mooney stood firmly against it.

"Not enough senators are willing to stand up to the radical homosexual agenda," Mooney said after the 2005 debate on the matter.

The Sun reported at the time that he had proposed about a dozen amendments to the hate crimes bill, trying to add elderly, obese and pregnant people, among others.

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