Irish-Cuban-Catholic background shapes Mooney's views

May 09, 2007|By THOMAS E. SCHALLER

His name and title: Alex X. Mooney, Republican state senator from Maryland's 3rd District in Frederick and Washington counties. But the key part is the "X."

It's short for Xavier, a middle name from his Cuban mother's side of the family. That single letter holds the key to Mr. Mooney's political ideology, fueled initially by fervent anti-communism and then kept going by his continuing idolization of Ronald Reagan. (A life-size sculpture of the 40th president graces the senator's legislative office in Annapolis.)

The middle name is shared with Mr. Mooney's uncle, Xavier Suarez, who became Miami's first Cuban-born mayor in 1985. That year, at the tender age of 14, Mr. Mooney walked precincts for his tio. Because his Long Island-born father's Irish influence dilutes his mother's genes, campaign staffers dispatched the teen to canvass the city's "Anglo" precincts.

Mr. Mooney's background creates some political dissonance on certain issues - the death penalty and immigration, for example - where Republican orthodoxy might seem at odds with his impulses as an Irish-Cuban Catholic. What coheres the two sides of his family is staunch Catholicism: If "X" marks the 35-year-old senator's Fidel Castro-inspired wariness toward government, his devout religiosity is the "why" of Mr. Mooney's legislative agenda.

"I'm a practicing Roman Catholic," said Mr. Mooney during a recent chat over breakfast at the National Press Club in Washington. "I do what I do because I think it's what God wants me to do with my life."

Mr. Mooney, who is married to a doctor and has two young children, considers himself a movement conservative, and he is better connected with national conservatives than any other Republican politician in Maryland. He works parttime as executive director of the National Journalism Center, a media-training institute that has produced conservative voices such as John Fund and Ann Coulter. Earlier in his career, at the Council for National Policy, a conservative think tank, his mentor was former Reagan adviser Morton Blackwell. If Maryland Democrats ever design a "conservative bad boys" calendar, Mr. Mooney will qualify for two months, maybe three.

But the senator harbors a strong libertarian streak that is evident in his opposition to everything from helmet laws to a 21-year-old drinking age in a country that sends teenagers to fight in Iraq. "People who call themselves conservatives these days vote for all sorts of things I don't consider conservative," he says.

Of course, close-the-border conservatives might say the same about his more inclusive approach to immigration - yet another position informed by his mother's escape from Fidel Castro's Cuba. "I understand why people want to come here to make a good life for their family," he says.

Even though his eyes welled up when speaking about how painful it was to watch his father - a two-pack-a-day-smoker - die a few years ago, Mr. Mooney refuses to condemn Big Tobacco. "I believe in freedom," he says, including the freedom to make bad choices.

Mr. Mooney became the center of attention in Annapolis this year during the debate over repealing capital punishment. He spent 45 minutes in a private meeting with the state's top Irish Catholic official, Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, and came away impressed with the way the governor and his key deputy, Sean R. Malone, dealt with him.

Ultimately, Mr. Mooney's conservatism trumped his Catholicism on the death penalty. His committee vote against repeal prevented the bill from reaching the floor.

First elected to the Senate in 1998, when he was just 27, Mr. Mooney has twice been re-elected - but in increasingly tighter races. Having survived thus far, Mr. Mooney is probably safe for the moment from Democratic target lists. The big question is whether he will be running for re-election again in 2010, or for Congress.

Mr. Mooney once worked for Congressman Roscoe G. Bartlett, the Republican incumbent in Maryland's 6th District. Because they agree "on almost every issue," Mr. Mooney says he would never run against his former boss. But he would vie to replace Mr. Bartlett, now 80, when he retires.

In the state's most conservative congressional district, the Republican primary will be critical, and Mr. Mooney could face a number of other Western Maryland Republicans - including his close friend, Del. Joseph R. Bartlett, the congressman's son.

Though he acknowledges his ideology likely makes him unelectable statewide, Mr. Mooney's political orientation and policy views fit the 6th District well. It's a seat a stubborn Irish-Cuban Catholic could hold for a long, long time.

Thomas F. Schaller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and author of "Whistling Past Dixie." His e-mail is His column appears Wednesdays in The Sun.

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