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Catholics Consider Presidential Candidates Ahead Of Iowa Caucuses


Rachel and David are in Iowa this week. We are days away from the first voting in the presidential election. Connecting with Iowa voters often means connecting with their faith. The vast majority of Iowans identify as Christian, and about 1 of 5 Iowans is Catholic. The Catholics are concentrated in the eastern part of the state along the Mississippi. And near the banks of that river, Rachel asked Catholic voters in Dubuque County, Iowa, how their faith shapes their vote.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: The story I'm going to tell begins with a woman named Suellen Flynn. It was 1991, and Suellen, along with the rest of the world, was watching the fall of the Berlin Wall.

SUELLEN FLYNN: Actually, I was watching the fall of communism. On the news, I was watching one night, and they said, you know, there's a million orphans in this former Soviet Union. And I thought, I have a home (laughter). I can take one.

MARTIN: That's how Suellen became a mother. She adopted her son Denis in 1993. She never married and raised him on her own in Dubuque, Iowa. Like most people here in the city, Suellen is Catholic. It's a huge part of her identity, her community, how she raised her son. We met Suellen and Denis at their home in Dubuque.

FLYNN: Come on, Denis. Come here.

MARTIN: Denis started showing signs of mental illness after high school. Now he's 33 years old. He can't work, and he needs encouragement from his mom to get outside the house.

FLYNN: Do you want to go walking at the mall at - how about 10 o'clock this morning?

DENIS: What's 10 o'clock?

FLYNN: Yeah, the mall opens at 10. We can do that this morning. And then how about afterwards, we can take you to - down to go play Legos. You want to do that?

DENIS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Their insurance doesn't cover the kind of in-home care that Denis needs, so Suellen took a part-time job to give her more flexibility. She remembers what it was like trying to navigate Denis' moments of crisis before she scaled back her hours.

FLYNN: I was working full-time then. And it was like I'd call home every so often to make sure he's still alive.

MARTIN: Which is why mental health is her top issue in this election. And, yes, Suellen's big motivation is her son, but it's also her Catholic faith.

FLYNN: Jesus very frequently brought people from the fringes of society - the outcasts, the lepers and the - into the center of the Gospel narrative. That's what I got to try to do with people with mental health, bring them into the narrative of our country, not leave them out on the fringes. And this year with all the candidates coming back again, that's what I try to do, you know, talk to them and say, this is my big issue, and we need to do something about it.

MARTIN: And the person she thinks can do something about it is Elizabeth Warren.

FLYNN: I guess - well, I really liked Elizabeth Warren. I liked her energy. I liked her - you know, we need to go big (laughter). Go big or go home.

MARTIN: Twenty-two-year-old Carlos Garrido agrees, he just thinks that the big ideas, the big change is going to come from someone else.

CARLOS GARRIDO: So the thing about Bernie, Bernie has a plan called the Green New Deal.

MARTIN: Carlos is a senior at Loras College, which is one of two Catholic colleges here in Dubuque. He was born in Cuba, and his family immigrated to Miami when he was 4 years old. He came to Dubuque on a baseball scholarship, but an injury forced him to hang up his glove. Now he spends virtually all his free time canvassing for Bernie Sanders on college campuses. And he knows his audience.

GARRIDO: So my - our candidate, Bernie Sanders, he has a plan to completely eliminate student debt. Are there any other issues that are worrisome to you - climate change, health care?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I mean, yeah, climate change. I guess I don't feel, like, as strongly...

MARTIN: OK. So why am I telling you about Carlos, one of thousands of college students in Iowa who sees a 78-year-old democratic socialist as his political spirit animal? It's not a new story. But Carlos is particularly interesting because, like Suellen, he's also Catholic, and he sees a direct connection between his faith and his politics.

GARRIDO: I think Bernie and his message is the embodiment of Rerum Novarum and the Catholic social teaching, which preaches just treating people with dignity.

MARTIN: Carlos and Suellen represent the kind of Democrats who've dominated politics here for generations - working-class, union-supporting Catholics who went for Democrats in every presidential race since Eisenhower in 1956. They were Catholics. They were Democrats. The end. Then came Donald Trump. He pulled off a surprise win here in 2016. And now in 2020, his campaign wants to bring even more Catholics into the fold.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing) Hallelujah.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Hallelujah.

MARTIN: We met some of the Catholic votes up for grabs at Holy Ghost Church in Dubuque. About 30 parishioners came for an early morning mass. After the service, we talked to three of them - Pat Doerr (ph)...

PAT DOERR: I am 85 1/2.

MARTIN: ...Seventy-four-year-old Dick Vorrwald...

DICK VORRWALD: You got good German names here.

MARTIN: ...And...

VINCE MEIS: I'm Vince Meis (ph). I'm 78.

MARTIN: Did any of you vote for Donald Trump in 2016? You did?

MEIS: Oh, I voted for Donald Trump. Oh, yeah.

DOERR: And I took a lot of flak from my young grandchildren.


DOERR: I started out Democratic, but I switched to independent. And right now, I'm on the fence. I don't know what I'm going to do. So...

MARTIN: What specifically have you not liked about him?

DOERR: He's a little too rough around the edges, you know. I don't like his language sometimes. I think he could be a little bit more pleasant (laughter).

MARTIN: How about you, sir?

MEIS: Well, Mr. Trump is not a politician, and he's not a diplomat. Mr. Trump is a pragmatic problem solver. And he's the only guy that stands up for the free exercise of religion. And he's the first president that had the courage to address the March for Life in person.

MARTIN: That mattered to you?

MEIS: Oh, yes.

MARTIN: So that was Pat and Vince sort of mixing it up, and then there is Dick Vorrwald.

VORRWALD: I'm a traditional Democrat, and I don't go along with a lot of the Democrats' policies right now.

MARTIN: So we asked him, if he doesn't like his choices in his own party, is there any chance he'd support Trump?

VORRWALD: (Laughter) I might, I might. Yeah, I might. There's some things about him I don't like. But like Vince said, he's a businessman. He's not a politician.

MARTIN: Proving that there are no sure bets in this election and every vote leading up to the caucuses is up for grabs.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Dubuque, Iowa.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLORA MIS' "LEWISBURG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.