Irish Americans, particularly those aligned with the Democratic party, have reason to celebrate the outcome of the November 7 vote for all 435 House of Representatives seats, 33 Senate seats and 36 governorships.
Meanwhile, the swing to the Democrats resulted in one particularly prominent Irish American casualty in the House contest, while two familiar faces there had to battle hard to retain their memberships.
The most prestigious Irish-American title in Congress is that of chairman of the Friends of Ireland group.
The Friends span both the House and Senate but in recent years the chairmanship has been held by Republican Congressman Jim Walsh from Syracuse in Upstate New York.
As chairman, Walsh found himself presiding over a divided Friends group last March and was chief signatory to a House St. Patrick’s Day Friends of Ireland statement that was issued separately to, and differed in part from, a Senate version drawn up in the office of Senator Edward Kennedy.
This rift between the Friends, as it turned out, was only a minor precursor to a far sharper voter divide that would become evident in Walsh’s district and around the nation as the days ran down to last week’s midterm election.
With his seat apparently in danger, Walsh, who has been considerably praised down the years for his work on Northern Ireland and interest in Irish-American affairs generally, released a television ad that clearly distanced himself from the White House and the Iraq war.
Walsh, first elected to the House in 1988, survived the challenge from his Democratic opponent and will return to the 110th Congress when it convenes January 3.
But as he is now in the minority party, Walsh must relinquish his Friends chairmanship.
That position is now likely to fall into the hands of Democrat Richie Neal who was returned unopposed in his western Massachusetts district.
The decision as to who holds the Friends chairmanship rests with the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
The decision should not occupy too much of incoming speaker Nancy Pelosi’s time as she is already familiar with the grouping.
Pelosi, who has an Irish son-in-law, represents a strongly Irish-American district in San Francisco and has visited Ireland, already heads up the Friends of Ireland Executive Committee in the House.
Meanwhile, the House Ad Hoc Committee for Irish Affairs has one co-chair vacancy following the election and possibly two should Neal become Friends of Ireland leader.
Neal is currently one of the two Democratic Ad Hoc co-chairs; the other is Joe Crowley who was handily returned to Washington by the voters in his New York City district.
There could be a number of candidates for the Democratic vacancy, not all of them Congressional veterans and not necessarily even Irish American.
In its election support campaign, the lobby group, Irish-American Democrats, put its money and effort behind a range of successful newcomers including Chris Carney and Patrick Murphy in Pennsylvania, Joe Courtney and Chris Murphy in Connecticut, Joe Donnelly in Indiana, Tim Mahoney in Florida and Tim Ryan in Ohio.
More seasoned candidates for the co-chairmanship in the event of Neal taking his leave would be Rep. Jim Higgins from Buffalo, or New York’s Eliot Engel who has long championed Irish American causes.
The vacant GOP co-chairmanship in the Ad Hoc Committee derives from the defeat of Rep. John Sweeney in New York’s 22nd District.
One thing that Sweeney could not be charged with was a lack of foresight. Back in 2004, in the wake of President Bush’s election triumph, Sweeney analyzed his party’s status in New York.
“We face a disaster in 2006 unless something is done,” Sweeney told the New York Post at the time.
His words were borne out last week in a way that Sweeney least wanted to see.
A new Ad Hoc co-chair will likely be an experienced member of the House. An obvious choice would be Rep. Walsh, or possibly New Jersey’s Chris Smith.
The decision will rest largely in the hands of the other GOP Ad Hoc co-chair, Rep. Peter King, who turned back a determined Democratic opponent in his Long Island district.
The least surprising result in the 33 Senate races concluded last Tuesday was the reelection of Edward Kennedy in Massachusetts.
Arguably the most surprising was the win pulled off by James Webb in Virginia.
As in the House races, the Irish-American Democrats allocated resources to select senate candidates although this time the help was delivered to both incumbents and challengers.
Successful challenger Bob Casey in Pennsylvania was singled out for support as was Ted Kennedy, though he was more than capable of powering his way back to Capitol Hill on his own campaign’s steam.
Kennedy, indeed, was able to devote time to the ultimately successful Bob Menendez campaign in New Jersey as the days wound down to Nov. 7.
The Irish-American Democrats also pitched in behind Menendez, Sherrod Brown in Ohio, Hillary Rodham Clinton in New York and Claire McCaskill in Missouri.
The IAD did not openly contribute to the candidacy of James Webb in Virginia but was quick to hail the outcome in a race that finally landed the 110th Senate in the lap of the Democratic Party.
Just a few weeks ago, Republican George Allen, the incumbent senator in Virginia, was being widely spoken of as a leading GOP presidential hopeful for 2008.
But in the end the victory and the spoils went to Webb, a decorated Vietnam veteran and a onetime Republican who served in the Reagan administration as Deputy Defense Secretary and Navy Secretary.
As the campaign came down to the wire, Allen attempted to portray his opponent as sexist, not just because he had once opposed women in the military but also because of some steamy scenes in the half dozen novel written by the onetime Marine.
Allen should have skipped the novels and read instead Webb’s homage to
his Scots Irish ancestors, published three years ago under the title “Born
Fighting, How the Scots Irish Shaped America.”
In the book, Webb reminds Americans what they owe much to those who fled the northern counties of Ireland, most especially in the in 18th century, and forged the frontier that would become the well spring for modern America.
Webb, who lays claim to both Catholic and Protestant, Scots and Irish roots, sets out his stall in precise terms with the very last paragraph in “Born Fighting.”
He writes: “Who are we? We are the molten core at the very center of unbridled, raw, rebellious spirit of America. We helped build this nation, from the bottom up. We face the world on our feet and not on our knees. We were born fighting. And if the cause is right, we will never retreat.”
Webb was true to his word and will advance into the 110th Congress, a Democratic mirror image of the GOP’s John McCain, another Vietnam Hero with a stirring Scots-Irish pedigree.
THE GUBERNATORIAL RACES
Voters chose 36 governors last week. The voters in Maryland not only got themselves a new chief executive for their state but also the rebirth of Martin O’Malley’s Celtic rock band, O’Malley’s March.
“Win or lose, the band’s coming back,” O’Malley said before voting day.
The question is whether O’Malley will now have time to front his old ensemble.
Vary much a politician on a roll, O’Malley can now lay claim to a front line leadership position, not just in the Democratic party, but in Irish America. O’Malley’s win in Maryland was the flip side of the Massachusetts gubernatorial outcome where an African American, Deval Patrick, romped home with an Irish American running mate.
O’Malley, who is Irish American to the hilt, and, he would argue, beyond even that, was partnered in the Maryland contest by an African American.
Both O’Malley and Patrick were supported by Irish-American Democrats as were John Lynch in New Hampshire, Jim Doyle in Wisconsin and Eliot Spitzer in New York.
Spitzer will take over in January from the outgoing Republican George Pataki, who has been an unquestionable friend to Irish America over the course of his three terms.
Spitzer, who has already visited Ireland, will be expected to maintain such a positive profile with his Irish-American constituents as his first term unfolds.