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Donnelly shares views on election, Congress

Becky Hogan | Wednesday, February 21, 2007

For Democratic Congressman Joseph Donnelly, representing the citizens of Indiana’s 2nd District is “the privilege of a lifetime.”

Speaking to professor Robert Schmuhl’s American Political Life class Tuesday, Donnelly highlighted his experiences blazing the campaign trail to his recent election as congressman, beating out incumbent Republican Chris Chocola.

But since taking office, Donnelly’s focus has shifted from gaining votes to giving his vote. He recently backed the non-binding resolution that the House of Representatives passed in opposition to President Bush’s plan to deploy additional troops in Iraq.

Donnelly said he gave a lot of thought to the decision by talking to war veterans, meeting with the Michiana Peace and Justice Coalition and attending a White House briefing on the war in Iraq.

“At some point the Iraqis have to stand up … and decide that they don’t want any more death and destruction. There is a solution to Iraq – it will be tricky to get there,” Donnelly said. “The Iraqis have to want their country to succeed.”

And one thing that helps Donnelly succeed is Notre Dame, his alma mater.

Each day, the philosophy he follows is not about politics or campaigning or voting – it’s “God. Country. Notre Dame,” he said.

After graduating from the University in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree in government and then from the Law School in 1981, Donnelly said he never planned on a career in politics.

“I helped on various campaigns at different times and had not envisioned running for the U.S. House,” he said.

But once he decided to run, Donnelly took a “grassroots” approach to his campaign, meaning he put a lot of attention into securing votes from people in his district – something he did by meeting as many 2nd District citizens as possible.

“It was about looking people in the eye and asking them for their vote,” he said.

But one area that was not so fun for Donnelly was raising finances, which is a huge focus in running for political office.

“The money involved in campaign finance is destroying this country. My best re-election technique is to do my job right,” he said.

And his job is one he fought hard for. In what he called a “grueling endeavor,” Donnelly worked from 6 a.m. to midnight, six to seven days a week up until the last possible moment in the election.

“The polls closed at six o’clock … and I stayed until 6:30 p.m. shaking people’s hands because I didn’t want to think later that I should have worked harder,” Donnelly said. “Don’t ever underestimate persistence.”

While persistence may have been one factor contributing to Donnelly’s election, he noted the change in “political climate” as another.

He said many Republicans in Indiana were unhappy with the war in Iraq during his campaign. Another help, he said, was the string of negative campaign commercials started by Chocola actually proved helpful to Donnelly’s campaign.

“Those commercials got people to recognize me. In a strange way [Chocola’s] commercials were helping my campaign – he was spending money on commercials that were helping me,” Donnelly said.

On election day, after all the work, Donnelly defeated his opponent by just eight points. Now that he’s an insider, Donnelly said he’s learned most people in Congress are just “trying to help their constituents and their country.”

“The great thing about Washington is that there are about twenty crazy people on the Republican and Democratic sides, and the other … people are just trying to work together to get things done,” Donnelly said.

Though the media often focuses on “the loudest people in Congress,” Donnelly said there are many people “in the middle” working hard every day who are not portrayed nearly as often.

Whether or not he is in the spotlight, Donnelly said he believes in a moderate national budget and strong defense as part of the “Blue Dog Democrats” group, a moderate to conservative group of Democrats in Congress.

Donnelly works on three different committees in Congress addressing financial services, veterans’ affairs and agricultural issues.

But sticking to his Indiana roots, Donnelly is also working on a farming bill – nearly 80 percent of his district, after all, is agricultural land.

“We’re working closely with farmers on a new farm bill to make sure that it works for farmers in the Midwest,” he said.