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I work for everybody back home’

By NICOLE MICHELS | Friday, September 20, 2013

Editor’s Note: This is the second story in a series featuring Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s graduates serving as members of Congress. This series, titled “Trading Golden Dome for Capitol Dome,” will run on Fridays. 

Election Day 2012 marked the election of Sen. Joe Donnelly, the first Democrat to win an Indiana statewide race in more than a decade, and the end of one of the most contentious Senate races in Indiana history. 

After State Treasurer Richard Mourdock beat out six-term senator Richard Lugar in the Republican primary, Mourdock faced then-Representative Donnelly in the general election. The contest culminated in a debate at New Albany, Ind., at Indiana-University Southeast, where a comment he made about abortion and rape gained national attention. 

Donnelly, a “Double Domer” who graduated from Notre Dame with a B.A. in 1977 and with a J.D. in 1981, said his faith in the people of Indiana and his Notre Dame education helped him to focus on the path to the Senate, despite partisan conflict.

“It’s not usually the easiest path as a Democrat in Indiana,” Donnelly said. “But, what I always knew was that the people of Indiana are common-sense, are willing to listen, and are a lot more focused on what’s right and building our state than they are worried about party labels. 

“So, I never worried about party labels, and the other part is what you learn at Notre Dame is that you do your very best, you stand up for what is right, you try to have an effect on those things you can change, [but] on the things you have no control over, you can’t worry about them.”

At Notre Dame, Donnelly majored in government and also studied business.

“While I didn’t have a business degree or business minor, a lot of my electives were in the business area, so I tried to combine [government and business] while at Notre Dame,” he said. “I had an interest in becoming an attorney, and I think that mix really lent itself well to that field.”

After graduation, Donnelly practiced law, worked at his family’s printing and rubber stamp company and served on the Indiana State Election Board. In 2004, he ran for and secured Indiana’s 2nd district congressional seat, and secured the seat in 2006.

“I had never actually expected to run for office again,” Donnelly said. “That was probably for a 15-year period. I just raised my family and tried to be a good member of the local community, then was asked by members of the local Democratic Party if I would consider running for Congress.”

Donnelly said serving as the representative for Indiana’s 2nd district prepared him to work as a senator for the state of Indiana. 

“What made it easier is that in many ways, the 2nd district is a microcosm of the state, and the state is a microcosm of the country,” he said. “And so, the needs of the people of the 2nd district, the concerns of the people of the second district, were reflective of the entire state.” 

Donnelly said his time in the House, in part, guided his goals as a senator.

“I came in with areas that I wanted to focus on, based on my time in the House,” he said. “No. 1, first and foremost, would be that every Hoosier who wants a job, can have a job. When Mom and Dad are working, everything works much better for the family – everything works much better for our state. So, a huge portion of my efforts have been in making sure that we continue to grow our economy and create more jobs.”

As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Donnelly said resolving the United States’ involvement in Afghanistan sits at the top of his priority list.

“I’ve been focused on making sure we have a solid plan to come home from Afghanistan, to do it in a way that enables Afghanistan to stand up on their own and have our men and women back home in South Bend and in Rising Sun and in Merrillville and in Indianapolis, rather than in Kabul,” he said.

Donnelly is following the situation in Syria closely and soliciting opinions on the issue from his constituents, his communications director, Elizabeth Shappell, said. 

“He supports President Obama’s decision to seek Congressional approval,” Shappell said. “Like all Hoosiers, he strongly condemns the use of chemical weapons and is carefully reviewing proposed options for ongoing humanitarian assistance and possible military action.” 

Donnelly announced his support for same-sex marriage in an April 5 post on his Facebook page. His desire for all people to feel comfortable in Indiana motivated this decision, he said.

“My feeling is that as we look at this, as a state, Indiana wants to be welcoming to all of our citizens,” Donnelly said. “To our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters – I want them all to feel that no matter what their beliefs, they can find a home in Indiana. For our companies, [we don’t want them] to lose extraordinary talent and extraordinary people because we weren’t welcoming to them on this issue.

“As I said, this is no way any suggestion to any Church as to what they [should] believe or what they should do. This is simply recognition that we want Indiana to be a welcoming state.”

Donnelly said his experience in the House, his role as a father and talks with friends inform his policy positions. Staying connected to his constituents also shapes his actions as a senator. 

“I go home every weekend,” Donnelly said. “There is so much more wisdom in Indiana than there is in Washington, D.C., and so in a typical day at home I’ll be visiting with a group of farmers. I’ll be visiting with a group of small business people. I’ll stop at the local supermarket to get something, and people are more than happy to come up and tell me what they think.

“I get my knowledge, my wisdom, from everyone back home. … I keep that sign in the office up there, ‘Hoosier Common Sense,’ because that’s what we try to do. I think that is what the country needs, and that is what I try to reflect every day.”

These frequent interactions with his constituents keep Donnelly grounded.

“What I never forget is that I’m the hired help,” he said. “I work for everybody back home. That’s my obligation.”

Donnelly’s connection to Notre Dame also shapes his beliefs, he said. 

“I think [University President Fr. John Jenkins] is an extraordinary president,” Donnelly said. “I think [University President Emeritus Fr. Monk Malloy] was as well, and I went to school there when [University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh] was our president. Fr. Hesburgh made it very clear that you have an obligation to not only look out for yourself, but to look out for your brothers and sisters, and tried to make sure that everyone who graduated from Notre Dame understood that you had a bigger obligation than just making sure that you’re all squared away.

“We’ve had extraordinary leadership. … Obviously, Our Lady really looks out for the school because of who she has put in charge.”

Donnelly said he remains extremely grateful for his Notre Dame education, which continues to shape how he approaches the world around him.

“I never in a million years expected to be able to go there,” he said. “I was just a middle-class kid; it was almost just beyond my wildest dreams. … What Notre Dame does is it colors the way you look at every issue so that it’s not just about yourself, or it’s not just about a narrow set of views. But you look at things in a way that says, ‘How does this affect all of us? How do we make our country better? How do we make our nation stronger? How do we do what is fair and what is just?’

“I say a little prayer that I can do that every day, and I’m far from perfect. I don’t hit a home run every day. But I do my best, and that was shaped in large measure by folks like my parents, by Fr. Hesburgh. … They ground you very well, and if I had to do it all over again I’d do it in a heartbeat. I wouldn’t go anywhere else.” 

Contact Nicole Michels at