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The private Joe Donnelly

Gary Caruso | Friday, October 26, 2012

Rarely can the general public routinely observe the personal, up-close behind-the-scenes character of an elected official like United States Representative Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.). However, for nearly 30 years I have been privileged to coach a baseball team of Democratic members of Congress who oppose their fellow Republicans in an annual charity game benefitting the Literacy Foundation and the Boys and Girls Clubs. In 2007, Donnelly joined a long line of participants like President George H. W. Bush, former Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson and current Constitutional Party candidate Virgil Goode. Having coached Donnelly throughout his entire six-year tenure in Congress, I got to know the private Joe quite well.
My firsthand observation of Donnelly comes from our frequent 7 a.m. training sessions. Donnelly is grounded, humble and genuine. He could have been called “JD” with some flashy bravado, but that is not who he is at his core. His colleagues always call him “Joe” because Donnelly is cut from the same humble yet dignified cloth as Indiana Senators Richard Lugar and Evan Bayh. He is a consensus builder rather than a bully against his opposition. Countless times I heard him say to his fellow Democrats at our early-morning baseball practices, “If I vote with the White House on that, I might as well not run for office. I have to stick with my people back home.”
At first glance, Donnelly is low-key, likeable and genuinely authentic – an “ordinary Joe” in every respect. So being the jokester that I am, I ambushed him on his first day of practice with the team by asking, “Why on earth would you wear a Notre Dame t-shirt here?”
In a matter-of-fact way tinged with a touch of pride, he answered, “I graduated from there, actually twice because I went to law school there too.”
Since he had no idea I was a Notre Dame alumnus, I raised my voice while sarcastically replying, “Oh, a so-called ‘Double Domer,’ huh?”
Without missing a beat or showing agitation, he continued, “I got a great education. Wonderful people there. Have you ever been on campus?”
“Four, long, miserably gray and cold winters,” I answered with a huge smile as I approached for a hearty handshake and a short conversation about our campus experiences.
Later that week – and every week we practiced during his six years on the team – he asked me to advise him when 7:25 a.m. rolled around so he could call a radio station from a far rural border of his district. Despite teasing from other members about Donnelly skipping half of practice to further his budding disc jockey career, Donnelly religiously crouched under a tree off the third base line each week to answer questions and offer opinions.
One morning last year, he sat next to me in the dugout to change his spikes when his call-in ended. Without my saying a word, Donnelly offered, “You know, that radio station covers a small but unique area near the edge of my district that has little in common with most of my district. But I feel obligated to represent them as best I can and to explain why I vote certain ways that they may not understand or simply support.”
He continued, “[My congressional colleagues] tease me about hiding under the tree for a radio interview, but I get more positive feedback and respect from my constituents in that area than anyone would realize. In fact, I pull more votes than state-wide Democratic candidates in that area because I’m straight with them, and they respect me for my efforts even when they may not support some of my votes in Congress.”
Donnelly went on to lament about how Republicans refused en-block to even engage across the aisle in the legislative process. His voice straining in disbelief, Donnelly said he saw too many Hoosiers struggling both physically and financially. “We aren’t here to simply fight,” he concluded, “We need to start working together.”
One morning I handed him a news story about Purdue students who, inspired by comedian Stephen Colbert, created their own Super PAC. Another representative suggested Donnelly create a “Hoosier Daddy” PAC. Rather than jokingly banter back with a locker-room joke, Donnelly blushed as he spoke, “Oh no. That’s not right!”
Overall, the hardworking everyday nice guy he appears to be from afar is actually the man he is in person. This summer he spoke about his current Senate run, noting no Notre Dame alumnus has ever been elected United States Senator. He asked me, “Wouldn’t that be great for the University to finally have a senator?”
He spoke from pride for his university, not his own personal adulation. It conveyed an “ordinary Joe” humility reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart in the movie “Mr. Smith goes to Washington.”
Having coached for decades within the confidences of congressional representatives, I can attest that Donnelly has always been and will continue to be an “everyday Joe.”
Gary Caruso, a 1973 graduate of Notre Dame, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director at the U.S. House of Representatives and in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. Contact him at:
[email protected]
    The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.