Being Catholic matters in the race for the Metropolitan Utilities District board — at least according to one candidate.
Jim Begley, running against three others for two positions on the board, has been distributing campaign cards at parish festivals that say: “JIM BEGLEY BEST REPRESENTS CATHOLIC VALUES!”
The cards describe one of his chief rivals, John S. McCollister, as a member of the “Countryside Community Protestant Church” — even though “Protestant” is not part of the church's name.
While religion has long been an issue in high-profile races, it's rarely invoked in more obscure races, said Randall Adkins, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Begley's invoking of religion in the MUD race is reminiscent of the Christian Coalition voter guides of the 1990s, he said.
“Decisions like this are typically strategic in nature,” Adkins said. “MUD is way down the list (on the ballot). How do you draw attention and get voters to vote? Sometimes you have to try novel approaches.”
That's what Begley said he is trying to do. He views himself as an underdog looking for support in his first bid for MUD.
“I'm simply trying to attract fellow Catholics to my campaign,” said Begley, who is trying to win his first elected post. “My family is pretty well-known throughout the Catholic community, so I'm making a focused pitch for their vote.”
McCollister, a 30-year veteran of the MUD board, described Begley's tactics as polarizing.
“Some people have described it as gutter politics, and yes, I would, too,” he said. “It pits Catholics against Protestants, and it displays religious intolerance.”
Begley said he targeted McCollister because he was the second-highest vote-getter in the primary, and, according to Begley, has taken positions that are antagonistic toward labor.
While organized religion has nothing to do with providing water and natural gas to the metro area, Begley said the underlying issue of labor justifies bringing religion into the campaign.
In the coming decades, MUD expects to spend $500 million modernizing its natural gas main piping. A 5-2 board vote a year ago authorized management to outsource those jobs, shrinking the future for union jobs.
Begley, a Democrat who has received most of his campaign donations from local and national unions, including MUD's union, said Catholicism is relevant because the church is known for its defense of worker rights.
“Traditionally, the Catholic Church has been a strong advocate for the rights of working men and women,” he said.
“I don't know what their beliefs are, I was only advocating my beliefs,” Begley said. “I'm not Protestant. I can't attest to their tenets or beliefs.”
McCollister, a Republican, said he supports the right to collective bargaining. He said the MUD union has long opposed his service on the board because he has worked to limit employee benefits as a way of lowering rates.
“We are at a time where public employees need to reconsider some of their rather generous benefits,” he said. “It's not just a matter of cutting, it's making this fair for ratepayers.”
Begley hopes to succeed his mother, Mary Kay Begley, who died in 2010 after 21 years on the MUD board.
Begley's parish literature doesn't mention the other two candidates, Dave Friend, who is a Catholic, nor Megan Murphy, who describes herself as a secular humanist.
Friend, who has served on the MUD board since 2001, voted against the outsourcing last year. He, too, has received significant union support and placed first by far in the nine-candidate primary. McCollister finished second, followed by Begley and Murphy.
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