Election 2020 Politics

The nuns who could help Biden win Iowa

Biden was still smiling a few hours later when he took the microphone at a rally at a local Catholic university and called out a close friend and local Democratic activist, Teri Goodmann, for “always bringing me up to see the nuns up on the hill.”

“They give me hope,” he said. “They really do — not a joke.”

The nuns had been there when he lost his wife and daughter in a car crash in 1972, Biden explained, and when his oldest son, Beau, passed away from brain cancer in 2015. Now, as he makes his third bid for the presidency, the former vice president is hoping they will be there for him once again.

Anyone who knows anything about politics in this proudly working-class town talks about the different constituencies at play in the upcoming Feb. 3 caucuses — including union members, blue-collar workers and the younger, more liberal voters who have newly arrived in the city. But there is one group that has repeatedly played a significant, often decisive role in the caucuses: Catholic nuns.

Home to two Catholic universities, several Catholic churches and six religious orders, Dubuque is often called “Little Rome.” It is the smallest city in the United States to have its own archdiocese. More than half its roughly 58,000 population identify as Catholic, and the nuns, in addition to being loyal voters, often play a major role in getting other Catholics out to caucus.

The nuns have been something of a legend in Iowa politics. In 2004, when Howard Dean, then governor of Vermont, lost to then-Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), who went on to claim the Democratic nomination, Kerry’s surprise victory was credited in part to a surge of support in Dubuque. Goodmann had wooed local nuns to turn out in historic numbers for the senator from Massachusetts. Devastated by the loss, the Dean campaign later referred to Dubuque as “our Sarajevo,” a symbolic reference to feeling besieged.

Sixteen years later, Goodmann is still referred to by some Iowa Democrats as the “nun whisperer,” having formed a connection with the Dubuque sisters that no other activist has been able to replicate. And as a longtime supporter and close friend of Biden, dating back to his first White House run in 1988, she’s hoping to activate them again on his behalf — hoping they might make the crucial difference in what many say is the most unpredictable caucus race in memory.

“The sisters are tremendous voters. They take their civic responsibility very seriously,” Goodman said.

Biden is no stranger to the sisters. Since being introduced to the congregations during his first run for the White House 32 years ago, he’s visited the convents repeatedly — both as a candidate and as vice president. In his 2007 memoir “Promises to Keep,” he wrote about bringing gallons of ice cream to the Sisters of St. Francis, a convent on the north side of Dubuque, “because Jean Finnegan Biden’s son does not visit nuns empty-handed.” The nuns, he wrote, were one of the reasons he was “still a practicing Catholic.”

As a candidate in 2020, Biden has been courting them again, holding private meetings at the convents and hosting nuns at his rallies. “He loves to come see them,” Goodmann said. “And they love him.”

But the numbers of Dubuque sisters have been declining. Fewer women have become nuns, and the local congregations have grown smaller, as sisters have passed away. Some of the local orders, including the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, have started to diversify their property in preparation for what some worry will be their ultimate demise. At Mount Carmel, they are building an assisted living facility that would allow sisters who currently live on site to be cared for while also opening up rooms to other local seniors.

And that has introduced yet another unknown in a caucus that remains extremely fluid a week out, especially in Dubuque, where no one can say with any certainty what might happen Feb. 3. “The nuns are certainly going to have a role to play in the election, but I am not sure how large their role will be,” Goodmann said.

That has not kept the Biden campaign from looking at the nuns as part of their path to victory. According to NBC News, the campaign told top supporters at a recent donor retreat that they were relying on nuns to help get out the vote through a letter-writing campaign targeted at Dubuque Catholics in which they attested to Biden’s faith.

Last weekend, members of the Biden family, including the former vice president’s younger sister, Valerie, and close friends descended on eastern Iowa, where they met with groups of voters, including nuns and undecided Catholics, trying to secure their support for the caucuses.

On Sunday night, about 25 undecided Democrats and independents turned up at a house along an icy cul-de-sac in one of Dubuque’s oldest neighborhoods to hear Valerie Biden speak on her brother’s behalf. Standing in small living room a few feet from a crackling fire, she spoke in deeply personal terms about her brother’s humanity, about the bullying he had suffered as a child and the immense tragedy he underwent as an adult, and how that had made him the kind of uniquely empathetic leader the country needs.

“That’s why my brother should be president — because he has the guts to take on Donald Trump. He has the heart to unite the country, and he has the experience to fix what’s wrong,” she said.

She pointed to polls showing her brother could win battleground states and help other Democrats running for office. “He’s the guy. He’s the guy who can do it,” she said. “I am asking you to caucus for him on Feb. 3. I am preaching to the choir that our nation depends on it.”

In the corner were two nuns from a local order. They approached Valerie’s daughter, Missy, who had accompanied her mother to advocate for the former vice president. One asked if Joe Biden would be back in Dubuque before the caucuses — and more importantly, she wondered, “Would he have time to see the sisters?”

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