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UU candidates hit the campaign trail

Several UUs are running for election or re-election in November.
By Donald E. Skinner
10.13.08

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The Rev. Kelly Flood had planned to run for office when she was in her 20s—more than two decades ago. “I had finished college, and I was going to go to law school and then run for office, but then I got a call to the ministry, so I went to seminary instead.”

Now, after 11 years serving UU congregations and eight years as vice president for advancement at Starr King School for the Ministry, Flood has hit the campaign trail. She’s running for a seat in the Kentucky House of Representatives, and chances are good she’ll win.

Flood is one of a number of UUs running for office this year. They include a director of religious education in Florida who is running for her school board, the owner of a catfish restaurant in Louisiana who is running for Congress, and a reproductive rights advocate who is running for the Wisconsin State Assembly.

Flood, minister emerita of the UU Church of Lexington, Ky., said it feels right to enter politics at this point in her life. “My 50th birthday is coming up in April, and so I’ve been asking myself if there was another place where I could bring my skills to bear on public life.”

She was attending the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly in Fort Lauderdale last June when she received the phone call from a Democratic party leader asking her to run.

She said yes and has been campaigning ever since. “The race looks very solid for me,” she said. “This district is known as the conscience of the House. For the past quarter century it has stood up for gay and lesbian people, immigrants, for reproductive services. As a UU minister these are all issues on which I’ve taken public stands, led rallies, and lobbied for. This district fits my UU values.”

This is not her first exposure to politics. Out of college she worked for a Florida state representative and for a nonprofit for two years each. She said most people in the district know she is a UU minister and she is sometimes introduced as a minister, but she doesn’t go out of her way to introduce religion into the campaign. “I don’t want to send the message I’m interested in merging the state and religion. But I always speak with pride about my religion when I’m asked.”

Have there been any surprises? “I didn’t count on enjoying going door to door so much,” she said. “There’s something about knocking on a door and introducing myself. The depth of conversations about the issues, the opportunity to speak about my values in the face of opposition, that has been unexpectedly enjoyable.”

Claudia Jimenez is running for a position on the board of education of the 17,000-student Indian River County School District in Vero Beach, Fla. For the past seven years Jimenez has been director of religious education at the UU Fellowship of Vero Beach, a job she’ll continue if elected.

“My parents immigrated to this country so we could all get a good education,” Jimenez said. “So education has always been important to me. Rather than complaining, I believe one has to be a part of the solution.”

She said her opponent, a conservative, has attacked her on the basis of religion and her views on sexuality education. “He attacks me for being a liberal and for being UU. Because I teach OWL (the Our Whole Lives sexuality education curricula developed by the UUA and the United Church of Christ), he’s been saying my plan is to bring sex education into the schools.

“That’s not why I’m running,” she said. “If the issue of sex education does come up before the board—and we do have a lot of teen pregnancies—it’s something I’m knowledgeable about, but it’s not something I’m pushing.”

She said many members of her congregation, and others, have written letters to the local paper supporting her and condemning her opponent’s use of religion as a scare tactic. “I tell gatherings that we all come from different faith traditions,” she said. “Despite our differing theologies, we can all agree with the first UU principle that calls us to respect the worth and dignity of every person. All that any of us want is love, fairness, and justice.”

Jimenez believes she has a good chance of being elected. “I’ve always worked as a community advocate. We have a responsibility to each other. If we don’t do what we can, things won’t get better. I think voters in our district are ready for new ideas and open-mindedness on the school board.”

In Louisiana, Chester T. “Catfish” Kelley, a longtime member of All Souls UU Church of Shreveport, La., is running as an independent for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Kelley ran in 2006 as a Republican, receiving 20 percent of the vote. This time he’s an Independent.

On his website, bothpartiesarescrewingyou.com, he says he wants to work to support the military, stop the creation of “a North American Union,” stop the “New Welfare” of federal money flowing to Wall Street, stop the loss of jobs to other countries, and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

In Oregon, David Edwards, a member of the UU Community Church of Washington County, in Hillsboro, is running for a second term in the state House of Representatives. He said his interest in politics was heavily influenced by the “social gospel” of his Catholic upbringing and by “Thomas Jefferson Unitarianism.”

“My liberal faith means that we focus on common sense laws that will improve the lives of the least and the last, including children, elderly, the sick and infirm,” he said. “What I appreciate most about Unitarian Universalism is that it revolves around a fair-minded search for spiritual meaning.”

He said Oregon is “one of the most unchurched” states in the country and that religion is generally not considered a litmus test for election there.

Donna Howard, a member of First UU Church of Austin, is running to keep her seat in the Texas Legislature.

In Wisconsin, Kelda Helen Roys, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin, a reproductive health political advocacy group, and a member of First Unitarian Society in Madison, defeated five opponents in the Democratic primary for the Wisconsin State Assembly. She has no opposition in the general election and so her election is simply a matter of waiting for November 4.

Roys said she was frustrated with the “regressive” measures passed by the legislature on health care and reproductive rights issues. “I felt like I could make a positive difference,” she said. “My philosophy is that it’s not enough to know what’s right, but there’s a need to take action. I think we’re called to make the world a better place.”

Like Flood, Roys has enjoyed neighborhood campaigning. “It’s been really gratifying to go door to door and meet people who are really engaged and caring and who want us to move in a new direction. It restored my faith in democracy.” There’s a real need, she said, “for liberal religious voices to help shift the debate, to talk about the poor, about being pro-choice, and standing up for gender issues, and place those issues in an ethical and moral framework.”

In Maine, Melissa Walsh Innes, a member of First Universalist Church of Yarmouth, is running for her first term in the Maine House of Representatives. The seat has been occupied for the past two terms by another member of the congregation, Dick Woodbury, who has chosen not to run again.

Walsh Innes said her decision to run was sparked by a global climate change discussion group at church a year and a half ago. “After that I started an environmental club for kids and participated in the Democratic caucus. There was so much positive energy I decided to run.”

She added, “I decided to walk the walk rather than keep complaining about politics. My background is in social services so I’m used to representing people.” The subject of religion hasn’t come up in the campaign, she said. She notes in her campaign brochure that she’s chair of the Faith In Action Council at church. “I think that’s important.”

She said that prospects for her election are “looking very good.”

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