DES MOINES, Iowa — Sisters Jeanie and Elaine Hagerdorn are real life “sister sisters” — members of the Congregation of the Humility of Mary — who have been actively involved in every election since 1960, when the nation’s first Catholic, John F. Kennedy, was elected president.
For these sisters, 81 and 84, respectively, they’re accustomed to their home state becoming the center of the country’s attention during election cycles and have met pretty much every candidate that’s come through to make their case as to why he or she should have their vote for the highest office in the land.
This year, however, the Hagerdorn sisters are not only undecided voters — which is a first for them — as they head into Iowa’s Democratic caucuses on February 3, but they may end up supporting different candidates for the first time ever.
Despite blizzard conditions throughout central Iowa this past weekend, four of the major candidates — former Vice President Joe Biden, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Amy Klobuchar, and Senator Elizabeth Warren — crisscrossed the state touting their plans for education, healthcare, foreign policy, and more, in what they argue is the most consequential presidential election in the nation’s history.
Yet unlike most of the rest of the country, where voters head to the polls to privately cast their ballots, voters in Iowa head to a local caucus where they publicly discuss and declare who they are voting for in the election.
For some, such a process is antiquated or invasive, requiring a personal act to be made public. Others, however, defend it, saying it’s a process that involves getting to know your neighbors and trying to understand how they view the world.
Regardless of how one views the merits of such a system, whoever emerges on top in two weeks’ time will likely get a major boost in the presidential primaries.
Yet as that process gets underway, many Catholic Democrats in the state find themselves in the same situation as the Hagerdorn sisters — motivated first and foremost by a desire to oust President Donald Trump from office, and basing their caucus support on whom they believe will be the best person for that, rather than making their decision based on a particular candidate’s policy.
An Election about National Values
When it comes to his involvement in politics, Toby Paone doesn’t mince words: He’s a union member because he’s Catholic.
“Unions are a part of our faith as Catholics and it’s a holy calling to be a part of a union. It’s something that lifts up all people,” Paone told Crux. “That’s a prime motivator as to my chosen profession and what I do in my life.”
Paone, age 58, is former teacher in Davenport, who now works for the state’s largest union, the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA), and readily cites Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum on the rights of workers.
“I would say that my faith as a Catholic is a prime motivator as to why I belong to a union,” he said. But although he works in education — the number one issue he’s concerned with heading into the caucuses is foreign policy, and for that reason, he’s supporting fellow Catholic Joe Biden.
“Biden, more than any of the other candidates, can rebuild relationships with our allies,” says Paone, citing the former vice president’s “experience of dealing with the crisis in the Middle East and other places in the world.”
Yet while Biden has his support, Paone says that he’s quite happy with his options — and what he’s most motivated by is making sure Trump is a one-term president. In particular, he’s incensed that many religious leaders, especially evangelicals, have thrown their support behind the president.
“It boils my blood that you see these moneychangers in the temple standing behind Trump putting their arms on him and blessing our president,” he says. “It irks me as a person of faith to see that.”
Ardie Miller of nearby Bettendorf concurs, telling Crux that for him, this is an election about national values.
“The U.S. has lost its character. I really believe, and I’m hopeful, that we’re going to turn it around, and I’m hoping by a landslide,” says Miller, “and that we want to get back in touch with our values that reflect our faith.”
At age 67, Miller, who is a social worker and also a volunteer cantor at his local parish St. John Vianney, says the gospel’s call to social justice is a big factor in thinking through who he’s going to support. This year, he’s cast his lot with Buttigieg, the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who he believes is “a breath of fresh air.”
Miller, who had just listened to Buttigieg speak, recalled him citing scripture about clothing the naked and feeding the hungry.
“He just laid it out in terms of who we are,” says Miller — and the fact that “he’s not part of Washington” is an added bonus.
Schoolteacher Katie McDonald, 38, agrees with Miller, saying that she “really likes Pete” but Warren has her support due to her healthcare proposals.
“I want a single payer system,” she told Crux. Healthcare “should not be a privilege. It’s something that everyone should have.”
McDonald is a parishioner at St. Anthony’s in Davenport, and she says that for the most part her fellow parishioners aren’t vocal about who they are supporting in terms of a candidate — just that it’s someone who can defeat the current occupant of the White House.
“My Catholic experience in Davenport,” says Paone, who is also a parishioner there, “I would say it’s anyone but Trump.”
“People are respectful of one another. They’re respectful of the differences between the candidates, but more than 2016, there is a very strong sense of unity that whoever is the nominee, that’s who we go with,” says Paone.
For Tom Chapman, executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference, Iowa, there are “two big things” about being Catholic: “love God and love of our neighbor.”
“That requires us getting involved in the political arena,” said Chapman, noting that traditionally in Iowa, Catholics, who make up about 30 percent of the state’s population of three million, have been very active participants in the caucus process.
“Our process is really about getting the activists fired up,” Chapman says of the caucuses. “It’s different than a primary system. You’re really trying to get bodies to show up on a particular night in January or February in Iowa, which isn’t always easy.”
“You’re going to find that the people that are interested in that are really people who are most active on issues, and I think for a lot of people they bring their Catholic faith with them,” he continues. “They may emphasize different parts of it, but it’s who we are as Catholics to go out and be Eucharist in the world, and I think a lot of people take that seriously.”
Chapman, who works primarily with the state’s Catholic bishops at the Iowa legislature, says he’s actively working on a range of issues — from abortion to food stamps to immigration — but believes concern for immigrants and refugees has been a “consistent thread” for the bishops in terms of their priorities.
That’s why they’re also concerned that this is a population that, to date is largely absent from participating in the political process, with the state not having a single Hispanic in the legislature.
“Going forward, we’re going to see more and more attention” to it, says Chapman.
Father Rudy Juárez has served as pastor of St. Patrick’s Church in Iowa City for the last 15 years, and tells Crux that the Hispanic community, with a population that is expected to swell to 450,000 in the state by 2050, is “young and vibrant” and responsible for saving many of Iowa’s small towns.
Yet there is a challenge, he says, of translating that influence into the political process and that as a priest, he has to walk a fine line.
“I never ask my parishioners about their political preferences or if they’re registered to vote,” he says, but he cites a Spanish slogan that “if you can, you should,” to describe his view.
“We as priests are not to be partisan,” Juárez says. “We can be political as long as it’s nonpartisan,” he says adding that he sticks to talking about issues and encouraging people to vote.
Recently, he allowed parishioners to get up at Mass and encourage participants to caucus but he warned them that they couldn’t discuss candidates.
Two of his parishioners, Angel and Maria Hernandez, say they’ve taken Juárez’s words to heart, registering to vote as soon as they were eligible.
Maria, a hairdresser, who has voted in every election since turning eighteen, says she does so in hopes of helping to create a “better lifestyle for community.”
Born in Mexico, but an Iowa resident since she was four years old, Maria says “healthcare, immigration, and the economy” are her top three priorities when assessing a candidate.
Angel, her husband, agrees, but is quick to remind people that if they really want to support the community, it requires not getting involved when there’s a national election, but also caring about local ones as well.
He says he’s anchored by Catholic social teaching, but that rarely means there’s an obvious candidate, noting that he cares about immigration and pro-life concerns.
“It’s very hard to vote as a Catholic because you want to follow the Gospel and there’s such a split sometimes,” Hernandez told Crux.
When Kennedy won the White House, the Hagerdorn sisters were allowed to stay up past their 9pm prayers until 3am to watch the election results. Sixty years later, they’re still closely monitoring politics from early in the morning to late into the evenings while in retirement.
“It’s the Gospel call to be concerned about what happens with your brothers and sisters,” says Jeanie, who worked most of her life in religious education.
“Our Catholic roots really moved us in that direction,” she says of their involvement in politics, where they have traditionally attended every single candidate event imaginable, canvassing for their preferred choice, and making phone calls from sunrise to sunset.
Yet as the countdown is on and the election draws nigh, the Hagerdorn sisters still haven’t picked a candidate.
In 2016, they supported Bernie Sanders, who they still remain fond of and applaud him for starting a national conversation about inequality and healthcare, but fear that perhaps his moment has passed.
They’re also especially enthusiastic about Biden, with whom they’ve shared lunch during a “Nuns on the Bus” tour in 2014, and their shared apartment is adorned with photos of the Catholic candidate with the sisters — right next to their Pope Francis calendar.
But will Bernie or Biden manage to get young people into the voting booth, they both wonder, noting that the energy of young voters will be necessary to defeat Trump, something that they insist is a non-negotiable.
It’s impossible, the Hagerdorn sisters say, to separate their political involvement from their religious vocation — “making people aware that they have a voice and that they can raise that voice for their own needs, and that they have dignity,” says Jeanie.
Elaine tells Crux that when she’s weighing whom to support, she’s concerned with “your integrity, your honesty, your willingness to help the poor, and your willingness to work for the climate.”
For her, this time around, all of the candidates check those boxes so she will head into the caucus willing to be persuaded by her neighbors.
“This has been a hard choice this time around. Most of the time it’s pretty definite,” says Jeanie.
“I’ve gone all the way around the circle,” says Elaine. “And I don’t know where I am right now.”
Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212
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