March 23-29, 2006
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
Students from Seton Catholic Experience the Lobbying Process Firsthand
ALBANY — Last week in Rochester, President George Bush disembarked from Air Force One to meet the celebrated high school basketball star Jason McElwain but he also presented Father Joseph Champlin, the former rector of the cathedral, with the Volunteer Service Award.
Feb. 9, on her way to the Winter Olympics, Laura Bush stopped to visit with Pope Benedict XVI. Noting that 16.1 million of its members voted for President Bush in the 2004 election, National Catholic Reporter Vatican correspondent John Allen Jr. sees political significance in the president’s efforts to sustain a relationship with the Catholic Church. While President Bush was in Rochester, the church was flexing its own political muscles on the other side of New York State in the Capitol Region.
Catholics from throughout New York State arrived en masse to make their case to legislators. Among the headline issues were tax credits for parents who wish to send their children to Catholic schools as well embryonic stem-cell research. Joining the throng of mobilized Catholics was a group of students from Seton Catholic Central High School in Binghamton. The student group, under the guidance of teacher George Phillips, got a first-hand look at how the lobbying process works and also got to do some lobbying of its own.
Before returning to teach at his alma mater, Phillips was a congressional aide for Christopher Smith (R-NJ), the chairman of the Pro-Life Caucus. After being lobbied himself, Phillips enjoyed the experience of lobbying other politicians. Phillips, a graduate of Notre Dame University who did his post-graduate work at Villanova, is in his first year teaching at Seton Catholic.
“This has made them [the Seton Catholic students] a little more aware of the negotiation dimension of politics,” said Phillips following a meeting with State Senator Tom Libous (R-Binghamton). While the students were meeting with Libous, they also had an opportunity to see seasoned lobbyists at work as representatives from Catholic Charities presented their concerns to the state senator. Seton Catholic senior Brian O’Connor quizzed Libous regarding his stance on embryonic stem cell research. “Stem cell research I’m still learning about,” Libous said. The state senator qualified his statement, however, noting that he had met with Kathleen Gallagher, director of Pro-Life Activities with the New York State Catholic Conference. He indicated that he was leaning toward a conventional pro-life stance on the issue. “I’m close to where you want me to be,” he said.
“It was good to meet with the representatives. They were very helpful and attentive to things we’d like to see in our state,” said O’Connor, the president of Youth for Life at Seton Catholic. Another Seton Catholic senior, Rob Frye, was enthusiastic about being offered an opportunity to lobby, noting that he was especially excited about the receptiveness the politicians exhibited regarding tax credits. He added that he was impressed with the show of force the church was able to muster for Public Policy Day. When Frye questioned Libous regarding the status of tax-credit legislation, the state senator answered that considerable progress had been made although teachers’ unions were still adamantly opposed to it. “It was good to see other people coming to support,” said Frye, who attends St. Patrick’s in Owego. Nick Rotella, a senior who attends St. Mary of the Assumption Church, was disappointed that of the three politicians the students had come to meet, Libous was the only one present.
During the discussion regarding life issues, Father Tim Taugher, pastor of St. Catherine’s in Binghamton, challenged Libous on his stance regarding the death penalty. Father Taugher pointed out that Libous’ support for the death penalty is inconsistent with the church’s pro-life position. Meanwhile, several other representatives from Catholic Charities championed the cause of healthcare services in the Southern Tier.
Joe Slavik, the executive director for Catholic Charities of Broome County, asked that the state senator “guard the safety net” and make healthcare a priority in the state legislature. Several representatives from Catholic Charities stressed that the demand for social services has increased considerably during recent years. One representative noted that 50 percent of the people who utilize Catholic Charities are children. “This has been a very good experience for the kids,” Phillips said, adding that the students had been exposed to some of the more complex issues facing the Catholic Church.