Rev. Jim Ryan, M.Div., Ph.D. firstname.lastname@example.org
Romano L. “Ron” Mazzoli represented the citizens of Louisville, Kentucky in Congress for 24 years, 1971-95. I was a “Friend of Ron.” Well, actually, many of us were “Friends of Ron.” This story, though, starts before I even knew that “Friends of Ron” existed, before I was proud to call Ron and Helen friends.
Bellarmine College began the Fall Semester of 1967 in late summer. As I suffered through yet another late summer bout of hay fever (no one told me that Goldenrod is the Kentucky State Flower) and the hot and very, very humid climate of the lower Ohio River basin, a group of us young Passionist monks, encouraged by our classmate, Joe Colace, decided to support Mr. Mazzoli in the primary election for State Senator in the Kentucky legislature. If he succeeded, and he did, he would run in November’s general election where the final decision was in the hands (and ballots) of the voters.
While attending Psychology 101 the instructor told about this former Bellarmine faculty member and University of Louisville law school grad who was attempting to buck the system of the local Jefferson County Democratic Party. This young upstart was informed that there were already too many Catholics being fielded by the party for that primary election. What was unsaid, but thinly disguised, was the attitude of “How dare this first generation son of an Italian immigrant stonecutter assert himself in this way!” You can see why Joe, a fellow Italian, took umbrage at this and was more than a little exorcised for us to get behind Ron.
With the blessing of Fr. Frank Keenan, Director of Students, and Fr. Roger Mercurio, Rector of the Community we were given permission to help right this wrong. Looking back, this permission was pretty bold given the opposition Ron had from a certain influential member of St. Agnes Parish (Passionist-run) who would later become Mayor of Louisville. (Ron ran against him and lost for that position in 1969.)
Be all that as it may, we worked for Ron, first in the primary. I stood for hours at a polling place greeting voters and passing out reminders to vote Mazzoli. Having won the primary the general election was in November, a very cold day for which I came to the polling place unprepared. In a gesture of human connection, so it appeared, the Republican outside poll workers offered me a cup of coffee. How kind of them, I thought, until after I drank from the cup. Do you remember, in the ancient days before styrofoam, those cups with an inside coating of wax? Yep, they gave me hot coffee in one of those cups. As a result of the coffee melting the wax, my throat was coated with that wax for the rest of the day. I don’t think I ever told Ron that story. To this day, you just might see why I regard Republicans warily.
So, Ron won that election and we young monks were bonded to him and Helen. When Ron made that unsuccessful run for Mayor in 1969, Harry Watson, then a Passionist Brother and guitarist for our singing group, “The Hip Monks,” wrote a campaign theme song. After he and I put the finishing touches on it several of us went to the Mazzoli home and sang it for Ron and Helen. “Ron Mazzoli, Ron Mazzoli. He stands to face the challenge!” It had a nice lilt to it too. Ron became an instant fan and directed that it be made the official campaign song and be included in all commercials.
I voted for Ron Mazzoli and was rewarded with an elected leader of high moral principle who fought many battles for justice. This immigrant son worked mightily and succeeded in 1986 in getting the “Simpson-Mazzoli Immigration Act” finally passed. Back in 1967 I was in the room with other “Friends,” along with Ron’s first friends – his Mom and Dad – on the night of that first victory. I never saw a father more proud of his son. In his Italian consciousness the term Senator brings to mind Augustus Caesar, Marcus Tullius Cicero and their like. And now his son was a Senator!!!
So, as you see, I have strapped my vote to the memory of supporting, working for and electing a decent person of principle. In the intervening years I have had a mixed experience when it comes to politicians (there were years that my job required working with them). My measure of their character was Ron and none of them measured up, though I should give credit to some. They tried.
In recent campaign appearances President Obama made the point that voting is not like flipping a switch. You vote, and if your candidate/party wins you hope progress will be made. And then you vote again to hold those politicians’ feet to the fire. See if they will be there for you.
In January, 1980 Ron Mazzoli was there for me, well actually for the students of the David School in Floyd County, Kentucky. I was the grant writer, aka official beggar, for this school that served students who had dropped out of the regular school system for whatever reason. As a private enterprise called an “Alternative Secondary School” and given the lower economic status of its students and their families, it should come as no surprise that the school was regularly challenged to maintain a positive cash flow. Feeling that pressure, I started reading Title 1 of the Federal Education Act. It appeared clear to me that Title 1 funds were to follow the student regardless of what school she/he attended. We called the local Title 1 Director who said that, clearly, I had misread the document. He was very definitive on that point. It was the school district that gets the funds and, besides, there really wasn’t all that much money in the Feds’ bucket.
What’s the dismissed grant writer to do but call his friend the Congressman? Ron invited me to come to Washington and he would assign his staff to help me. The short end of this story is that David School students were in fact eligible for those funds to support their education. And get this, poor old Floyd County school district was the recipient of over 1 million dollars per year to fill that bucket. (And those were 1980 dollars.) So, yes our students were eligible for those funds. What a pleasant phone call it was, with proof documents in hand, to inform Mr. Title 1 Director that the students of David School were entitled to share in that million dollar bucket.
That’s how Ron was there for the students of David School. For me, on a cold January night in 1980 Washington, DC, Ron Mazzoli got a ticket for the State of the Union Address of President Jimmy Carter. When I got to the Gallery I think the color of my ticket indicated that I could not claim a seat. So, because it was the era of not restricting overflow I can show anyone who asks the stair I sat on when I heard Jimmy’s final report to the nation.
Yes, I believe in voting and in voting in every election I can. My faith in democracy was given life by Ron Mazzoli and all the “Friends of Ron.” For the past 53 years that faith returns me to my support for that first generation son of an Italian immigrant master craftsman. Aren’t we all better off when persons of decency and principle are elected, persons who believe in democracy.