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Unitarian Universalists win three statewide races

Election results: Secretary of state in California and Minnesota; North Dakota reelects Senator Conrad.
By Donald E. Skinner

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Mark Ritchie

Mark Ritchie, a member of First Church Universalist in Minneapolis, was elected Minnesota Secretary of State on November 7. (Lisa Miller)

Pam Hemmingsen, a Unitarian Universalist from South Dakota, didn’t like what her state legislature was doing last spring. So she did something about it. She ran for office.

So did five other members of her congregation, the UU Fellowship of the Black Hills, in Rapid City. They all ran for seats in the State House of Representatives. That’s more than 10 percent of the 44-member congregation. Although none of them won November 7, UUs in other parts of the country did succeed.

Two Unitarian Universalists were elected secretaries of state Tuesday. Debra Bowen, a member of the UU Community Church of Santa Monica, is the newly elected California Secretary of State. She’s been a state legislator since 1992. Mark Ritchie, a member of First Universalist Church of Minneapolis was elected as Minnesota’s new Secretary of State.

For 20 years Ritchie has been president of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a nonprofit organization working to foster long-term sustainability for Minnesota’s rural communities. Two years ago he took a leave of absence to lead National Voice, a new national coalition of more than 1,000 non-partisan organizations that registered and turned out more than 5 million new voters nationwide—one of the largest non-partisan voter mobilizations in history.

Of the three UUs in Congress, two were reelected. Republican U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson, a member of the UU Society of New Britain, Conn., was defeated after 12 terms in the House, the longest anyone from Connecticut has served in the House. U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad, the senior senator from North Dakota, was easily reelected to his fifth term. U.S. Rep. Pete Stark, who has represented part of California’s Bay Area since 1973, was also reelected. Both are Democrats.

Jack Urban, a member of People’s Church in Kalamazoo, Mich., won a seat on the Kalamazoo County Commission in his first race for elected office. Asked if being UU had prepared him for this, he credited “being a longtime participant in a very nurturing church environment for over 30 years” plus “the liberating Universalist idea that permits me to search for and use wisdom from wherever I can find it.” Most helpful, he said, was a reminder from his Buddhist meditation practice “not to take myself too seriously.”

In Austin, Tex., Democrat Donna Howard was reelected to her first full term in the Texas House of Representatives. In 2005 she was elected to fill the remainder of the term of a member who resigned. She is a member of the First UU Church of Austin.

Rich Madaleno, a member of Cedar Lane UU Church in Bethesda, Md., was elected to the State Senate after serving in the State House of Delegates. Doyle Niemann, a member of Paint Branch UU Church in Adelphi, Md., was reelected to the House of Delegates. Guy Guzzone, a member of the UU Congregation of Columbia, Md., won a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates and a friend of the congregation, Elizabeth Bobo, was reelected to that body. All are Democrats. State Rep. Beth Low, a member of All Souls UU Church in Kansas City, Mo., was reelected to a second term in the Missouri House as a Democrat.

Back in South Dakota, Hemmingsen said she decided to run when the state legislature began cranking out a number of socially repressive bills. One would have banned abortion outright. (Voters rejected that ban on November 7.) Another proposed measure would have required professors to declare their political affiliation.

Hemmingsen organized a group of women called Democracy in Action to fight back. But when they went to Pierre, the state capital, for a lobby day, she said legislators avoided them. “That just told me that people who are moderate have to step forward.” So she did. And so did fellow Unitarian Universalists Justin Lena, Suzan Nolan, Laurie Wudtke, John Buxcel, and Dinah Paris.

“We didn’t just get up and say a bunch of us ought to run,” she said. “Each of us just decided that it was time to put our beliefs into action. There were bills that almost got passed that would have been horrible. And in the meantime there were 90,000 South Dakotans without health insurance. There was all this common ground we could be working on, but no one was.”

Hemmingsen said the presence of UUs in legislative races helped change the tenor of those campaigns. “In a terribly divisive time, our collective Unitarian voices provided a reasoned, thoughtful presence that shifted rhetoric away from hate and division and toward common-ground issues,” she said. “We stepped forward to serve and we did so with dignity and grace. I am proud of all of us.”

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