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Iraq War, Social Issues Drive Cooney's Bid for Congress

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Location: Kalamazoo, MI

Iraq war, social issues drive Cooney's bid for Congress


It's been a long road from Brooklyn priest to Kalamazoo professor and politician. Now Don Cooney wants to extend that path to Washington congressman.

The six-term Kalamazoo city commissioner left the Catholic priesthood 37 years ago to continue working in poor, urban neighborhoods in a less formal way and to train social workers as an academic.

From the city hall dais where he's been a fixture since 1997, Cooney's longish shock of white hair makes him an easily identifiable figure. But it's been his stances opposing the Iraq War, supporting living-wage legislation and pushing government to spend more on social programs that have made him politically recognizable.

Cooney, 71, has been considered the go-to-guy for spotlighting liberal causes on the city's agenda. But he avoids being personally polarizing.

The same mild temperament and ready smile that served him as a priest has drawn both liberals and conservatives into his circle of friends.

``Don is very passionate about what he believes and sometimes that translates into very good policy that I could totally agree with,'' said Kalamazoo County Treasurer Mary Balkema, a Republican, who often was Cooney's philosophical opposite when they served together on the Kalamazoo City Commission.

``We may want to accomplish the same goal, but we had different ways of getting there.''

Such as nude entertainment on Portage Street.

``I was against it from a moral and economic standpoint. Don opposed it because he said it represented violence against women,'' Balkema said.

Childhood lessons

Cooney's soapbox for civil rights, community organizing, the poor and opposing war is crafted from the planks of a Philadelphia Irish-American family and the nails of parents who signed on to the civil rights and anti-war movements before both became iconic.

``I think one of my most vivid memories was in 1945 when I was 8 years old and I went out to get the newspaper the day after the bombing of Hiroshima,'' Cooney said. ``When my mother saw the paper, she slammed it on her knee and said, `Look what they've done.' She hated any kind of killing.''

The Catholic Church in his Germantown neighborhood of northwest Philadelphia was a spiritual, social and intellectual anchor for the family where Cooney was the eldest of four children.

``I liked very much the order of priests in my neighborhood; they were dedicated to working with the poor and that was something I wanted to do,'' Cooney said.

So it wasn't surprising that, at age 14, he entered the seminary and was ordained a Catholic priest in 1964. He spent the next six years in a poor section of Brooklyn, teaching and working at a peace center and in civil rights.

He returned to Philadelphia and served as a parish priest for a year before leaving the priesthood in 1971.

``No one thing was responsible for my withdrawal,'' he said. ``I was spending more and more time on the streets and less and less time with my fellow priests. They were going one way. My agenda was different. I realized I didn't want to live the rest of my life alone.''

Cooney said he later wed a woman from that community, a marriage that ended after nine years. He remarried 15 years ago and has a 22-year-old stepson.

His agreement with the church's social-justice advocacy does not extend to its staunch anti-abortion stance. Calling it a ``tough issue,'' Cooney said terminating a pregnancy should be an individual decision.

Higher education

Working on the streets was Cooney's path to academia.

After earning his doctorate degree from Bryn Mawr College, Cooney mentored talented but disadvantaged teenagers and weighed joining the Peace Corps before accepting a teaching post at Western Michigan University.

For the past 32 years, Cooney has taught community organizing, social policy and race-relations classes at WMU, while maintaining ties with groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, South African justice organizations and a host of local advocacy interests.

Cooney recognizes he is up against incumbent Republican Fred Upton's long tenure and million-dollar campaign war chest. In a congressional district that hasn't elected a Democrat since the 1930s, Cooney acknowledges he has voted for Upton in the past and admits his own party has contributed no cash to his campaign.

Cooney said his own anger over the war and the lack of universal health care, combined with the $1 contributions ``I'm embarrassed to accept from such poor people,'' have ignited the political fire in his belly.

``I'm in it to win it,'' Cooney said. ``By God, these people want something to happen, and by God, I'm going to do all I can.''

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