Faith, politics go hand-in-hand for state Sen. Lou Ann Linehan
Working in politics has always been an important way for state Sen. Lou Ann Linehan to live out her Catholic faith.
“Growing up in a large Catholic family, I was taught to trust my faith in God, to respect others and myself, to act responsibly and to be a productive member of my community,” said Linehan. “I have carried these lessons with me to every stop of my professional career,” she said.
Currently representing the 39th district of the Nebraska Legislature, which covers Elkhorn, Valley and Waterloo, Linehan has been active in government and advocacy for the past four decades. Her most prominent areas of expertise are education and tax law.
“Almost every piece of legislation that I sponsor or work on reflects my values, whether it be pro-life or worrying about people who are less fortunate,” she said. “But also remembering that for the whole system to work, you have to have people who are willing to work and pay taxes.”
There should be a balance between rewarding people for hard work and assisting those in need, she said.
Her focus on social justice, human dignity and practical solutions was evident to those she worked with, including former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. Linehan ran Hagel’s successful campaign for U.S. Senate in 1996. She later served as his chief of staff from 1997 to 2000 and again from 2003 to 2007.
“First of all she’s a good person, that’s the fundamental that I always think is most important in an individual,” said Hagel. “Lou Ann believes in things, she’s principled.”
Linehan is currently sponsoring LB670, the Opportunity Scholarships Act, which increases scholarship opportunities for low-income and working-class families by enacting a tax credit for donations to nonprofit, scholarship-granting organizations.
“We’ve really found Sen. Linehan to be a tireless advocate for low-income and working-class families when it comes to ensuring that they have educational opportunity,” said Tom Venzor, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference (NCC), the public policy voice for the three Catholic dioceses in Nebraska.
“She’s really been a key advocate in ensuring that we’re giving those families every opportunity they can have to create a better future for themselves given the educational setting that is best for them,” he said.
For Linehan, school choice is the key to economic opportunity for many disadvantaged families. “It’s really important for poor kids to be exposed to hope,” she said.
“I just think we’d be a lot better off if we could get kids who come from tough backgrounds, the more of them we can get into parochial and private schools, the better. And not that the state needs to pay for it. I just think we need to make it easier for people to contribute.”
The Opportunity Scholarships Act is one of several pieces of legislation that Linehan is working on that reflects her faith. She has also been a strong advocate for pro-life Title X language in the state budget so that no taxpayer dollars go to subsidize abortion.
Linehan began her political involvement in the late 1980s when she petitioned Omaha city hall to install speed bumps in her Harvey Oaks neighborhood where heavy traffic had been rerouted through areas where children played.
She worked as campaign manager for congressional candidate Ally Milder in 1988 and 1990. She then served as the executive director for the Douglas County Republican Party for several years before heading up Hagel’s campaign.
“She’s amazingly honest,” said Hagel, recalling their working relationship. “Courage, character, integrity: Those are all indispensable characteristics and so she brought all those to her job as well as a terrific, wide ranging skill set.”
She has “great peripheral vision” and an “amazing political radar,” he said.
As chief of staff, Linehan managed between 40 and 50 staffers in Hagel’s Nebraska and Washington, D.C., offices. She oversaw the work of his legislative staff, constituent services staff and the press office.
After her first stint with Hagel, Linehan was appointed deputy assistant secretary for legislative affairs by President George W. Bush in June 2001. In this position she worked at the Department of State under Secretary of State Colin Powell until December 2002. During her time in office, right around the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, she was responsible for maintaining contact between the State Department and the U.S. Senate and facilitating the confirmation of political appointees, she said.
Linehan returned to Hagel’s Senate office in 2003 because she did not support the United States’ invasion of Iraq. “I felt the whole time like we were reacting like humans frequently do. At the time, everybody wanted to go to war, everybody wanted to hit back,” she said.
“We couldn’t prove that there weren’t any chemical weapons or biological weapons or nuclear weapons in Iraq. … But there was no proof that there were either. We were reacting out of emotion versus thoughtfulness.”
Her convictions about the war in Iraq aligned with the views of then-Pope John Paul II as well as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“War cannot be decided upon, even when it is a matter of ensuring the common good, except as the very last option, and in accordance with very strict conditions, without ignoring the consequences for the civilian population both during and after the military operations,’’ the pope said during his annual address to diplomatic emissaries to the Vatican Jan. 14, 2003.
Linehan went back to the state department as a civil servant from 2007 to 2012 as part of a provincial reconstruction team (PRT) in Baghdad. The team opened schools and revitalized hospitals as part of efforts to rebuild the city, she said. She continued working with a PRT in Baghdad until 2012, when she retired from federal service.
Returning to Nebraska, Linehan became dissatisfied with the amount of government spending at the state level. She was also concerned about high agricultural land prices as well as real estate and income taxes for all Nebraska taxpayers. She decided to run for state legislature and won election to the Unicameral in 2016.
As both a civil servant and a Catholic, Linehan sees the importance of democracy serving the good of all people.
“Government needs to stay connected to our values,” she said. It’s important to treat every human person with respect,” she said.
Although she has always worked for and supported Republican candidates and public officials, she recognizes that moral governance does not always fall on one side of the party line.
“Some of the toughest issues really aren’t Democrat or Republic or liberal or conservative,” said Linehan. “They’re just: ‘How do we fix this? How do we make it better?’”
“I think she really gets it,” said Venzor. “She knows that the church, our parishes, our schools, offer hope and hope is an invaluable dimension to human existence. Without hope it’s hard to get through life and she knows that the Catholic faith is a real opportunity for an encounter with hope.”