‘I am third’: Omaha State Sen. McDonnell’s priorities shape his life, votes
May 19, 2023
More than 40 years ago, as a seventh-grader at St. Thomas More School in Omaha, Mike McDonnell wrote a book report on the autobiography “I Am Third” by football legend and Omaha native Gale Sayers.
The book’s title is based on the late Sayers’ rule of life: “The Lord is first, my friends are second, and I am third.”
St. Thomas More, a favorite saint of McDonnell, had a similar philosophy. “I die the king’s faithful servant but God’s first,” the martyr famously said.
Today the saint and the book still echo in the life of McDonnell, now a state senator representing a portion of south Omaha and an active member of the parish he grew up in.
He said he bases his life – and his votes – on priorities similar to those of St. Thomas More and Sayers.
That might explain why the registered Democrat doesn’t always vote along party lines in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, earning him praise and ire from both sides of the political fence.
On several key issues, he parts ways with those of his fellow Democrats, notably this year on bills dealing with abortion and transgender issues.
But he also opposes the death penalty in situations where offenders can be kept incarcerated, and he supports measures that help immigrants and those in need of food and shelter.
McDonnell might be considered a traditional South Omaha Irish Catholic Democrat, said Tom Venzor, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference.
But in McDonnell’s case, Catholic should be the first word in that description, Venzor said. “He does not shy away from who he is.”
“I’m impressed with his commitment to the Catholic faith and Catholic values, which are good values for everyone,” Venzor said.
McDonnell is unusual because he strays from party lines on “culture war” issues, such as abortion, said Kevin Smith, a professor and chair of the political science department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Someone like McDonnell is becoming even more rare as people become increasingly polarized on political issues, especially on a national level, Smith said.
Deviating from a party’s platform, even in a nonpartisan Legislature, takes courage, he said.
Other Catholics in public office have kept their faith separate from their service, said Father Frank Baumert, senior associate pastor at St. Thomas More and St. Joan of Arc Parish in Omaha.
“It seems like ever since John F. Kennedy kind of backed out and said, ‘I won’t let the Catholic faith cloud my judgements as a president,’ and got elected that way, it seems to have given an excuse to every elected official to say, ‘I can separate these things,’” he said. “That’s not how God works.”
“We have to live our faith,” Father Baumert said. “And our faith in Jesus Christ has real boundaries in terms of what Jesus teaches. Things like respect for life, and that God has a plan for us, are all part of that.”
McDonnell said his daily decisions are based on his Catholic faith, his private conscience and life experiences.
In all that, a personal relationship with God is key, he said.
STAYING RECHARGED, FOCUSED
McDonnell is active at his parish. He’s a grand knight with the Knights of Columbus St. Thomas More 10184 Council and participates in all of its pro-life work. He’s also involved in That Man Is You!, the West Omaha Serra Club and an interdenominational Bible study at the Capitol for state senators and staff.
For years McDonnell and his wife, Amy, have been chairs of the St. Thomas More festival committee.
Amy McDonnell teaches children with intellectual disabilities. Their son, Ryan, graduated from St. Thomas More School and Creighton Preparatory School in Omaha and is now a student at Creighton University and a member of the Nebraska Air National Guard. He is currently deployed in Qatar.
Sen. McDonnell said he regularly participates in silent retreats using the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, including the retreats offered at the Cloisters on the Platte in Sarpy County.
An active life of faith recharges him and keeps him focused, he said.
“I believe God is always talking to us,” McDonnell said. “It’s just that we’re not listening. … I think the silent retreats have helped me with trying just to listen.”
McDonnell was the seventh of eight children born to the late Bill and Shirley McDonnell, founding members of St. Thomas More Parish.
The senator graduated from St. Thomas More School and in 1984 from Daniel J. Gross Catholic High School in Bellevue.
Those schools helped form him, he said.
“I just think that if you look at the Catholic faith, the education that I’ve received, that sums it up. God is first, my family and friends are second, and I am third.”
PRO-LIFE DEMOCRAT FROM THE START
He said he’s been pro-life since his time in grade school, which coincided with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, legalizing abortion across the United States.
He remembers classroom and family discussions on the topic.
Today, he said, “there’s people who are not happy with my decision to be pro-life, but no one should be shocked by it. … I ran as a pro-life candidate — from conception to natural death and in between.
“I think sometimes people start forgetting about the in-between.”
Issues such as the death penalty and shelter and food assistance fall into those “in between” areas of life issues, he said.
“That’s also being for life,” McDonnell said. “How are we going to assist people who need the help?”
The senator has been a Democrat since 1984, when he turned 18 and was first eligible to vote.
He was an Omaha firefighter for 24 years, retiring as fire chief. He taught labor history, collective bargaining and mediation at the University of Nebraska at Omaha as part of the William Brennan Institute for Labor Studies.
McDonnell currently is president of the Omaha Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations).
He earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Nebraska at Omaha as well as an associate degree in fire protection technology and a master’s degree in public administration from Bellevue University.
He said he decided to run for the Legislature when his neighbor, former State Sen. Heath Mello, was reaching his term limit.
McDonnell believes “part of government’s role is to try to remove any unfair hurdles from people’s lives so they can run their race. Not that we’re going to be able to remove all the unfair hurdles, but I think that should be part of government’s role. I also think government sometimes should plow the way and then sometimes get out of the way.”
McDonnell made his priority bill a bipartisan effort to attract semiconductor manufacturers to Nebraska and keep them in the United States.
It’s part of his philosophy that “good neighborhoods build good cities and good cities build good states. What creates a good neighborhood? It’s good paying jobs and good public education.”
“I think you’ve got to concentrate on those neighborhoods throughout our city and throughout the state. And I think a large percentage of our problems go away if you have good public safety and good paying jobs and good public education.”
McDonnell has one more year left in the Legislature before he reaches his term limit.
For his next move, he’s considering running for mayor of Omaha.
“My wife and I will make our decision approximately a year from now,” he said. “We’ll decide what we’re going to do, but yeah, I’m definitely considering it, discussing it, and thinking and praying about it.”