Stella O’Leary can be best described as a modern Irish patriot. Having supported Bill Clinton, she has since backed Hillary Clinton on her journey from the senate to the brink of the White House, writes Bette Browne
As Hillary Clinton made history this year by becoming the first female presidential nominee of a major US political party, an Irishwoman who helped set the event in motion decades earlier was “overwhelmed with joy”. The woman is Dublin-born librarian turned Washington political power broker Stella O’Leary. And while O Leary is far too modest to claim a place in political history, the record attests to the role she played in Clinton’s journey that could now lead back to the White House — this time as commander-in-chief.
Clinton and O’Leary have been close for decades and Ireland is the glue that has bound them together. Their friendship began during the presidency of Hillary’s husband, Bill Clinton, who shifted the power of his administration behind the Irish peace process.
Inspired by this, O’Leary founded the Irish American Democrats Political Action Committee (PAC) in 1996 to work for Clinton’s re-election so he could continue his efforts to forge an Irish peace agreement, which he ultimately helped to secure in 1998.
Two years later, O’Leary had a new mission. This time she vigorously supported Hillary Clinton’s successful bid for a New York senate seat in 2000, which ignited her political career.
In 2004, when Clinton was contemplating a momentous bid for the US presidency, O’Leary strongly recommended she should run. Others felt it was premature, but O’Leary was enthusiastic, both about the candidate and the historical significance of such a presidential bid, promising to help her politically and financially.
The Irish in America have often voiced support for political candidates but O’Leary knew this time it would be different because she would be able to put a powerful instrument at Clinton’s disposal — the Irish-American Democrats PAC.
O’Leary also wanted to ensure that America’s involvement in Irish issues would endure long after Bill Clinton left office. Her PAC would play a central role in her plan. What had begun as a one-woman enterprise in 1996 had since helped to transform the political landscape in Washington, tilting it firmly towards constitutional solutions to the Troubles, underpinned by US financial support.
O’Leary modelled the PAC on the powerful Jewish lobby groups that she saw in Washington winning support for Israel. “It was unbelievable,” says O’Leary. “There were 35 Jewish political action committees. I explored why the Irish had none, and the reason was interesting — the Irish never needed one. When they had a political question or needed a favour they simply got on the phone to senator Kennedy, or senator Leahy, or Chris Dodd.
“But Irish friends like the Kennedys would soon leave the halls of power in Congress. I believed it was time to look to a new generation.”
The PAC’s aim was simple, she says. “We wanted to support Democratic candidates for national and state elections, who promote peace, justice and prosperity in Ireland.”
It has since raised millions of dollars for congressional and presidential candidates and is made up of political heavy hitters from around the country.
Spurred on by O’Leary, the PAC proceeded in the 2008 race to get out the votes and cash that helped Clinton come within reach of the Democratic nomination, though in the end Barack Obama surged to victory.
O’Leary followed Clinton’s lead. She rowed in behind Obama’s candidacy and bided her time — until this year. She has now blitzed across a dizzying number of states campaigning for Clinton, culminating in the opening of an Irish for Hillary campaign office in Cleveland, Ohio.
“I’ve been reaching into red (Republican) states with Irish populations and organising Hillary rallies in Georgia, North Carolina, Nebraska, Ohio, and Pennsylvania,” she said.
A highlight came in Atlanta, Georgia, when David Fitzgerald, a leading Irish-American member of the Republican party introduced her by declaring: “I am a registered Republican and I’m voting for Hillary Clinton because I consider her the most qualified candidate ever to run for the US presidency.”
Like Clinton, O’Leary describes herself as a feminist. “Most of Hillary’s support comes from women and I’m proud to be an Irishwoman who has been working for Hillary for so many years.”
Like Clinton, she is also resilient.
Stella Heneghan was one of four children, three girls and one boy, and was born and raised in Dublin. She graduated from UCD and moved to the US in the 1960s as a trained librarian to archive a collection of Irish manuscripts bequeathed to Catholic University.
She did not intend to remain in the US but fate intervened. She met and married Tom O’Leary and the couple settled in Washington. Thirteen years after their marriage, her husband died and she was left to raise their four children alone. Over the years, her children moved into successful careers, with one daughter presenting a case before the US Supreme Court.
Today, Stella O’Leary is a grandmother to three girls and two boys, and aunt to a host of nieces and nephews. Her brother lives in the US, one sister died a few years ago, and her other sister lives in Templeogue Dublin, and has six children, two of whom emigrated to America and one to London, while the others live and work in Dublin.
A number of years after her husband’s death she met her partner, the late Tom Halton, a professor of Latin, Greek, and early Christian studies, at the Catholic University of America. Together they authored the seminal reference volume Classical Scholarship: An Annotated Bibliography.
Stella O’Leary can be best described as a modern Irish patriot, who relishes politics and is known on both sides of the Atlantic for her work in ensuring America’s continued engagement with peace and prosperity in Ireland. She has accompanied Clinton on most of her 10 visits here — five as first lady and five as senator or secretary of state.
In 2011, O’Leary founded the Clinton International Summer School, housed at the University of Ulster Magee campus, which provides scholarships to students from former conflict zones to explore projects on economic development in their countries.
That same year, on the recommendation of then secretary of state Clinton, President Obama appointed O’Leary as an observer to the International Fund for Ireland. Since 1986, America has invested $500m in the fund to further peace and reconciliation projects.
O’Leary’s most recent accolade was being named among Irish America magazine’s 2016 ‘Fifty Power Women’.
But even as O’Leary continues to chase votes for Clinton in the final days of this campaign, she doesn’t exaggerate the power of the Irish-American vote. Its real power, she says, lies in the fact that Irish-Americans come out and vote — for both major parties. “Almost 39m claim Irish heritage. At a certain point the Irish divided and they are now, as far as Congress goes, about 50% Republicans and about 50% Democrats.
“The reason the Irish are so important to politicians is that they’re terrific voters.”
She illustrates the point by citing the example of congressman Joe Crowley, who represents a district in the New York borough of Queens. “Crowley has 18% Irish in his district. His vote at election time is 45% Irish and that’s because the other ethnic groups are not voting as consistently. The Irish vote and so they’re very important to American politicians. That holds for both sides.”
But this time she’s hoping they will swing it for one particular side and help Hillary Clinton in her latest bid to make history. “This time she will shatter the highest and hardest glass ceiling of all,” predicts O’Leary, “and her presidency will benefit not only Ireland and Irish-Americans but all Americans as she works for peace and prosperity on both sides of the Atlantic.”
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