Heart for service drives Senator Mike McDonnell

Article published by Catholic Voice
Writen by Danika Lang

Serving others is not formulaic. There’s not one hard and fast way to make a difference. Public service can include coaching intramural sports, volunteering at the local homeless shelter, or even holding public office.

That’s the conviction of Sen. Mike McDonnell, who represents Nebraska’s 5th legislative district and is an active member of St. Thomas More Parish in Omaha. For him, the important thing is that everyone is serving according to God’s plan for them.

“Public service, it’s that offering of your time, talent, treasure,” McDonnell said.

McDonnell has a history of giving back to the south Omaha community where he grew up, beginning in 1989 with his work for the Omaha Fire Department. He was promoted to fire chief in 2008 and served in that role
until he retired in 2013.

As a firefighter, McDonnell responded to emergency calls in all parts of the city. He saw true poverty, pain and suffering that he hadn’t been exposed to as a child.

“Growing up in south Omaha, we didn’t have everything we wanted, but we had everything we needed,” he said.

As first responder with the fire department, he made a difference by rescuing families and salvaging homes. Now as a state senator, he continues to help people, but his objectives are long-term.

“Representing district 5 in the Legislature gives Mike a unique opportunity to represent that part of town he grew up in,” said Father Ryan Lewis, former pastor of St. Thomas More and current pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Omaha.

“That part of town that he lives in and raises his own family in, the parish that he loves, the community that he loves – it gives him an opportunity to really give back. It strikes me that being a state senator is really that, it’s selfless service,” he said.


One of McDonnell’s latest legislative initiatives was sponsoring LB641, which provides a grant through the Nebraska Public Service Commission to fund greater access to the United Way of the Midlands’ 211 helpline. The helpline, which first became available on limited basis in all 93 Nebraska counties in September 2010, will soon be active 24 hours a day, seven days week, 365 days a year and connects citizens to vital referral services in non-emergency situations. LB641 passed May 23 on a 41-8 vote.

“A Nebraskan can call this line with issues ranging from falling behind on bills to food insecurity,” said Sen. Tony Vargas, representative of Nebraska’s 7th legislative district and co-sponsor of the bill.

“As I view it, 211 is beneficial to any Nebraskan that needs a helping hand,” he said. “Our state is at our best when we reach out and help our neighbors, and LB641 will help do just that. For instance, when flooding decimated much of Nebraska this past spring, 211 took thousands of disaster-related calls.”


The passage of LB641 helped McDonnell deliver on promises he made in his first election campaign in 2016. His campaign focused on the idea that good neighborhoods build good cities, and good cities built good states. And good neighborhoods depend on well-paying jobs, good education and good public safety, McDonnell said.

Providing those things by connecting people to services such as rent and utility assistance, job training, home health care and crisis intervention is just what 211 will do.

“I look forward to hearing the success stories stemming from Nebraskans who now have an opportunity to call a funded 211 line,” Vargas said.”Success stories like a veteran who was struggling to provide food for their family, but can now call 211 to be pointed in the right direction for help, (or) a senior who has fallen victim to cybercrime, but now has resource that protects them and combats elder fraud.”


A leader in the Legislature, McDonnell also takes initiative in his parish. He is grand knight of St. Thomas More Knights of Columbus Council #10184. He also was instrumental in bringing back the “That Man is You” program to the parish and coordinating the parish festival with his wife, Amy, for the past six years, Father Lewis said.

“Our festival grew considerably in the years that Mike was in charge of it,” he said. “He’s just got natural leadership ability and people follow his strong, yet collaborative leadership model.”

For McDonnell, this collaboration is crucial for an effective legislative body. Each senator is different and brings with them unique life experiences and areas of expertise, he said.

“Our strength is that we disagree,” McDonnell said. “You’ve got 49 different people down there that disagree. It only becomes weakness if we’re not willing to compromise.”

This past legislative session, Sen. Mike McDonnell sponsored and won passage of LB641, which provides a grant through the Nebraska Public Service Commission to fund greater access to the United Way of the
Midlands 211 helpline. The helpline, which connects citizens to vital referral services in nonemergency situations, first became available in all 93 Nebraska counties in September 2010 and will soon be active 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.