Well-known Catholic author wins council seat in Steubenville by thinking outside the box
Kimberly Kirk Hahn is known in Catholic circles as a best-selling author, speaker and apologist. She is also the wife of Scott Hahn, a high-profile Catholic theologian and author, and together they are among the best-known Catholic converts in the world. But last spring, when Mrs. Hahn ran for the city council of Steubenville, Ohio—the home of Franciscan University of Steubenville (FUS) and where she has lived for 25 years—she discovered that while she may be known halfway across the globe, she had little name recognition in her own hometown.
That officially changed last week when Hahn won the city council at-large race by a 2,711 to 2,166 margin. She is the first Republican to be elected to any Steubenville city office in 12 years and only the third Republican to sit on city council in at least 25 years.
To land her seat, Hahn had to think outside the box. In the spring she put together what she calls her “Kitchen Cabinet”: 12 close women advisors of various ages, interests and political parties. They met weekly to brainstorm ideas about how Hahn could get better known in the city, and the members assisted with events and campaign details. She also formed a steering committee of 12 who met every three weeks to help her with the broad sweep of the campaign and offer big-picture guidance.
Hahn and her committee members held 29 coffeehouse meetings, issued invitations to business leaders, gave presentations, visited retirement homes, hosted a barbecue at a housing project, invited hundreds of people to a park event and manned a booth at the county fair for a week. Along the way, campaign members videotaped citizens’ ideas for how to change and improve the city.
Hahn also held an event for the more than 1,000 FUS graduates living in the community of Steubenville. The university—the one place in town she was known—forbade all political campaigning on campus, which forced her to take a more creative, comprehensive approach.
“FUS’ decision let me know that I couldn’t rest in any way on the university. I wanted to reach out to the whole city, but this made it essential. There’s no question it worked—I won by 12 percent of the vote, but only three votes more than my opponent [also a Catholic] in the precinct the university sits in. I believe I would have received hundreds of votes from students if I been able to make my case on campus, but no matter … it spurred me on to work for the vote in the community.”
Perhaps the biggest question isn’t how Hahn won but why she ran in the first place. The former homeschooling mother of six and now a grandmother of 12 (one in utero) says she’s always been interested in how faith interacts with the public square. Her grandparents were both state representatives—her grandfather served three terms in Olympia, Washington, and when he took a different position in the government, her grandmother ran for his seat—and won seven terms before dying of cancer.
“I had a chance to be an honorary page for a couple of weeks when I was 12 years old, and I saw the respect she had for her work in the way she chaired her committee meetings. She was intelligent and gracious, principled and compassionate—it was the whole package,” recalls Hahn.
Although Hahn has helped other political candidates and has been involved in the pro-life cause, she’s always had children at home, into whom she was pouring all of her energy.
“When my youngest went off to school, I looked across the table and said to my husband, ‘Well, what am I going to do next?’ And knowing me well, he said, ‘Maybe it’s time for politics?’ I looked at him, wide-eyed, and said, “Maybe it is.’ So I began to pray and talk with people in the area. I could run for my ward only, or for the whole city at large. The people I sought advice from said, ‘Go big, go for the the whole city—you have a heart for all of it.’ So I did,” says Hahn.
Her challenges will not be insignificant. Hahn says that in order to begin revitalizing the city, she must tackle two major problems. The first is drug-related crime. With its proximity to centers like Columbus, Cleveland, Youngstown and Pittsburgh, Steubenville is a hub for drug activity, which has generated gangs, as well as increased gun crime and general violence.
“I don’t know why we aren’t eradicating this more effectively, but people are afraid. We have thousands of good people, but they have a sense that it’s not their town anymore,” says Hahn.
The other major obstacle Hahn wants to address is the way the city looks.
“There is no beautiful entrance to Steubenville, but when you exit you see signs of improvement all around, mainly from money invested by the oil and gas companies. None of that is having an impact here because people are concerned about crime and the look of the city. We need to get really serious about both if we want to attract business and new residents.”
In spite of the city’s problems, Hahn is quick to point out its assets, which she calls “tremendous”—such as low cost of living, low property taxes and no traffic.
“We also have a ready, willing and able work force. We are on the Ohio River. We have easy access to rails and highways. We are a hub. And we’re a very caring community—people here genuinely reach out and help each other. It’s the kind of place you want to raise a family. I’m so grateful I was able to raise mine here,” Hahn says.
Steubenville also boasts one of the leading community colleges in Ohio called Eastern Gateway. And of course there’s FUS (Franciscan University of Steubenville), which attracts students and professors from around the world.
A better relationship between the university and the city is another thing Hahn hopes to foster. Early in its existence the university moved from downtown to its current hilltop location. It was a perfect property for the school, but the unintended consequence was a sense of separation from the locals and the city itself. Slowly that is changing. Hahn says some new development projects by the University will have big benefits for the city, and there is much more both entities can do to work together.
Hahn says she is deeply committed to serving everyone in Steubenville, and she’ll be relying on prayer for wisdom.
“I’m looking for Scriptures that will give me the mind of Christ as I go into this so I can have the grace and light and be a bridge-builder. I want to have my principles clear. I want to listen to many points of view. I have my own leanings, but I want to understand what leads others to different perspectives. I’m also praying for the grace to weigh criticism and find the kernels of truth in it. My focus always needs to come back to how I am being a public servant. How am I caring for the people of this town? Am I communicating that in the way I speak, in the way I respond?”
She says prayer is a good place to start for anyone who wants to make a difference in their local community or government.
“I would encourage people to get a list of everyone in charge of the city government, then give it to others, and ask them to pray for these people …” says Hahn. “Ask the Lord to bless your area and ask if there’s something more he wants you to do to have an impact.” Hahn recommends attending committee meetings and getting involved in the issues that concern you.
“We don’t want to treat government as Satan’s turf—our faith needs to permeate every area of life,” says Hahn. “Pope Francis said it’s time to get our hands dirty—to get involved in the muck of life and communicate God’s care and his love to people who feel they have no voice.”
Zoe Romanowsky is lifestyle editor and video content producer for Aleteia