Enter on Stage Right: Crusader Dannemeyer, Defender of His Faith
Like a modern-day Daniel entering the lion’s den, Rep. William E. Dannemeyer strode purposefully into a roomful of sex educators and therapists.
The crowd, gathered to hear him debate a noted gay-rights spokesman on the subject of AIDS, gasped when the Fullerton Republican called for quarantining AIDS patients, perhaps in the 20th-Century equivalent of leper houses.
When Dannemeyer proposed making it a federal crime for gay men to donate blood, a wave of whispers rippled through the room. Gasps of disbelief followed his call to re-enact state anti-sodomy laws.
His opponent, New York University associate law professor Thomas Stoddard, head of a New York-based gay-rights action group, took his turn at the podium and declared, “Congressman Dannemeyer has just expressed so many wrongheaded ideas about AIDS, I don’t know where to begin.”
The crowd in the downtown Los Angeles hotel ballroom applauded enthusiastically, as a smile spread across Dannemeyer’s face. He shook his head in amusement, firm in his convictions and evidently enjoying the intellectual jousting.
Indeed, the 56-year-old lawyer turned champion of the religious right seems to thrive on the firing line. Whether on the road, as in the April debate, or on the floor of the House of Representatives, he seeks out chances to express his staunchly conservative, fundamentalist Christian views--be they social or economic--with evangelistic fervor.
And he seldom misses a chance to deliver a favorite homily: “God’s plan for man is Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”
Although Dannemeyer’s views generate intense controversy, they haven’t hurt him politically at home. Few would disagree that the 39th Congressional District fits him like a glove.
The affluent district--comprising Fullerton, Yorba Linda, Villa Park, La Habra, Orange, Placentia, Brea and parts of Anaheim--is a bastion of bedrock, almost Bible-Belt conservatism made up mostly of white suburban homeowners.
It also is one of the state’s most consistently Republican districts, giving President Ronald Reagan 77% of the vote in 1984. . The same year, Dannemeyer racked up 76% of the vote.
This November, Dannemeyer will face Democrat David D. Vest, who works for the Orange County Health Care Agency, and Peace & Freedom candidate Frank Boeheim in what is expected to be an easy reelection campaign.
Despite his popularity, some of Dannemeyer’s Republican constituents, including several Orange County officials, said they wish he would spend more time solving local problems.
“He’s never done anything for us,” complained one county official who asked not to be identified. “People like Dannemeyer are so interested in pushing their own ideology (that) they don’t bother to do anything for the county or their district.”
Even before his controversial AIDS proposals catapulted him to national attention during an aborted U.S. Senate bid earlier this year, the four-term congressman was well known on Capitol Hill for his outspoken views and hard-charging style.
“Dynamiter,” a nickname coined in his days as a state assemblyman, was revived among GOP colleagues in Washington for what the Congressional Quarterly termed Dannemeyer’s “bullheaded” tendency to “crash head-on into legislative obstacles rather than steer . . . around them.”
‘Don Quixote of Right’
But many Democrats and even some Republicans call him “an ideological zealot” for his militant opposition to abortion, pornography, gay rights and the equal rights amendment, and his advocacy of prayer and teaching creationism in public schools. Some critics charge that Dannemeyer is nothing more than an obstructionist, selfishly holding up congressional hearings and blocking legislation for which there is broad, bipartisan support.
Others call him the “Don Quixote of the Right,” forever tilting at the twin scourges of society--an “expanding liberal welfare state” and the trend toward “secular humanism,” which he contends is sapping the nation’s moral strength.
Most see him as the quintessential conservative, supporting a return to the gold standard, a strong national defense, cutting the size of government and getting the regulators off the collective back of private industry. He is one of the strongest voices in California for increased offshore oil and gas exploration to help reduce dependence on foreign oil.
“If you ask 435 members of the House who is the most conservative, Dannemeyer is probably going to be within everybody’s top two or three choices,” said Mike Johnson, chief of staff to House Minority Leader Robert Michels (R-Ill.)
He also is seen as someone dedicated to using the rules of the House to frustrate Democratic legislation he opposes.
“Dannemeyer takes great satisfaction in throwing down the gauntlet,” Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Sacramento) said. “He feigns this image that he’s a ‘John Wayne’ kind of guy come to town, his guns blazing. It’s great Orange County imagery.”
Above all, the wealthy but frugal native Californian is known as “Mr. Balanced Budget.”
In each of the last four years, Dannemeyer has crafted and introduced his own balanced federal budget alternative. A measure of his credibility, said one House GOP source, is that elements of his budget proposals are incorporated in the House GOP budget package each year “without fail.”
Such frugality is as much a part of Dannemeyer’s personal life as his legislative agenda.
Last year, staff members nagged him to trade in his aging car for something more befitting a U.S. Senate hopeful. Dannemeyer--arguably the wealthiest member of the county’s congressional delegation, thanks to earlier real estate investments--had resisted on the grounds that it would appear ostentatious to constituents.
When he did cave in, “even then, he wouldn’t buy a new car,” said political consultant Dave Ellis, a former aide. “He came back and said he ‘got a deal on a used one with 36,000 miles on it.’ ”
Some critics, however, charge that such penny-pinching has hurt Dannemeyer’s district.
County officials and House sources, speaking on condition that they not be identified, complained that Dannemeyer’s support for one of Orange County’s top legislative priorities--the $1.1-billion Santa Ana River Flood Control project--is lukewarm at best and intended mainly for political consumption back home.
Dannemeyer concedes that he has “real ambivalence” about supporting so expensive a project.
Some High Marks
“Given the huge deficit, flood control projects necessarily should have a lower priority,” he said. “But as long as Congress is giving out money, I think I have a responsibility to get myself to the front of the line.”
Yet even his hesitancy to support the massive flood control project wins high marks from longtime supporters.
“Initially, he may have thought the flood project was a pork-barrel thing,” said Florence Blitch, a member of the Orange County Federation of Republican Women. “But if he sees it is needed, Mr. Dannemeyer will change his mind and vote accordingly. Now that’s a good congressman.”
Beyond his influence on budget legislation, however, Dannemeyer’s congressional proposals generally do not fare very well, in part because he is a member of the minority party. Some observers believe he has chosen the role of what congressional scholar Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute called the “ideological prod . . . of the Right,” whose chief aim is to focus public debate on the conservative agenda.
On occasion, Dannemeyer has charged well to the right of the Administration on budgetary matters and other issues. He was one of a group of conservative Republicans, including New York Rep. Jack Kemp, who in 1982 balked at Reagan’s plan to raise taxes on cigarettes and telephone service, permit withholding of taxes on interest and dividends, and repeal tax breaks given to business the previous year.
Dannemeyer insists that he and others were remaining true to the principles that have shaped what he calls “The Reagan Revolution,” to drive down tax rates and balance the federal budget.
William Edwin Dannemeyer was born Sept. 22, 1929, in Montebello to German immigrant parents. His father commuted from their South Gate home to his feed and grain store in West Los Angeles until epileptic seizures forced him into a sanitarium when Dannemeyer was 5.
Years later, the Fullerton congressman surprised many colleagues when he supported legislation to help epileptics that had been authored by Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), himself an epileptic. Coelho said Dannemeyer’s backing, given his anti-spending reputation, helped win wide support. “Members said, ‘If Bill’s for it, it can’t be all bad,’ ” Coelho said.
The ill health of Dannemeyer’s father, coupled with the Depression, cost the Dannemeyers the family business. To help make ends meet, Dannemeyer sold magazines and delivered both morning and afternoon newspapers. He credits his mother’s religious faith--from which he later rebelled--and the support of his uncles with helping him through those troubled years.
Dannemeyer, working at a variety of jobs, subsequently put himself through Valparaiso University, a private Lutheran college about 45 miles southeast of Chicago in Indiana, where he says he “came to know Jesus Christ in my personal life.”
And it was on a 1949 trip to Washington as a college intern, Dannemeyer says, that he “developed that bug in my head to serve someday in Congress.”
In 1952, he was graduated from Hastings College of Law, a branch of the University of California in San Francisco. There followed a two-year military stint--as a self-described “spook” in the Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps in West Germany--after which Dannemeyer moved to Los Angeles to study for the bar exam.
Married Minister’s Daughter
While living in a Lutheran-run hospice in downtown Los Angeles, he met and soon married another dormitory resident, school teacher Evelyn Hoemann, a Lutheran minister’s daughter from Kansas. They have a son, two daughters and two grandchildren.
Dannemeyer was a deputy district attorney in Santa Barbara County for two years before opening his own law practice in Fullerton in 1957. By 1959, he had become assistant city attorney.
In 1962, he won a state Assembly seat on his first try for public office as a Democrat in conservative Republican territory. He left his mark after four years with the passage of legislation creating night traffic courts, so that people who wanted to fight traffic tickets wouldn’t have to miss work.
“Bill was an anachronism as a Democrat,” recalls Vic Vesey, a former Republican congressman who served in the Assembly and later in the House with Dannemeyer.
“He was very conservative even then. More often than not, he voted with the Republicans,” said Vesey, now professor emeritus for industrial relations at Caltech in Pasadena.
In 1966, Dannemeyer lost a bid for a new state Senate seat created by reapportionment. It was, he now says, “a bad year to be a Democrat,” referring to Reagan’s first electoral sweep in the gubernatorial race that year.
Out of office, Dannemeyer reflected on his increasing disaffection with the Democratic Party, which he says “does not permit conservative people to rise in the ranks.” In 1967, scrapping 17 years of affiliation with the Democratic Party, he re-registered as a Republican.
Reelected Ever Since
Dannemeyer, after an unsuccessful Assembly campaign in 1972, was victorious four years later. And in 1978, determined to realize his dream of going to Washington, he ran to succeed retiring Orange County Republican Rep. Charles M. Wiggins. He won 64% of the vote and has been reelected ever since by margins of 70% or more.
In Washington, aides say, Dannemeyer works long hours attending hearings and churning out volumes of position papers and news releases on issues as diverse as the nuclear arms race, deregulation of domestic oil and natural gas, U.S. dependence on foreign oil--and, of course, a balanced budget. In his spare time, friends say, he is a devoted tennis enthusiast.
Dannemeyer seldom misses votes in the House or in committee. In 1985, despite a heavy schedule of campaign appearances in California, he participated in 91% of the recorded House votes.
Since 1978, Dannemeyer has waged an uphill battle for a greater voice in House affairs for minority members like himself. What he lacks in influence in his committees (Energy and Commerce, Judiciary), he makes up for with rhetoric and parliamentary tactics that Democrats call “obstructionist.”
He has campaigned strongly, for example, against protectionist legislation requiring “domestic content” in autos sold in the United States, dubbing one proposed bill “The United Auto Workers Wage Preservation and Anti-Auto Consumers Act of 1983.”
Dannemeyer has raised one technical challenge after another to stop bills often widely supported by other Republicans in the health subcommittee, to the exasperation of his chief legislative opponent, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), the subcommittee chairman.
In 1980, Dannemeyer blocked action for weeks in the Energy and Commerce Committee on a child health care program, demanding recorded votes and insisting that a quorum be present.
“Anytime there’s a rule that gives one member the opportunity to blow things up, he’ll do it,” Waxman said. “Oftentimes we’ll have a bill that everybody is for--except him. And he’ll just blow it all up on a technical point of order, and make us produce everybody at another time--just to put out a bill everyone is already for.”
At a hearing several years ago on alternatives to institutionalizing the mentally ill, Waxman and his staff were trying to calm one very nervous witness. Then Dannemeyer “jumped up and objected to our even holding the meeting,” Waxman recalled.
‘I Don’t Care’
“I asked him: ‘What purpose could you have to do that? It’s not as if we’re going to pass legislation today. People came from all over the country to testify.’ He said, ‘I don’t care; the rules permit me to stop this meeting and I’m going to stop this meeting.’
“I remember feeling so appalled, because here we had a witness who was so nervous and couldn’t understand what was happening. I don’t know how you could ever explain to such a person why this man was ranting and raving,” Waxman said.
Congressional scholar Ornstein said Dannemeyer’s methods reflect his consistently conservative ideology. But liberals like Waxman, and even some fellow Republicans, are baffled by the extremes to which he carries his ideological views.
On a bill to fund the National Institutes of Health, for example, Dannemeyer sought to bar funding for research on live human fetuses, including amniocentesis and fetal monitoring.
“He started from the premise that the only reason anybody would want to learn anything about a fetus is to abort that fetus,” Waxman said. “He made every doctor at the National Institutes of Health sound like (Nazi war criminal) Dr. (Josef) Mengele.”
“He was not willing to look at the fact that most of the work he wanted to stop is really devoted to help people conceive . . . or to keep the fetus healthy,” Waxman said. “But nuances and subtleties are of no interest to Bill Dannemeyer. He has one speech, one theme and it really is one that he won’t re-evaluate in light of any new evidence.”
Last month, Dannemeyer and Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) introduced the Omnibus Family Decency Protection Act of 1986, anticipating recommendations from the President’s Anti-Pornography Commission.
In California, Dannemeyer also helped launch one of three major groups organized to defeat state Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird. At the 1985 state GOP convention, he unveiled a three-foot stuffed turkey dubbed “Rosie” to symbolize his opinion of her court.
But it is with AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome, that Dannemeyer has garnered most attention.
Last summer, two weeks after medical experts said a blood-screening test had rendered the nation’s blood supply 99% safe from the AIDS virus, Dannemeyer challenged its accuracy. He claimed there were false readings in 4% of the tests, which were being performing on virtually every unit of blood donated to halt the spread of AIDS through transfusions.
Medical authorities, however, said the number of false readings was much lower. Also, false readings more often indicated exposure to the HTLV-III virus, which would lead to rejection of that unit of blood anyway, they added.
Last week, Dannemeyer became the first California public official to back a November ballot initiative by followers of political extremist Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr. that could result in quarantining AIDS patients and persons exposed to the virus.
The same day, Dannemeyer said he would introduce legislation making it a federal crime for anyone testing positive for exposure to the virus to participate in an “exchange of bodily fluids,” including kissing.
Criticism From Gays
Earlier, Dannemeyer proposed making it a crime for male homosexuals with more than one partner to donate blood, and to withhold federal funding from cities that failed to close gay bathhouses.
Gay-rights groups criticize Dannemeyer for politicizing--and polarizing--what had been a public health issue. They have also criticized him for hiring as an AIDS consultant anti-gay psychologist Paul Cameron, whom the American Psychological Assn. expelled in 1983.
Cameron--who advocates quarantines of homosexuals, drug users and prostitutes with AIDS--was accused by fellow psychologists of “misrepresenting and distorting” the research of others to support his conclusions that homosexuals frequently are mass murderers and child molesters.
Dannemeyer later claimed to be unaware of Cameron’s background, saying the psychologist was referred to him by an Orange County church leader whom he declined to name.
When he declared himself a candidate for the GOP Senate primary earlier this year, Dannemeyer said AIDS patients emit “spores” that can infect pregnant women and their unborn children. He dropped the claim after reporters asked for medical documentation.
Gay-rights activists called it “gay bashing, plain and simple.”
Yet Dannemeyer insists that he is trying to “protect the public health,” something he accuses public health authorities of failing to do. He believes that homosexuality is a sin and that gays should repent and change their life style. But he denies that his religious beliefs are the real motive behind his stance on AIDS, as gay groups have charged.
Gave Up Campaign
Dannemeyer also denies that his crusade on AIDS is a calculated appeal for funds and votes from the religious Right. He did, however, make AIDS the focus of two mailers soliciting funds for his failed senatorial campaign, according to political advisers.
Funds did not materialize and Dannemeyer eventually dropped his Senate bid, grumbling that he was unable to raise the “obscene” amount of money necessary to run for statewide office.
However, members of Los Angeles and Orange County gay GOP organizations said he failed to get financial support because he is out of step with average Republicans.
“I think the polls and his treasury showed that the rank and file of the Republican Party will not accept any bigotry toward gay people,” said Frank N. Ricchiazzi, founding member of the Log Cabin Club in Los Angeles, a gay Republican political organization.
Dannemeyer disagrees, contending that polls show his proposals and concerns regarding AIDS match those of most Americans.
“There’s no question but that I’m in tune with the great majority of the American people,” he said after the April conference on AIDS in Los Angeles.
At the very least, Dannemeyer is confident that he reflects the views of people in his district. “If I didn’t reflect the attitudes of the people I represent, I wouldn’t be reelected.”
Rep. William Edwin Dannemeyer Age: 56 (born Sept. 22, 1929). Family: Married to the former Evelyn Hoemann for 30 years; 3 children (Bruce Kim Susan) and 2 grandchildren. Time in Congress: 1979 to present. District office: 1235 N. Harbvor Blvd., Suite 100, Fullerton, Calif. 92632 714/ 922-0141. 39th District at a Glance Demographic Profile Population, 525,858 Republicans, 55.8% Democrats, 34.7% Declined to state and small parties, 9.5% Total households, 183,583 Household income (mean), $28,034 Households with income above $50,000/year, 17,877 Households below poverty level, 5,914 Asian/Pacific Islanders, 4% Spanish origin, 13% Blacks, 1% Whites, 88% Others, 1% (Population totals more than 100% because official U.S. Census statistics include some people in more than one category.) Foreign born, 57,104 Median age, 29 Primary industry, Durable Mfg. Primary occupation, Clerical, Craft/Repair, Assemblers Government employment, 32,156 Federal contracts (in billions, 1984), $1.2 Households receiving: Social Security, 30,214 Households receiving Public Assistance, 9,835 Population under 24 who have completed 4 or more years of college, 69,243 Single parent households, 12,623 Six or more in household, 10,000 Live in rented housing, 160,642 Live in owner-occupied housing, 354,649