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Brad Parton: Mayor in the Middle of a Church-State Debate

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Brad Parton was running for mayor of Redondo Beach, he talked about gridlock and development. He talked about recycling and what to do with what’s left of the pier--in short, he talked about the bread and butter of beach-town politics.

But New Age religion, pornography, beer in the city parks--those didn’t come up in his campaign brochures. So imagine the surprise of his constituents when, after Parton’s election in April, those issues became the buzz of City Hall.

No matter that his recycling plan gets under way this week or that he kept his campaign promise to do more for teen-agers. Cleanshaven, square-jawed and barely 29, the freshman mayor of this South Bay city has stirred more controversy in the last eight months than the previous mayor did in eight years.

In September, he said X-rated tabloids should be banned from news racks. Then he wanted to halt beer drinking at charity picnics in the parks. Then he asked the local adult school to get rid of a class on New Age healing after a voter complained that her proposal for a Bible study course had been disallowed.

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A deluge of letters to City Hall has ensued. Charges of censorship and Prohibition have been made. Since his public acknowledgement this fall that he is a “born-again” Christian, local columnists have accused him of blurring the line between religion and politics.

“People seem to think I’m just some right-wing Christian radical fanatic,” Parton said, smiling good-naturedly, “and I’m not.”

Despite his denials, he has become a local lightning rod for debate over what constitutes a healthy--or unhealthy, depending on the viewpoint--mixture of church and state.

Lifelong friends of Parton say the whole thing has been misunderstood and overblown. Their Brad Parton, they say, is just a Young Republican who happens to go to church.

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But back in the precincts, the mood of the electorate is a little bit scandalized and a lot perplexed.

“Maybe I missed something, or didn’t ask the right questions, but I never expected this religion thing,” homeowner Robbie Groark said.

Groark said she voted for Parton because he supported a park on her street. These latest developments, she adds, are “unsettling.”

Part of the controversy stems from unease in some circles about the growing involvement of fundamentalist Christians in local government. From school boards, where church groups have opposed textbooks they deem spiritually inappropriate, to city governments, where they have fought gay rights, religious conservatives nationwide are increasingly exerting pressure at the grass roots, according to both sides of the church-state debate.

“At the end of the Reagan Administration, national religious right leaders announced a concerted effort to build a political base at the grass-roots level,” said Michael Hudson, western director of People for the American Way, a nonprofit group founded by liberal television producer Norman Lear that monitors First Amendment issues.

“Their feeling was that (the lack of a broad, local political base) was the reason their moral agenda didn’t do better.”

Locally, such groups freely acknowledge that they are promoting church involvement in civic affairs. For example, the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, whose Anaheim-based Traditional Values Coalition successfully backed several anti-gay rights initiatives throughout the state in the November elections, said he has conducted a series of seminars in the beach cities aimed at teaching Christian congregations how to lobby local government.

Members of Hope Chapel in Redondo Beach recently asked the city to let them set up a homeless program in a public park. Earlier this month, in tandem with a national campaign against a series of grade-school textbooks, parents from nearby Hope Chapel-Hermosa Beach jammed a meeting of the Redondo Beach School Board to demand that the books--which they deem morbid and anti-Christian--be permanently shelved.

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It is in this context that Parton’s critics charge he ran on one platform only to promote another.

Says Frank Bostrom, an architect whom Parton beat out for the mayoral post, “If the people of Redondo Beach had known what his personal agenda would be once he got elected, he wouldn’t be in office today.”

But Parton’s supporters say people like Bostrom have gotten it all wrong.

First Elective Office

They blame the uproar on the naivete of the young mayor and on local news accounts that they believe have overplayed the “born-again” Christianity that Parton failed to mention in his campaign.

Though he had been appointed to the local Parks and Recreation Commission, and had waged a failed 1988 campaign for a vacant council seat, Parton had never held elective office until he became mayor, his advocates note.

“When you get someone in office who’s new and unpolitical, they have a tendency to do things that get them headlines because they don’t know what the limits of their office should be,” said Tim Carey, executive director of the pro-development Southern California Caucus, which backed Parton because of his positive stands on business and growth.

Carey said Parton “is a political neophyte who doesn’t know how to keep himself from being railroaded in an interview.” Because he allowed the local press to question him about his religious views, he ended up being portrayed “as a religious zealot out to put crucifixes on every building--and that’s not the case,” Carey said.

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If anything, longtime friends of the mayor say, it is politics he is zealous about.

“He’s been telling people he wanted to be President since he was a Cub Scout,” said David Douthit, a 29-year-old San Jose businessman who grew up with Parton in Campbell, a middle-class suburb of San Jose.

The son of an insurance executive, Parton was conservative even in elementary school: He sported a pro-Nixon bumper sticker on his bike. In sixth grade, Douthit recalled, Parton led a class debate in favor of the Vietnam War.

“He was like that character Alex Keaton on ‘Family Ties,’ ” Douthit said, referring to the right-wing yuppie-in-training portrayed on the TV sitcom by actor Michael J. Fox.

In high school, he said, Parton led a drive to oust a math teacher who he believed was leaving him and other students unprepared to pass their college entrance exams. Later, as a business major at San Diego State and president pro tem of the Associated Student Council, Parton wanted to make up for campuswide budget cuts by putting student fees into tutorials instead of recreational programs, friends said.

After graduation, Parton moved to the South Bay, having hired on as a contract administrator for Northrop Corp. Within months, he was walking precincts in preparation for the upcoming elections as a volunteer for the local GOP and, later, as an elected member of the Republican Central Committee in the 51st Assembly District.

It was at an organizational meeting in a Manhattan Beach restaurant that he met the man who would become his mentor--financially, politically and spiritually.

Rob Scribner, a pension planner, ex-professional football player and lay minister at the Lighthouse Four-Square Gospel Church in Santa Monica, recalled that, at the time, Parton impressed him as “the most on-the-ball guy in the room.”

“He said he wanted to be (more) involved in politics, and I told him I was running for Congress and asked him if he wanted to help,” Scribner recalls.

Scribner was subsequently beaten by incumbent Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica) in 1984 and again in 1986. But for Parton, the acquaintance paid off.

After the second campaign, Scribner helped Parton start his own financial management business and took him on as a partner in a series of real estate deals. Their partnership led to a number of valuable business contacts who later contributed to Parton’s mayoral campaign--people like sports announcer Chick Hearn and his wife, Marge, for example, who said they hired Scribner for financial advice and later were introduced to Parton as his “right-hand man.”

Under Scribner’s influence, Parton also became a “born-again” Christian in 1987 and decided to join Scribner’s church. The commitment, he said, profoundly affected his life.

Takes in Teen-Ager

On the personal side, Parton decided to take under his wing a 16-year-old boy on the fringes of a Latino gang. The boy was a friend of another youth Parton had befriended through the men’s group in Scribner’s church.

“There were problems with his mom, and he was in trouble, with the cops after him--the whole bit,” Parton recalls. “I decided this kid needed help, so I started following up. I asked if he was going to school, and he wasn’t. I asked where he was living, and he was living on the streets.”

The youth--who asked that only his first name, Mark, be used--recalls with amusement the way Parton dogged him. At one point, Parton caught Mark with some gang members in a park and chased him down--Mark in the slicked-back hair and oversized Pendleton shirt of a gangbanger, Parton in his striped tie and wing-tip shoes.

Another time, Parton said, Mark tried to run off with the daughter of a member of Scribner’s church and Parton was sent to fetch them back. After that episode, he said, he took Mark to a restaurant for a long and “kind of tearful” talk. Parton offered him a home if the boy would try to straighten up.

That was about a year and a half ago, and Mark has lived with Parton since, sleeping in a spare room in the North Redondo Beach condominium they share with a third roommate. Now 18, Mark holds a part-time job as a box boy while he works toward his diploma at a Redondo Beach continuation school.

He still slicks back his black hair and wears oversized shirts. Sometimes, he says, it is hard to identify with the mostly middle-class Anglos who populate his new life. Still, he says he is grateful to Parton.

“If it wasn’t for Brad, I’d probably be in an alley somewhere, or in jail,” he said, shrugging while sitting in the mayor’s spacious living room, with its fireplace, stereo system and glittering Christmas tree.

“Most people trying to work with gang members give up on you,” he said, looking shyly at the floor. “Even my dad had given up on me. He thought I’d be what I was for the rest of my life. But Brad, he didn’t give up.”

Parton’s political outlook also was affected by religion, he said.

“Here in city government, we deal with height restrictions, personnel--these are the important things here,” Parton said. “But we also have a homeless problem, teen-agers from broken families strung out on drugs and alcohol, senior citizens who can’t afford to live here anymore. They’re sick. They’re lonely. And I want to help them.

“People talk about keeping your values out of politics. Well, that’s absolutely impossible.”

But he added that, if he learned anything from Scribner, it was that “born-again” politicians “tend to take a lot of bashing.”

During Scribner’s second campaign, for example, the American Jewish Congress leaked a mailer he had sent to several hundred clergymen in Levine’s district, in which Scribner accused the incumbent of being “diametrically opposed to nearly everything the Lord’s church stands for in this nation.” The letter prompted criticism of Scribner as a right-wing religious extremist--an image that worsened as the campaign progressed.

Low-Profile Mentor

To this day, it is a portrayal that not only frustrates Scribner but leaves Parton’s advocates reluctant to discuss his ties to the man, which they see as a political liability. In fact, Parton had to be asked directly about his ties to Scribner before acknowledging that the two had even met--an evasion Parton said was intentional because he didn’t want Scribner to be hounded anymore by the press.

It is ironic, Parton said, that he is the one with the image problems these days. “Believe it or not, I’m not that right-wing,” Parton insists. And his friend Douthit agrees that “he’s actually gotten more liberal as he’s gotten older.”

Adds Scribner: “I don’t believe Brad is very much like me. He’s been coming to our church for maybe two years, max. I’ve been a Christian since 1959.”

Among the baffled electorate of Redondo Beach, however, such distinctions are tough to make. On a recent weekday, the stack of mail addressed to Mayor Parton at City Hall included five letters from residents who had heard he was “born again.” Four supported him; the fifth fretted that his policies would turn the South Bay into “an Orange County-like bastion of extremism.”

Parton says the attention confounds him. When he proposed the ban on beer in city parks, for example, his intention was simply to enforce an existing ordinance that had been undercut as the City Council issued one exemption after another to the Chamber of Commerce and local charities who wanted to sell beer at fund-raisers, he explained.

And when he suggested that the city get rid of vending machines that sell sleazy tabloids on the street, he said, he was just following up on complaints he had heard as he went door-to-door during his campaign.

The request to drop the New Age healing class--made in a letter to the South Bay Union High School District, which runs the local adult school--was more constituent work, he said. When he learned that the constituent was incorrect--that the school was, in fact, offering a Bible-study class and not discriminating in favor of New Age tenets--he dropped his complaint.

Parton’s colleagues on the City Council say they aren’t bothered by the controversy.

“He could be doing worse things,” said Councilman Stevan Colin. “He could be advocating drug use. While I like to see separation of church and state, (Parton’s view) doesn’t rub me the wrong way.”

It has been more than a month since Parton’s last spate of church-versus-state publicity. No matter, he said. It has gotten so that “now, Christians are calling all the time--look into this, look into that.”

For instance, when some Hope Chapel congregants wanted to start a program to document the area’s homeless problem, they proposed doing it in a city park in part, they said, because they believed they could count on Parton to be their man at City Hall. And the Hope Chapel parents who complained about their children’s textbooks to the Redondo Beach school board said they went to Parton at the start of their campaign. They believed he’d be a good person to ask for tactical advice.

It’s a tough position for a politician who, by law, must represent the entire city and whose powers extend only to vetoing council actions and breaking ties. The homeless proposal didn’t even come to a vote. And the parents who sought Parton’s advice on the textbook issue say they ignored it: He told them to tone down their demands.

The publicity so early in his tenure, Parton says, has overshadowed his civic agenda--his insistence, for example, that there be a referendum on the rebuilding of the fire- and storm-damaged pier, and his backing of senior housing and an advisory committee for the city’s teen-agers.

Still, there are no signs that the church pressure will abate.

In a recent interview, Sheldon, the fundamentalist leader from Anaheim, lauded Parton, whom he’d heard about but never met.

“We need more people like him in office,” Sheldon said. “I should call him for lunch! What’s his phone number, anyway?”


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