Dannemeyer--Crusader or Rabble-Rouser of the Right?


There is nothing at all subtle about William E. Dannemeyer.

“You all know the difference between Ted Kennedy and the Iraqi Air Force?” the congressman from Orange County asks, barely waiting for the question to ripple through his audience of supporters before he drops the punch line:

“Ted Kennedy is the only one that has a confirmed kill.”

Even here, before a conservative San Marino crowd with whom the Massachusetts senator is as popular as a tax hike, Dannemeyer’s attempt to joke about the tragic death of a young woman at Chappaquiddick fell flat. Groans dissolved into silence, the evening’s elegant mood knocked temporarily askew.

All told, a routine night for Dannemeyer.

After 13 years in Congress, much of it spent exasperating moderate Republicans and Democrats alike and occasionally sending a shudder through his supporters, Dannemeyer has set his sights on the U. S. Senate. His target is the seat now held by fellow Republican John Seymour, the appointed successor of Gov. Pete Wilson and the anointed favorite of the national Republican hierarchy.

To friends and foes--of which there are many--Dannemeyer either is a steadfast crusader or an obsessed bigot. He sees himself as a soldier in a cultural and religious war whose outcome will determine the fate of future generations. And he rarely pulls a punch when seeking to make that point.

Hundreds of donors to an anti-abortion legal center that calls itself “God’s Justice Department” were ensconced in Yorba Linda’s Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace recently when Dannemeyer strolled in alone, his custom in this no-frills campaign. Microphone tight to his mouth, he leaned into the guts of his stump speech: Virtually all the social ills of the past generation, he says, follow directly from a virus of atheism that has infected the schools, the judicial system and the media.


“In these elite institutions of our society, the philosophy that there is no God has become dominant; it has consumed our public education system,” he said. “We need to elect men and women who will affirm the Judeo-Christian ethic as the cornerstone of our civilization!”

Allusions to God pepper Dannemeyer’s remarks. Because the nation’s ills are caused by distance from God, the congressman says, they are cured by embracing God. Take crime and drug abuse, two of the state’s most pressing problems. He rarely mentions them out on the stump, but when asked he has a ready solution: return voluntary prayer to the schools.

“The basic cause of crime is man’s rejection of the laws of God. . . . The drug problem in America is more of a spiritual problem than anything else,” he said.

In any other campaign year, Dannemeyer, whose well-publicized attacks on homosexuals and AIDS activists have gained him a national reputation, might be written off as a rabble-rouser from the religious right. This year, all bets are off.

It is not that many people are convinced that Dannemeyer will prevail. Indeed, he trails Seymour--and potential Democratic opponents Dianne Feinstein and state Controller Gray Davis--in every poll conducted outside his home turf of Orange County. Further, even most of Dannemeyer’s supporters--though not the congressman--list him as a long shot.

But Dannemeyer undeniably has the potential of making an impact along the way because of several temblors now shaking the political turf in California, analysts believe.

For one, Seymour remains unknown to most Californians a full 11 months after his appointment to the Senate. In a year in which incumbents are the targets of voter angst, Seymour inhabits the worst of two worlds--he is an incumbent without a tested statewide political base.

For another, Seymour was appointed by and is seen as an ideologically moderate soul mate to Wilson, whose popularity has plummeted along with his support for increased taxes. And Seymour and Wilson are at the forefront of a bloody intraparty feud over whether California Republicans will toe a moderate or conservative line.

“In continued bad economic times, people turn to demagogues,” said one Republican strategist not allied with Dannemeyer or Seymour.

“Bad economic times, plus residual discomfort with Wilson on the extreme right, gives Dannemeyer an opportunity. There aren’t enough votes to win but he can certainly throw a scare into John Seymour. . . . He will probably do better than people expect.”

The third--and to Dannemeyer the most important--element is growing voter distress over taxes and anger at those who raise them. While Seymour this year took the no taxes pledge, he has favored tax hikes in the past. Dannemeyer, in contrast, can point to a 13-year congressional record of voting against all taxes, even those sanctioned by the Republican leadership. In virtually every speech he delivers, Dannemeyer opens with a broadside against taxes.

There is historical precedent for Dannemeyer’s hopes. In 1990, New Jersey voters were livid at tax hikes pushed through by Democratic Gov. James Florio. But Florio was not on the ballot--so they exercised their ire on the Democrat who was, veteraS. Sen. Bill Bradley. Bradley barely defeated a political unknown whom he had outspent by more than a 10-1 margin. Anti-tax activists see Seymour as the sacrificial lamb for Wilson’s sins.

“Anti-tax, pro-family and anti-incumbent (sentiments)--we think that all three of those strands are coming together to form a rope that will hang John Seymour,” said Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, a Virginia-based organization allied with the Rev. Pat Robertson.

“Seymour’s fortunes are invariably tied to Wilson’s,” Reed added. “You get mad at the only guy you can.”

But Dannemeyer may stand in the way of his own success.

Before scores of Orange County business leaders, Dannemeyer rises to excoriate one of his favorite targets: environmentalists. According to Dannemeyer, all of the nation’s environmental groups--the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and others--have massed into one giant environmental party , which is carving great gaps into the nation’s economic foundation.

“Bear in mind, it’s green on the outside and red on the inside and we should understand this,” he said, using Cold War-era symbolism. Later, he defends his remark.

“I think the American public better wake up to the direction the environmental party seeks to take our society,” he said. “When I say they’re green on the outside and red on the inside--they’re red in the sense that they favor the totalitarian system, you know. The socialist model is the only model that has relevancy. . . . And some of them in the movement believe that all undeveloped land belongs only in public ownership.”

In quiet conversation, Dannemeyer seems fairly docile, gray-haired and smiling, his face displaying the creases of his 62 years. He is a rich man now, on the strength of early investments in Orange County real estate, but his childhood was far from comfortable.

Dannemeyer’s father ran a successful food-and-grain store when the congressman was born in Montebello in 1929. But five years later, the elder Dannemeyer was forced into a sanitarium by epileptic seizures. Dannemeyer went to work as a child to help support his family and later put himself through Valparaiso University, a Lutheran institution in Indiana, where he says he embraced his faith.

After practicing law and serving as a city attorney, he served two separate terms in the California Legislature. He sought the House seat in 1978 and has breezed to reelection ever since.

Although he has a preacher’s beliefs about religion, Dannemeyer does not have a corresponding gift for rhetoric. When he stands before a crowd of reporters or expounds anywhere on the subject of homosexuals or AIDS, he girds for battle, his smile melting away. And controversy unfailingly erupts:

He called black South African leader Nelson Mandela’s visit to Capitol Hill “a national disgrace” and compared him to the black convicted murderer and rapist President Bush drummed into the national consciousness during the 1988 presidential campaign. “Nelson Mandela is no Martin Luther King,” he said. “He is more like (black activist) H. Rap Brown or Willie Horton.”

He says divorce is “tolerable” only on the biblically sanctioned grounds of adultery and desertion. Later, when pressed, he said physical abuse qualified as desertion. He has accused feminists of undermining the family, of being “driven by an unnatural desire to be like men.”

Repeatedly, he has tried to inject into the Congressional Record or into Republican Party platforms descriptions of homosexual acts so graphic they would be condemned by Democrats and Republicans alike.

He supported two initiatives--ultimately defeated--that would have allowed the quarantining of some AIDS patients and would have allowed employers and insurers to test for the virus. He alleged that carriers of the AIDS virus emitted airborne spores that threaten all nearby.

On that last point, he now says that he erred. Actually, he said, AIDS patients secrete cytomegalovirus, or CMV, “and nurses . . . that are pregnant are advised not to take care of the AIDS patients for that very reason--they secrete CMV.” AIDS specialists say his statement is false.

Homosexuality itself, he believes, is a chosen lifestyle--and as such can be forsaken much as alcoholics can forsake drinking. Dannemeyer snorted in disbelief at a recent study that showed physical differences in the brain between gays and heterosexuals, a finding that buttressed scientific beliefs that homosexuality is in large part genetic.

“The ability to move away from the homosexual lifestyle is conditioned on the reconnection of the link between God and man,” said the congressman, who calls homosexuality a “perversion” and an “aberration.”

Many in the AIDS medical community believe that Dannemeyer has deliberately spread false statements about the disease to alarm his constituents and has forced medical authorities to spend money on education that might have been used to fight the spread of the disease itself.

Dr. Michael S. Gottlieb, the Sherman Oaks physician who in 1981 first described the AIDS disease, said Dannemeyer’s pronouncements stem from his “fundamentally anti-gay agenda.”

“His remarks consistently rekindle fear of AIDS and appeal to the public’s irrational fear of AIDS and people who have AIDS,” Gottlieb said. “And his remarks stigmatize people with AIDS as somehow dangerous.”

While he is adamant about what he describes as the spiritual failings of homosexuals, Dannemeyer says he does have sympathy for those stricken with AIDS and the virus that causes the disease. Late last week, the congressman said, he sent a letter to former Lakers’ basketball star Earvin (Magic) Johnson expressing his concern.

“For all of us, anybody infected with HIV is a human tragedy,” he said, adding later: “If there was no sexual promiscuity in America, there would be no AIDS epidemic.”

Dannemeyer’s campaign team acknowledges that the gay-basher image is widespread.

“Generally, the impression is that he’s a wild-eyed fanatic, that he wants to line them up and shoot them all,” said Steve Baldwin, the campaign’s field director, who disputes that characterization.

To the congressman’s wife of 36 years, frustration with her husband’s image is acute.

“That whole picture is just--you know, somebody dreamed it up,” said Evie Dannemeyer, mother of their three adult children. “That whole picture is all a media picture. . . . He is such a compassionate man.”

Dannemeyer and his supporters hope that the campaign will turn not on the image but on voters’ knowledge of the congressman’s position on taxes and other lesser-known concerns. Since his announcement in February that he is seeking the Senate seat, he has traveled the state talking of taxes and supporting gun ownership, nuclear power, offshore drilling and term limits for Congress.

“The issue is who do voters perceive Bill Dannemeyer to be--Bill Dannemeyer the bomb-throwing guerrilla fighter in the House, or a congressman who is not John Seymour?” asked Reed of the Christian Coalition.

The congressman will also attack Seymour as a “flip-flop” candidate, charging that Seymour’s recent change of heart on abortion rights and offshore oil drilling were inspired by political ambition. Dannemeyer, in contrast, “doesn’t move, even to the point where he may make some Republicans mad,” said Susan Carpenter-McMillan, a spokeswoman for the anti-abortion movement who strongly supports Dannemeyer.

“What you see is what you get with Dannemeyer,” she said. “This weakness has now become his strength.”

When asked what defines Dannemeyer supporters, virtually everyone on the congressman’s team sounds a variation of the same theme: They are angry.

“People are frightened and they have a right to be,” said Maureen Werft, Dannemeyer’s campaign manager. “They get a sense from government that families are not important.”

Dannemeyer has crystallized his tax position and his disdain for Seymour into the same anecdote, which he repeats across the state. It plays heavily on Seymour’s frequent boast that he is a millionaire, and on the fact that he did not pay state or federal income taxes in 1990.

“Here’s a millionaire who doesn’t pay income tax,” Dannemeyer tells the crowd. “Something doesn’t fit. So I’m going to call Mr. Seymour . . . the Leona Helmsley of California politics.”

Seymour’s tax status also explains his appointment to the Senate, Dannemeyer tells the crowd: “It was an act of compassion. The guy needed a job.”

Results may be tougher than sound bites, however. Right now, Dannemeyer’s campaign support is limited largely to fundamentalist Christians, anti-abortion activists, gun owners and tax opponents. That combination alone has been successful in local contests but rarely potent statewide.

In some respects, Dannemeyer’s effort resembles the presidential bid of Robertson, whose 1988 campaign briefly threatened but succumbed to the more mainstream candidacy of George Bush. Like Dannemeyer, Robertson found it difficult to broaden his campaign beyond the socially conservative precepts that stemmed from his religion.

Yet Dannemeyer remains optimistic.

“I enjoy the challenge,” he said. “I enjoy the competition. I enjoy the confrontation.”

Profile: William E. Dannemeyer

William E. Dannemeyer, a congressman from Fullerton, is a candidate for the Republican nomination for a two-year term in the U.S. Senate. He is seeking the seat now held by fellow Republican John Seymour, who was appointed in January to fill the unexpired term of Pete Wilson. Born: Sept. 22, 1929

Hometown: Fullerton, Calif.

Education: B.A. from Valparaiso University; J.D. from the University of California.

Career highlights: Fullerton deputy district attorney, 1955-57; assistant city attorney, 1959-62; California Assembly, 1963-66 and 1976-77; member of the House of Representatives, 1979 to present.

Family: Wife, Evie; two daughters and a son.