Conservative Christian activists, melding their religious zeal with political savvy, have become a potent force in San Diego politics, winning stunning victories seen nationwide as a harbinger of the “Christian right’s” growing clout.
In 1990, the Christian activists made an impressive political debut, gaining control of the local Republican Party’s governing body and later winning two-thirds of the nearly 90 low-profile races that they contested in countywide.
Hoping to strengthen that political foothold, they plan to target twice as many San Diego campaigns this year--a crucial electoral test that could determine how much their strategies will be imitated by admiring Christian activists throughout California and the nation.
“The question is whether 1990 was a Christian tide that reached shore and then receded back out to sea, or the beginning of a continual crashing wave,” said Ralph Reed, executive director of the Virginia-based Christian Coalition, an outgrowth of the Rev. Pat Robertson’s 1988 presidential campaign. “San Diego is one of the major places where we’ll get the answer in 1992.”
The movement took San Diego politics by surprise in 1990 with a strategy that targeted low-level races that get little attention from voters or the press, and where opposition tends to be minimal. In many cases, the campaigns were run quietly, with little attempt to let the majority of voters know the Christian candidate’s platform. The tactics worked--but also stirred more moderate opponents to organize in an attempt to avoid a repeat performance in 1992.
San Diego’s Christian fundamentalists, aligned with anti-abortionists, view Campaign ’92 as a critical step in a long-range plan that envisions persistent moves up the political ladder. Having started at the lowest rungs--the smaller school boards, councils and other community posts--they are seeking this year to move up to mid-range offices such as county supervisor and state Assembly. By decade’s end, they hope to climb to major roles in big-city mayoral, statewide and congressional campaigns.
Their ladder is planted firmly on a platform of “traditional values"--code words that opponents argue disguise an ultraconservative agenda of anti-abortion and pro-gun policies, book bans and opposition to advice about contraception or pregnancy counseling in schools and use of public offices as a forum for dispensing biblical maxims.
The local fundamentalist officeholders already are moving forward on those and other controversial fronts, prompting criticism that they want to impose their religious beliefs on the rest of the community and are blurring the lines separating church and state.
“We could use more morality and biblical principles guiding government,” responded Dan Van Tieghem, the Christian Coalition’s former regional executive director. “Politicians like to see the world as gray, not black and white. But we’re saying that there are absolutes, there are cases where there is a right and a wrong.”
Those passionate differences crystallized at a recent Oceanside Unified school board meeting at which the board, amid intense opposition, voted to continue a policy allowing students to be released for confidential medical appointments without parental consent.
During the contentious debate, fundamentalist board member Dean Szabo, who strongly opposed the decision, pulled a Bible from his jacket pocket, offending many in the audience.
“There are the laws of the state of California, and there are also the laws that are written in this book,” he declared.
Just as Christian activists statewide and across the country closely monitor the so-called “San Diego model” in the hopes of duplicating it, so does an unusual alliance of Republican moderates and civil libertarians who want to block the local group from reaching its loftier political goals.
Largely caught off guard by the fundamentalists’ 1990 success, that coalition of opponents expresses caustic disdain both for the “religious right’s” conservative social agenda and its campaign tactics, which they say include “stealth” campaigns all but invisible to the general public, resume-puffing and character attacks on opponents that were disavowed after they had done their damage.
“I have a problem with candidates who tout morality as their basis for running, yet then do some pretty unethical things in the name of Christianity to get elected,” said Rita Collier, president of the Mainstream Voters Project.
A nonpartisan San Diego organization whose birth was prompted by the rise of the religious right, Collier’s group publishes occasional bulletins about candidates and officeholders it views as extremists in an effort to stimulate greater public awareness about their activities and avoid any more surprises like 1990’s.
In the June primary that year, anti-abortionists and ultra-conservatives gained control of the local Republican Central Committee, ousting many longtime party activists in the process.
Five months later, in the November general election, 60 of the 88 contenders appearing on a “Pro-Family Candidate List"--which identified them as people “who espouse strong, traditional family values and oppose the senseless killing of innocent unborn children"--won races for a variety of school board, city council, hospital board, and fire and irrigation district posts throughout San Diego County.
Both sets of victories shocked more moderate Republicans.
“Nobody thought they could pull it off,” said Barry Stratton, an unsuccessful 1990 Poway City Council candidate. “I saw everything happen, and I didn’t believe it myself. When I was running, I thought they were crazy and underestimated them. I still think they’re crazy, but I don’t underestimate them.”
Paradoxically, the origins of those 1990 victories can be found in two earlier losses.
In 1989, businessman Dick Lyles, drawing heavily on backing from Christian and anti-abortion activists, received an impressive 38% of the vote as a write-in candidate in a 76th Assembly District runoff against Republican Tricia Hunter.
Supported by a similar coalition, Connie Youngkin, an Operation Rescue member who has been jailed twice for protesting outside abortion clinics, came within several hundred votes of unseating the heavily favored Hunter.
“That gave us a real sense of the potential,” said political consultant Byron Wear, who was active in both the Lyles and Youngkin campaigns. “If we could do this well with someone who wasn’t even on the ballot and with another candidate with a jail record, we began to wonder how strong this thing really was.”
Steve Baldwin, along with Barry Jantz, his partner in Jantz-Baldwin Political Consulting, helped organize the San Diego slate for the California Pro-Life Council by soliciting candidates and later offering strategic guidance for their individual campaigns. Baldwin said he believes that the Christian community “just scratched the surface in 1990.”
“In some ways, it was a trial run, a test,” said Baldwin, a 35-year-old conservative activist making his second bid for a state legislative seat this year. “We got a better sense of what works and what doesn’t, how to organize things. This year, we’re going to find out whether that snowball effect we saw last time works on a larger scale.”
Indeed, the Christian activists, who increasingly are reaching out to their philosophical allies in the anti-tax and pro-gun movements, plan to field about 200 candidates in San Diego this fall, many of whom will be seeking higher posts than those sought in 1990.
Loosely organized with the Pro-Life Council as an informal rallying point, the fundamentalists plan to establish a candidates school to groom the dozens of new challengers, and to raise money for radio commercials.
“It’s going to be a whole new ball game, no doubt about it,” Baldwin conceded. “We’re aiming higher, and the higher you go, the less powerful our bloc--or any single bloc--becomes in politics. Still, I’m convinced there are enough Christians out there to make this work.”
Baldwin and Youngkin will be among the group’s state legislative candidates, while Bonnie Kibbee, an Alpine Planning Board member, hopes to provide the pro-family slate with its first countywide victory in her race for the Board of Supervisors. In addition, the group needs only a single additional seat to gain the majority on some local school boards and other agencies.
“Right now, they’re a vocal minority that can make noise over issues,” said Marjorie Van Nuis, a director of the Mainstream Voters Project and former associate member of the San Diego County Republican Party Central Committee. “But, if they get a majority, that’s when all hell will break loose.”
Along with a smattering of other regions, mostly in the South, San Diego’s religious right is “several steps ahead of the pack” in promoting its candidates by targeting churchgoers in campaigns, according to Christian Coalition leader Reed.
“Those folks in San Diego really did something worth emulating,” added Dr. Jay Grimstead, chairman of the Sunnyvale-based Christian Activist Network. “A lot of Christian activists around the state think that’s a pretty good model to pattern themselves after.”
Even the architects of the “San Diego model,” however, acknowledge that, for all the praise being lavished on it, the 1990 races essentially revolved around traditional grass-roots campaign techniques, with a few twists.
Volunteers distributed slate flyers at hundreds of church parking lots, while church directories provided lists for telephone-canvassing activities. Although many pastors permitted and even encouraged the politicking, the practice was not universally welcomed. The group’s written instructions to volunteers warned them to “not hit the churches until at least 10 minutes after services have begun, in order to avoid stragglers ‘telling on you.’ ”
The fundamentalists, however, insist that they used common campaign tactics. Targeting a “pro-family message” toward churchgoers is comparable, they argue, to an environmentalist candidate tapping into Sierra Club resources or a pro-development officeholder seeking support from builders.
“These are pretty basic things that all candidates do,” said Jantz, a La Mesa city councilman.
“What San Diego did was not particularly new or creative,” Reed agreed. “But they did more of it, they did it better, and they did it longer than many other places. And that’s why it worked.”
Opponents grudgingly admit that the Christian right simply out-hustled them in some contests, especially in the Republican Central Committee races, typically somnolent affairs in which candidates often do little more than place their name on the ballot. The same sharply focused aggressiveness also proved effective in races for low-level offices that traditionally attract little public or press attention, making them relatively easy targets for anyone willing to mount even modest campaign efforts.
“We don’t object to people running hard or using smart tactics,” said Michael Hudson, regional director for People for the American Way, another group monitoring far-right activities. “You’ve got to give them credit for exercising democracy in a very energetic way. But we do object to their agenda--and even more so to efforts to hide their agenda from the public.”
Especially troubling to leaders of the Mainstream Voters Project and other critics is the Christian activists’ style of quietly reaching the church community while minimizing their contact with the rest of the electorate. Some “pro-family” slate members did not fill out candidate statements detailing their background or views in sample ballot pamphlets printed by the registrar of voters. Others skipped most or all of the candidate forums in their respective races.
While the Christian Coalition’s Reed says he does not encourage candidates to “totally duck public debate,” he makes no apologies for the admittedly secretive, low-profile tactics designed to keep the candidates’ views from clearly reaching all voters.
True, the fundamentalists often toned down their rhetoric or emphasized different priorities when they were before non-church groups, Reed and others acknowledged. But they emphasize that these were hardly the first candidates in history to tailor their message for specific audiences.
“Stealth was a big factor in San Diego’s success,” Reed said. “But that’s just good strategy. It’s like guerrilla warfare. If you reveal your location, all it does it allow your opponent to improve his artillery bearings.”
“It’s better to move quietly, with stealth, under cover of night. You’ve got two choices: You can wear cammies and shimmy along on your belly, or you can put on a red coat and stand up for everyone to see. It comes down to whether you want to be the British army in the Revolutionary War or the Viet Cong. History tells us which tactic was more effective.”
There were exceptions to the “stealth” rule. Vista school trustee Deidre Holliday, for example, notes that she went so far as to include the familiar Christian “fish” logo on her campaign literature.
Similarly, Poway City Councilman Tony Snesko said that he emphasized during his campaign that his “intent was to restore morality to government.”
However, Snesko’s critics argue that he downplayed his strong religious convictions in the campaign. Since then, Snesko has often used his post to quote the Scriptures to, among other things, oppose gay rights. He recently used city stationery to encourage local pastors to join him in becoming “a match that is igniting America for Jesus"-- prompting the council to pass, over his lone dissent, a policy prohibiting the use of city stationery for communications that appear to suggest a “city endorsement of religious preference.”
In addition to a certain amount of secrecy, the 1990 campaigns of some Christian activists illustrated instances of resume-puffing, factual distortion and borrowed rhetoric:
* Nancy Scofield, a Poway woman elected to the Palomar-Pomerado Hospital District board, described herself as a nurse, even though she is simply a home health aide, a job requiring no license or special training.
* Rebecca Clark, then a 19-year-old student who attracted considerable publicity by winning a seat as a Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District trustee, described herself in her 1990 race as a “civic leader” who had attended Grossmont College and three other universities, including Harvard. Her Grossmont transcript, however, shows that she received only a few credits for short-term, special courses at the three other institutions.
In an earlier 1990 Assembly campaign, Clark distributed flyers describing herself as a “19-year resident of the 76th District"--a factually accurate if somewhat deceiving assertion--and president of the Foothills Taxpayers Assn., “which was instrumental in helping pass Proposition 13.” That latter claim, too, probably would have been considerably less impressive to voters had they realized that, when the landmark property tax-cutting initiative was approved by statewide voters in 1978, Clark was only 7 years old.
Clark, who also is parliamentarian of the local Republican Central Committee, declined repeated requests for interviews, saying at one point that she is “unreachable” from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.
* The statements of two victorious school board candidates--Wayne Wilson in Santee and Donald Smith in the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District--were identical, to the point of underlining and capitalizing the same words. Cheryl Jones, a Christian fundamentalist who won a seat in the La Mesa-Spring Valley district, used only slightly different wording in a different order.
Largely a recitation of generalities and platitudes, the statement called for “parental involvement in the educational process” and “a strong emphasis on the basics--reading, writing and arithmetic.” It concluded that “schools should emphasize the importance of honesty, responsibility, courtesy, respect for others, good citizenship and patriotism.”
The Christian activists also were not opposed to occasional hardball tactics. Anonymous flyers distributed in the Hunter-Youngkin race called Hunter, an abortion rights advocate, “a baby-killer,” and telephone callers described her as a lesbian and Communist. Youngkin has denied involvement in any such activities.
A mailer that accused one of Jantz’s opponents in the La Mesa City Council race, Jay LaSuer, of racism against Latinos not only bore a fictitious letterhead--"Democrats for Good Government"--but also apparently a fake signature, “Nick Medina.” When no such person could be identified, the state Fair Political Practices Commission initiated a brief investigation that was dropped after both Jantz and Baldwin denied involvement.
“For all their supposed morality, these people aren’t above breaking a few commandments when it serves their purpose,” said Mainstream Voters Project director Van Nuis.
From the perspective of the Christian fundamentalists themselves, however, much of the criticism stems from public unease over religious activists’ new willingness to join the political arena.
Restrained for years by what the Rev. Billy Falling of Valley Center terms “the heresy of church-state separation,” most churches and pastors largely remained on the political sidelines. The Bible makes it clear that churches and Christians not only should become politically involved, but have a duty to do so, Falling argues.
“According to the Bible, legitimate civil government is the police department within the Kingdom of God on earth,” Falling says in his book, “The Political Mission of the Church.” Government’s function, he adds, is to “restrain and punish the wicked, and to reward and protect the innocent.”
Echoing a common viewpoint among the Christian activists, Baldwin argues that “for too long, Christians saw politics as a dirty business that they should avoid.”
“What we’ve come to realize is that maybe the reason politics is so dirty and society has so many problems--high divorce rates, low school test scores, teen pregnancies, sexual diseases--is that not enough Christians have gotten involved in politics,” Baldwin added.
The county’s Christian activists also insist that their core issues--notably anti-abortion policies and preference for sex education programs emphasizing abstinence, not contraception--represent the majority’s viewpoint.
“What is now called the extremist right is nothing more than what the Eisenhower Administration considered normal Americanism in the 1950s,” said Christian Activist Network leader Grimstead. “I think most people still want those basic values to be reflected in government.”
This fall’s San Diego elections will test that thesis--a challenge made more formidable by bigger campaigns that call for more money and volunteers and that receive closer press and voter scrutiny. In addition, the religious right faces the Mainstream Voters Project’s plans to publicize the candidates and undermine their “stealth” tactics.
“We have no problem with majority rule--that’s our system,” Collier said. “But we want to make sure people know who and what they’re voting for. I don’t think that was the case last time.”
Times staff writer Jonathan Gaw contributed to this report.