THE SUNDAY PROFILE : Under Her Father’s Watch, Andrea Sheldon Is a Relentless Crusader for Traditional Values : Flying Right
The city is a swamp on the night before the House recess. Wilting, soggy lawmakers slouch through the clutching humidity and 90-plus temperatures, eager for the relief of the Capitol’s air-conditioned chill.
The exception is Andrea Sheldon, quick-stepping it across the Hill in a short melon crepe dress, ear baubles in rhythm and Amerige by Givenchy in the air. The California Girl--or so say the plates on her sporty red Maxima--of Capitol Hill is completely unfazed by heat or by anti-feminist imagery. (“I’m more of a girl’s girl,” she likes to say.)
This is another red-letter day in a scarlet year for the religious right, and the 34-year-old lobbyist with the hot-pink nail polish is working another 15-hour day to sway and encourage members in God’s direction.
Already this year in the House, Christian conservatives have witnessed enormous success in curbing abortion, crafting a religious freedom amendment, and overhauling welfare to discourage unwed parenthood and government dependency. All of it falls under the “family values” battle cry.
“Everything is happening here,” Sheldon says, hustling after another House member, and maybe another vote.
As the roll call gets under way, there’s a frantic sense of urgency in the halls. Yet congressmen, particularly Republicans, pause to chat with Sheldon. Ohio Republican John R. Kasich, chairman of the powerful House Budget Committee, pulls her aside for a five-minute briefing.
She slips into the familiar offices of Majority Whip Tom DeLay to return a Washington Post phone call and complain about Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole’s welfare proposal. “We’re just disappointed with what he’s done. The work provisions are a sham,” Sheldon tells the reporter. “If you’ve got a bill that really doesn’t address [illegitimacy], then you don’t have anything.”
The divine will evidently prevails with passage of a measure abolishing dozens of education, labor and health programs; restricting funds for nonprofit groups, and, most important, imposing still more restrictions on federal abortion funding.
“This is the beginning of the revolution,” Sheldon says.
Her father would be proud. On Capitol Hill, she is the alter ego of the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, head of the Anaheim-based Traditional Values Coalition and crusader for moral reform. With the Bible as his platform, he stands for broader religious rights and prayer in schools, and against abortion and homosexuality. At his most extreme, Louis Sheldon has espoused segregating AIDS patients in “cities of refuge"--a euphemism for concentration camps, gay leaders say.
The minister has long and loudly claimed that House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) privately promised him months ago to hold congressional hearings on the alleged “promotion” of homosexuality in public schools. The wish will apparently come true on Oct. 13 with testimony before a subcommittee of the House Educational Opportunities Committee. “It’s a definite,” he says.
The elder Sheldon, who travels frequently to Washington and confers often with his daughter by phone, claims 31,000 churches nationwide behind his lobby. The TVC’s annual budget is $2 million. From an office in a tidy, 19th-Century brick house just off Capitol Hill, the Sheldons generate a constant flow of literature to the churches: twice weekly tip sheets on legislative targets, voting guides and Lou Sheldon commentary--anything from atta-boys for pro-life lawmakers to diatribes on Disney’s non-Christian portrayal of Pocahontas.
His success in generating grass-roots action and harnessing support from black churches in particular has earned him a niche of respect in conservative Washington, even if the giants of the religious right, such as Pat Robertson’s 1.7 million-member Christian Coalition, still dominate.
Andrea Sheldon says her father is the real force behind TVC, but she is emerging from his shadow. Her energy, tenacity and access to Republican leaders impress both allies and enemies. Even those with unvarnished contempt for the TVC acknowledge Andrea’s ability to disarm--and even to charm.
“There is no dispute that it is her entree; it makes it easier for people to have discourse with her,” says a Democratic staffer.
“I love to sit down with people I don’t agree with and have dinner and talk, because I learn and I grow from that,” Andrea Sheldon says. “I don’t like to be in a stagnant pool with only like-minded people.”
Amid the drab, East Coast business raiment, where gray and rumpled are the color and texture of the hour, Sheldon’s California silks, knits and leather skirts render her a beacon.
“They’re very uptight here,” says the former homecoming queen of Magnolia High School, class of ’79, who once dreamed of a future in fashion. “I always get comments about my clothes.”
Some view her showy, engaging image as a boon for the far right, which suffers from a dearth of female executives in Washington.
“She’s exactly the opposite of what the opponents of the pro-family movement paint people as being,” says ultra-conservative idea man Paul Weyrich. “They picture the pro-family woman as being either some run-down housewife with 10 kids or some older, grandmotherly type of woman who wears tennis shoes and who isn’t up with what’s going on. Or some sort of ugly person who wants to shove her values down your throat. [Sheldon] is none of these three. She’s a very with-it single woman who’s certainly non-threatening.”
But critics, particularly gay leaders, describe her as the perfect shill for her father’s extremism.
“I think the plan is for Andrea to be taken more seriously,” says Daniel Zingale, political director for the Human Rights Campaign Fund, a national gay and lesbian group. “You don’t see her on TV talking about ‘cities of refuge’ . . . because she’s the one you see up there on the Hill.”
For Democrats and Republicans, there is no escaping her, whether it’s a crucial committee hearing on reform legislation or some facet of the sprawling conservative network that includes strategy sessions, think-tank briefings, elite luncheons or news conferences.
“She’s very visible and very bold,” says Congressman Tim Hutchinson, a Republican from Arkansas who worked closely with Andrea Sheldon in getting a $500 family tax credit in the House budget bill.
"[Sheldon] is a diligent and pervasive presence at some of the most high-profile hearings on abortion and school prayer, specifically,” says Robert Raben, counsel to Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and to the House Judiciary Panel’s Constitution subcommittee. “She is omnipresent.”
It’s sort of a game, activists say. Like other special-interest types, Sheldon sends a staffer to grab a place in line for crucial committee hearings, reserving her a front-row seat.
“Physical presence is a reminder to members of what your position is and what clout there is behind that position,” Raben says.
Says one rival pro-family activist: “She’s a total pit bull.”
Sheldon laughs at her own daring. Some months back, she approached Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, her choice for President in ’96, to discuss the controversy surrounding then-Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders. “I said, ‘I never thought I’d be talking to a United States senator about masturbation,’ ” she recalls, referring to the issue that prompted Elders’ resignation. “He patted me on the hand and said, ‘Andrea, you do it so well.’ ”
When she was invited to a Virginia high school to hear President Clinton discuss prayer in the classroom, Sheldon seized the opportunity--her first--to lobby him against abortion.
Clinton listened, took some time with her, but still didn’t make a very good impression. “He wasn’t very presidential,” Sheldon says. "[More] like a yuppie. Tall, thinner than I thought. His face was really blotchy red.”
And after the New York schools handed out rather graphic brochures warning of the risks of same-sex intercourse, Sheldon protested by showing copies to senators as they stepped off the subway to the Capitol. When someone complained and a police officer threatened to arrest her for distributing obscene material, she found the irony enraging. “It was sort of a righteous anger in that if you can give these to kids, why can’t I show them to senators?” Sheldon says.
“I don’t think God created me to be an introvert,” she says in a moment of reflection.
Andrea was born in Grand Forks, N.D., the second of four children to Louis and Beverly Sheldon. “Princess” was Daddy’s pet name for her. When Andrea was in seventh grade, the family moved to Orange County.
“God’s country,” she calls it.
“Where a lot of people think like we do,” echoes her sister, Beth Phillips.
Andrea’s formative years were of the Beach Boy variety--long summers smothered in almond oil, basking on the sands at the end of Beach Boulevard, brown as a button by July. And then countless hours roaming Westminster Mall or South Coast Plaza.
“I really feel I’m very typical of California,” says Sheldon, who lists her parents’ Anaheim house as her legal residence even though she lives in an Alexandria, Va., townhome.
They describe her as an obedient, almost precociously helpful child who never disappointed them. “She was very fussy about herself,” her mother says.
Despite his profession, Andrea and her siblings were not raised in a morally strict environment, Louis Sheldon says. “We didn’t give them the forbidden fruit. But we dissected the forbidden fruit and showed them that it was rotten on the inside.”
A knowledge and interest in current events and politics grew out of the nightly dinner discussions that lasted long after Beverly’s pot roast, potatoes and gravy, and even the pumpkin chiffon pie, were devoured.
Andrea was elected class president in her senior year at Magnolia High, but the experience didn’t leave her with a craving for political life. Still, while working as an assistant manager at a Judy’s clothing store during her summer break from Oral Roberts University in 1980, she had an uneasy feeling of aimlessness.
“This is mindless,” she thought, and realized a need to “make a difference.”
Two years later she had finished three years of courses at Oral Roberts and was headed for Washington, her dad’s hometown, to work a succession of jobs, from Capitol Hill staffer to bureaucratic special-assistant posts.
“I didn’t have visions of doing what I do today,” she says. “My life was just kind of evolving.”
She began lobbying for the Traditional Values Coalition and its growing cadre of churches in 1991. Founded a decade earlier, the TVC had grown out of unsuccessful political battles in the mid-1970s to criminalize certain consensual sex acts and to ban homosexual teachers in California schools. The small nonprofit group won broader recognition in California by aggressively combatting pornography, abortion and homosexuality while promoting the teaching of creationism and sexual abstinence.
Andrea was the first and only of the Sheldon children to take an active, high-level role in Dad’s business. Along the way, she became deeply involved in the conservative and charismatic Church of the Apostles in Fairfax, Va., where Oliver North attends. Sheldon served on its board for three years and organized the church’s volunteer homeless assistance program.
“She really had a strong feeling she had to help,” says Debra Kinney, a mother of three who became homeless after leaving an abusive husband. “She had to do more than just talk about it.” Sheldon all but adopted the family for a time, and Kinney chose her as godmother for her youngest son.
Sheldon also came to the aid of another stranger, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In 1991, even before sexual harassment allegations jeopardized his confirmation, she helped rally the critical support of African American ministers. In their book “Strange Justice, the Selling of Clarence Thomas” (Houghton Mifflin, 1994), Wall Street Journal reporters Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson contend that a small core of “white conservatives,” Sheldon included, orchestrated demonstrations.
“With her blond hair, showy jewelry and long red fingernails,” the authors wrote, “Andrea Sheldon might have seemed an unlikely organizer of black clerics, but she quickly became one of the important people behind the ostensibly grass-roots African American campaign for Thomas.”
Sheldon dismisses the book as offensive to the black ministers for suggesting they did not think for themselves.
As her profile continues to rise, Sheldon is often suggested as a candidate for Congress, perhaps as a successor to Garden Grove Republican Robert K. Dornan, now engaged in a low-level presidential campaign.
“If I were to die in a plane crash tomorrow, Andrea would be a formidable candidate and ready to go,” Dornan says, adding quickly: “There’s other formidable candidates who are ready to go.”
Sheldon’s father, proud of Andrea’s successes and quick to compare her style to his own, believes she is destined to lead.
“Andrea has had that future just imbued in her and I have sensed it and have encouraged it in the sense that she is the princess daughter,” he says.
But Andrea, who is dating the former press secretary to DeLay, Jim Lafferty, will say only that in 10 years she hopes to be married, with children. How that goal will reconcile with her love of seven-day work weeks is uncertain. In the meantime, the Capitol’s California girl is relishing her nascent role as a doyenne of the religious right.
“It’s important to be a voice. There are very few. You have the Pat Schroeders and the Ann Lewises,” she says, referring to the Colorado congresswoman and the political strategist, both Democrats, “who say they’re speaking for women. . . . They don’t speak for me. They don’t speak for the millions of women like me who are conservative, who have the same political and philosophical ideals that I do.
“I think their voice is heard when I’m on TV or radio or talk to members of Congress.”
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Background: Born in Grand Forks, N.D., moved to Delaware, Indiana and Northern California before settling with her family in Anaheim. Now lives in Alexandria, Va.
Passions: Cooking, outlet shopping, novels by John Grisham, Christmas in California.
On lobbying the Republican-dominated House of Representatives: “Everything’s changed . . . for the first time, the Speaker, the Majority Leader and the Whip have asked the Traditional Value Coalition what they think about issues.”
On feminism: “I think that so many women feel like they have to compete with men. I am who I am and I’m going to do what I feel called to do. And if that means working with men, fine, or working with women, fine. I’m more of a girl’s girl.”
On homosexuality: “This is a lifestyle that is destructive and dangerous. They can turn away from it. I have personal friends who have come out of the lifestyle. . . . People say they’re born gay. How are they born bisexual?
On her parents: “I think my parents are really my best friends. I trust them. I make very few major decisions without checking with them. . . . I think they gave me a strong sense of who I am.”