Freedom Writer - November 1995
Right triumphs in DesMoines
By Adele M. Stan
IOWA — Ever since the Christian Coalition seized control
of the Iowa Republican Party last year, even local
politics here have taken a sharp turn to the right.
With the state's bellwether caucuses looming in the
upcoming presidential election year, a local issue
can take on national proportions — especially if tweaked
by powerful interest groups — which is what happened
when Jonathan Wilson, a respected 12-year veteran of
the Des Moines school board, announced his bid for
re-election after it became publicly known that he
"This particular election is significant," Wilson says,
"because my detractors abandoned their traditional
stealth strategy and announced right out of the shoot...that
they were going to challenge me in this race."
In March of last year, less than a year before Wilson
announced his candidacy for another term on the school
board, full-time Christian right activist Bill Horn
moved his wife and five kids with him from California
to Altoona, a Des Moines suburb, to open the "Midwest
regional office" of The Report, an offshoot of the
Rev. Ty Beeson's Springs of Life Ministries based in
Horn's home state. (It was in Beeson's church that
the Rev. Jim Bakker, after being defrocked in the wake
of his sex and financial scandals, was ordained, again,
as a minister.) Before his move to the corn belt, Horn's
claim to fame was the 19-minute hate video, "The Gay
Agenda," which he produced under Beeson's wing. Filled
with sexually explicit footage and discredited statistics,
the tape first made waves when it found its way to
the joint chiefs of staff during the debate on gays
in the military in the early days of the Clinton administration.
An early booster of Horn's video career was James Dobson,
Ph.D., the sociologist who heads the Focus on the Family
media empire based in Colorado Springs. "The Gay Agenda"
had an earlier, cruder, precursor, first aired in 1991
as a segment of The Report's cable TV show. Dobson
snapped up some 8,000 copies of Horn's "Sexual Orientation
or Sexual Deviation: You Decide" and arranged to have
them distributed throughout California. But Horn's
biggest break came when Pat Robertson pitched "The
Gay Agenda" in February 1993 on his daily television
show, "The 700 Club," which claims more than a million
viewers. So far, Horn says he's sold hundreds of thousands
of copies of "The Gay Agenda" at $13.95 a pop, and
has since followed it up with two more anti-homosexual
video screeds. His success allowed Horn, a 36-year-old
former sportscaster, to quit his job and become a full-time
Back in Des Moines at WHO radio, the station that launched
Ronald Reagan's broadcast career, local right-wing
Christian shock jock Jan Mickelson introduced Horn
to his dittoheads during the "don't ask, don't tell"
debate. It wasn't long before Horn made his move to
the heartland. Horn had barely plunked down in Iowa
when, around Christmas 1994, school district employee
Tom Lutz used his office fax to leak to Horn an early
draft of a proposal for infusing information about
sexual orientation in Des Moines' progressive multicultural
curriculum. Mickelson, for whom hot buttons are stock
in trade, put Horn and the proposal out over the airwaves,
causing Pat Buchanan, presidential hopeful and the
wannabe poster-boy of the Christian right, to denounce
the curriculum proposal as "a moral lie."
Ever since his 1991 divorce, rumors about Jonathan
Wilson's sexual orientation had run rife in Des Moines
political circles. As the anti-gay rhetoric of the
right's offensive reached a fever pitch (thanks to
Mickelson), Wilson, a handsome, 50-year-old lawyer,
began to receive death threats, even though the school
board had not been involved in the controversial proposal.
The Des Moines police had Wilson wearing a bullet-proof
vest for a time. Still, Wilson worried that speculation
about him left the board vulnerable to attack, so,
at a school board meeting attended by his father and
sister, both Methodist ministers, as well as his ex-wife
and two grown children, Wilson seized the issue from
his detractors. "I said, okay, I'll show 'em...I can
take this threat of exposure away," Wilson explains.
"I have the power."
At the board meeting, Wilson played to a packed house.
"The negative things that have been said in recent
weeks about gay people — the awful stereotypes — are
lies," Wilson announced. "I know this because I am
a gay person. Now this community knows that they are
lies, too, because this community has known me for
more than a quarter of a century."
Sitting in his cluttered offices at the WHO studios,
Jan Mickelson, minimized the impact of Wilson's revelation.
"There will always be a segment that likes the little-boy-lost
Wilson routine," he asserted. "He flashed his baby
blues and says, 'I'm a victim,' and 'Come rescue me.'
And there's going to be a number of soft-headed people
who will fall for that. But he is not really the issue.
The issue is bigger than his own agenda."
To Mickelson, a neo-Christian Reconstructionist and
self-described Calvinist, the issue is the entire education
establishment, which he sees as presided over by liberals
who seek to foist their anti-Christian values on an
unsuspecting public. Mickelson counts himself to the
right of the Christian Coalition, which he believes
has traded Christian principles for political power.
But The Report, the enterprise headed by his friend
Bill Horn, competes with the Coalition for contributions
from local evangelicals, and Mickelson himself penned
a fundraising letter for Horn's outfit.
Of course, the Christian Coalition latched onto the
anti-Wilson cause for its own fundraising purposes.
In a letter to potential contributors sent last June,
Iowa Christian Coalition president Ione R. Dilley targeted
the Des Moines school board race for action, singling
out Wilson for criticism.
In June, Wilson began his campaign with confidence,
hiring two Democratic pros to run his organization.
He filled his war chest with some $60,000, around six
times the usual cost of running a school board race
here; of the total, only $15,000 came from out of state,
thanks to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. With the
endorsements of _The_Des_Moines_Register_, two major
unions, a corps of dedicated volunteers, professional
polling efforts, and Wilson's own outreach to area
ministers, the candidate's prospects looked good. By
any political playbook, Wilson made all the right moves
— and lost.
In the end, Wilson's organization proved to be no match
for the national megastructure of the Christian right,
especially the Christian Coalition, which papered local
churches with its infamous voter guides. Though he
says he answered every question on the Coalition's
survey, the guides showed Wilson as giving no response
on several. On the eve of Iowa's August straw poll,
presidential contender Phil Gramm sent out a letter
to Iowa voters, paid for by his campaign, soliciting
money for Bill Horn's outfit as Horn stirred the pot
against Wilson. Then, in testament to the power of
the right, Des Moines Mayor John Dorrian and two city
councilmen endorsed Wilson's foes, hand-selected to
run from a committee of area ministers — a move unprecedented
here, where city officials have traditionally remained
aloof from school board politics. After a dozen years
of education advocacy at both the local and national
levels, Jonathan Wilson was trounced in one of the
highest turnouts ever for a Des Moines school board
race. (Some 30,000 votes were counted.) And the right's
victory in the school board race is seen as a mere
opening salvo for the next year's mayoral contest.
"I hope this serves as a wake-up call to the thinking
people of Des Moines," says Sue Luethens, who chaired
Wilson's campaign and served for eight years on the
school board with him. Linda Powers, a Wilson campaign
volunteer and mother of four, feels that the battle
has just begun. She's already signing up Wilson volunteers
to monitor the actions of the new school board. "We
can't let it end here," she says.
Despite his success at raising campaign funds, Wilson
has a $6,000 campaign debt. Contributions are still
being accepted by the Wilson Campaign Fund, 2500 Financial
Center, Des Moines, IA 50309.
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