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Crusade for Public Office in 2nd Stage : Politics: Emboldened by victories in low-profile races, religious fundamentalists take aim at higher posts, intending to govern by biblical principles. But opponents say their tactics are often anything but Christian.

Crusade for Public Office in 2nd Stage. FIRST OF TWO PARTS

March 22, 1992|BARRY M. HORSTMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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