There's no question that two candidates running for the Claremont school board this fall have associated with white supremacists in the past. One even admits to suiting up as a neo-Nazi in his youth.
But the issue buzzing through the east Los Angeles County suburb dwells more in the present tense: Have Pastor John Hale McGee and Richard W. Bunck truly renounced their ties to hatemongers? Or are they just saying so to get a toehold in office?
Under attack by opponents and the local newspaper, the pair have tried to minimize their right-wing involvement. McGee, a 64-year-old Baptist minister, said he has mingled with Nazis and skinheads only to bring them to Christ. And Bunck, a 54-year-old electrical contractor, says he is one such convert.
Both have gone on their weekly local cable access show to defend themselves and renounce violence. Said Bunck: "I'm not a racist. I'm not a bigot. I'm not a hater."
Interviews and police files obtained by The Times show that both men had recent associations with hate groups.
The Southern Poverty Law Center says McGee's small Apple Valley congregation is among those preaching a White Identity doctrine like the kind espoused by Buford O. Furrow Jr., the man who allegedly shot up the North Valley Jewish Community Center.
And an expert with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in West Los Angeles says the pastor, who is a dead ringer for Santa Claus, once helped organize and then attended an "Aryan Fest."
"Hale McGee is a racist," said T.J. Leyden, the Wiesenthal Center consultant and a nationally recognized expert on white supremacist groups. "He talked the talk. He walked the walk."
Tom Metzger, perhaps the country's best-known white supremacist, said McGee is denying his past--and present.
"Most of his best friends are Nazis," said Metzger, head of White Aryan Resistance in Fallbrook, near San Diego. Metzger added that he's known McGee for years and scoffed at the notion that the pastor is trying to save skinheads from themselves.
"The problem with a lot of right-wing racial types who want public office is they lie about their views," he said.
That possibility has turned what would normally be a yawner of a school board election into the talk of sidewalk cafes throughout a town of 32,000 and the home to the Claremont Colleges. Even the mayor and city manager have openly worried about what would happen if McGee or Bunck were to win.
The speculation already has prompted three advertisers to drop their support of the pair's weekly call-in political talk show, Citizen's Forum, which airs on Claremont's Insight Cablevision channel.
Such has been the price of challenging the city's establishment, Bunck and McGee say. Talk of white power, they add, is designed to distract from the real issues leading to the Nov. 2 election in which five candidates are seeking two board seats.
"I'm interested in schools because too many kids are smoking drugs and they took away the lockers," said McGee, who last year was the American Independent Party challenger to now-deceased Rep. George Brown.
Until the furor ignited, Bunck and McGee were best known as the town's anti-taxers. Under the banner of the Claremont Assn. for Better Government, they led a successful drive in 1997 to stop a property assessment earmarked for local schools.
Then Bunck ran for City Council. A week before last spring's election, the Claremont Courier revealed Bunck's 1971 arrest in connection with disturbing the peace at a Nazi party rally in Monrovia. Charges were later dismissed.
At first, Bunck denied it was him. Then, on election eve, he reversed himself, conceding that he went to the rally but as an FBI informant. He lost badly.
Incriminating Booking Photo
Bunck now says there was no excuse for his Nazi involvement, which he chalks up to a youthful indiscretion. He was captured in a 1972 police booking photo showing him dressed in a Nazi uniform and standing below a swastika.
"I was involved in the National Socialist White People's Party for about 10 months in 1972 and I was also involved in left-wing groups prior to that," he said recently. "Hale got me to give up that group . . . and introduced me to Christianity and doing something more useful with myself."
The photo was included in El Monte police files that tracked Bunck, McGee and others during the 1970s when the blue-collar San Gabriel Valley city was home to the National Socialist White People's Party and the American National Socialist Party.
A 1974 intelligence report named McGee as the head of an extremist group known as the American Nationalist. An accompanying leaflet, which listed a Claremont address, describes the group as "foremost Christian Americans" opposed to "race mixing."
In 1977, according to the file, McGee opened JHM Baptist Books, an El Monte reading room painted to resemble the American flag with one exception: A large Nazi swastika was on the wall. A flier from the store invited people to "Find out the truth about the Nazis and the Anti-Christ."