God's Vice-Regents

The religious right has conquered the Republican Party in California--now they're bringing the same game plan to your state.

| Tue Jan. 20, 1998 3:00 AM EST

A faction of right-wing Republicans who believe in governing by the Bible has already taken control of the California Republican Party. Now they're poised to duplicate that feat in 35 other states—and counting—under the banner of the new National Federation of Republican Assemblies. Their immediate goal: to cultivate a Reaganesque candidate who can win the presidency in 2000. Their long-term goal: an America ruled by the word of God.

The story begins a decade ago. Frustrated by the failure of Pat Robertson's 1988 presidential bid, some of his followers in Sacramento hatched a plan to take over the California Republican Party. First they packed the then-moderate California Republican Assembly (CRA), a mainstream caucus with a heavy hand in the state party's nominating process, with their Bible-minded colleagues. By 1990 they controlled the CRA, and since then the CRA's clout has helped the religious conservatives nominate and elect local candidates and—crucially—catapult true believers into state party leadership slots.

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Ten years of dedication and planning later, the operation is a stunning success. Members of the Bible-waving CRA—which now bills itself as the "conservative conscience" of the state GOP—hold the top 13 elected spots in the party leadership, from state chair on down to second assistant secretary. In addition to the top posts, CRA members now make up roughly two-thirds of the California Republican Party's 1,700 voting members. That means they decide whom to nominate in the primaries—and whom to smear using their considerable resources of influence and money. Today every statewide GOP candidate courts CRA for its endorsement, including Attorney General Dan Lungren, who has already "interviewed" with CRA for his gubernatorial bid next year.

Nationwide in '98
But California was just the beginning. Flush with their success, the leaders of the CRA have exported their model of state party infiltration nationwide. In 1993 they helped set up a sister Arizona Republican Assembly, and last August they founded the new National Federation of Republican Assemblies (NFRA) to help coordinate affiliate groups in every state. The NFRA boasts the blessing of such right-wing shakers as Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum and Bay Buchanan, sister of Pat, on its honorary advisory board, along with Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council and other conservative noteworthies.

Already 36 states have Republican Assemblies modeled on the CRA, and organizers expect conservative groups in the remaining 14 to organize their own affiliates by Easter. NFRA membership now stands at about 15,000, says NFRA president Stephen Frank, a former president of the CRA who advocates legislating by biblical principles.

"Give us another year and we'll triple that number," Frank says. "The important part here is that we have the ability not to sit at the table but to own the table. Who cares if you can eat if you can't set the menu? We want to set the menu." He adds, "We are the masters of government, not servants."

Says Frank: "Our goal is to organize grassroots support to win primaries for Constitutional conservatives, and elections for principled Republicans."

The NFRA's first move was to establish communication among religious-right groups. "What we have found is that there are conservative coffee clubs throughout other states, but each one in a community didn't realize there were others. We're creating a community of conservatives," Frank explains.

The NFRA plans an early August conference in Dallas, where it expects visits from likely GOP presidential contenders. Next year, it'll hold its first full-fledged national convention and endorse a candidate for president. Its motto: "United in '98; Victory in 2000."

As NFRA chief Frank criss-crosses the country recruiting new assembly affiliates, his travel and accomodations are paid for by the CRA's 2-year-old PAC, the Republican Victory Fund, which pumped nearly $70,000 into the campaigns of CRA-endorsed candidates in 1996. To keep the coffers filled, Frank urges members to sign up for Amerivision LifeLine phone service, a Working Assets-type service which donates 10 percent of a member's bill to conservative causes such as the Republican Victory Fund, Donald Wildmon's American Family Association, and more than 500 anti-abortion groups including Operation Rescue's ex-chief Randall Terry and various Right-to-Life chapters. Believers are also urged to use the Republican Victory Fund Visa card, which similarly kicks back a donation for each bill.

The NFRA game plan is grassroots politicking, CRA style: "We need to win council seats, school boards, statehouse races, assembly races, and Congress, and the cumulative will be winning the presidency," Frank says. "We're doing it the old-fashioned way: community by community."

Such cocksure talk might be easily dismissed if it weren't for CRA's proven success with just such a method in California. Dominating the GOP nomination process, CRA has racked up dozens of big primary victories, including that of U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) in 1992, and last week's special election primary victory of CRA member Tom Bordonaro for U.S. Congress over liberal Republican Brooks Firestone. CRA also claims credit for the winning ballot initiatives Prop. 187, which denied benefits to illegal immigrants, and Prop. 209, which dismantled affirmative action; and CRA now champions the English for Children initiative, which would end bilingual education, and the Payroll Protection for Unionized Workers initiative, which would abolish the automatic payroll checkoff for union dues.

Plan Ahead
From radical fringe to kingmakers in a decade — how did they do it? "Basically, there's two places you have influence: one is in the nominating process in the primaries, where you can elect people in ideological agreement with your views, and the other is in the party structure," says former CRA vice president John Stoos, a former gun lobbyist, member of the fundamentalist Christian Reconstructionist movement, and senior consultant to the State Assembly. "And who pays attention to this stuff? You literally have to plan months and years ahead to know where the openings are."

That's just what CRA did, patiently building their base below the political radar. Beginning in the early 1990s, they filled school boards, city councils, and Republican Party county central committees with like-minded religious, anti-abortion colleagues. Under the bylaws of the state party, these elected officials—and even nominees who lose in the general election—are allowed to appoint voting members of the state party.

The party entity called the county central committee was key to the CRA's technique, says Bob Larkin, a Simi Valley Republican who has battled the CRA conservatives for years. Before 1990, he says, it was hard to find people interested in running for these lowly local committee seats. Then conservative Republicans stepped in and filled them with their people. Seven years later, the CRA swept the party elections of February 1997, winning every elected seat on the state party board.

Larkin felt the wrath of the CRA when he ran for the California Assembly in 1996. In 1992 he had angered the CRA by launching a campaign to wrest control of the party's Ventura County Central Committee away from the conservatives. In reprisal, the CRA backed conservative Tom McClintock, who defeated Larkin in the 1996 primary and ultimately won the general election.

"They're organized and dedicated," says Larkin, "and mainstream Republicans are neither, so a very small group can take over."

To counter the conservative juggernaut, Larkin last fall formed the California Coalition of Responsible Republicans, a conference of moderate groups working to "restore some sanity to the California Republican Party."

God's Vice-Regents
While the CRA controls the state GOP, they don't yet control the statehouse. On the CRA's immediate agenda is putting a lock on the majority of the California State Assembly's 80 seats up for election this year. By a slight margin, Democrats won control in 1996. Republicans have a good shot at taking the Assembly back in the 1998 elections, and Stoos says the CRA has already identified 34 target seats for conservative Republicans.

What would CRA control mean for California?

The CRA's principles support the right to bear arms, strict interpretation of the Constitution, limited government, and "fair" trade and sovereignty. They condemn the separation of church and state, abortion, affirmative action, women in combat, and homosexuality. And members—even Frank, who is Jewish—advocate legislating by the Bible.

"Legislation should be biblical principles put into action," Frank says. Asked about the differing versions of the Bible used by various religions, he contended that every religion—even Buddhism—espouses a set of principles similar to the Ten Commandments.

Stoos, in an article for the Chalcedon Report, a journal of the radical Christian Reconstructionist movement, goes so far as to call Christian politicians God's "vice-regents...those who believe in the Lordship of Christ and the dominion mandate."

The "dominion mandate," Stoos told the MoJo Wire, "is that individuals are impacted by salvation. You will want to obey God's commandments, and to the extent you do that, you start being a better person. ...If there are enough of these groups in a community, the community is different. If government has a rule of law that is biblical justice, you will have freedom and liberty."

As proof of his theory, he points to the repeal in the 1970s of laws prohibiting homosexual sex acts—biblical offenses. "The proof is in the pudding," said Stoos. "Since we lifted those laws, we've had the biggest epidemic in history."

Chapter and Verse
Now the CRA's fundamentalist beliefs and savvy grassroots politics are putting on a serious road show.

One of the first states to buy in to the CRA model was Utah. Utah Republican Assembly president and co-founder Don Ruzicka, a Salt Lake area businessman, got interested after he and his wife Gayle, state president of the Eagle Forum, were talking with Schlafly.

Chartered in 1997, URA already has started making known its dissatisfaction with certain Republican lawmakers. "We have the grassroots strength to influence elections, and we are going to control as much of the process as we can and steer the party back to its roots," Ruzicka says.

In Pennsylvania, the conservative group Mainstream Republicans chartered the Pennsylvania Republican Assembly as its grassroots wing last August. Mainstream Republicans, an unofficial caucus of state committees, helped convince the party in 1994 to endorse staunch abortion opponent Rick Santorum, who beat out popular U.S. Sen. Harris Wofford.

Thanks to this pedigree, the PRA already has a strong showing in the state party. "We have the wherewithal on a real important vote to mobilize 50 percent of the state committee," says PRA chairman Ted Meehan. "When we want it to go one way and the leadership wants it another way, it's darn close."

Meehan's group, like its California counterpart, has spent years identifying like-minded Republicans and convincing them to join political committees and run for office. "We held receptions and tried to find out who the pro-life conservative people were, and we started to form a network," he says. "After the first reception we had identified maybe 15 or so. Five years down the road we're at about 81, better than a quarter of the state committee, including eight county chairmen."

In Florida, the assembly idea will be popular because people are dissatisfied with both political parties, says Rob Ross, general counsel for the new Florida Republican Assembly, chartered last month. "This is the last straw for a lot of Republicans. If this doesn't work, there's going to be a lot of people who are going to leave the party."

A House Divided
Some Republican critics say it's the CRA and its fundamentalist cousins that are scaring voters away from the party. Bob Larkin points out that in California, for example, only 11 percent of new voters last year registered as Republican, compared to 26 percent Democrat and 50 percent independent. "They are converting us to a third party," he says.

GOP critics also take issue with the Republican Assemblies' practice of campaigning against Republicans who don't support a strict conservative platform. Utah's Ruzicka doesn't deny this: "We're not afraid to come out against a Republican who is a Republican in Democrat's clothing."

In New Jersey, for example, the Christian Coalition sent out more than 1 million fliers against the re-election of pro-choice Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, Larkin says. CRA president John Courtney then sent a memo to U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich citing Whitman's narrow victory as proof that moderate Republican candidates just don't win. "Where I come from," Larkin says, "we call that treason, and people who do that traitors."

Love them or loathe them, the CRA and its 35 counterparts in the NFRA have their finger on the money. In politics, perception is reality, says Ruzicka. "You can wield a considerable amount of power if people think you have the power and you exercise it in some effective way. If we can organize and mold the conservatives across the U.S. into an effective lobby—and I see no reason why we can't—then we will be a political force that the Republican Party will have to reckon with."