Showdown in Des Moines

A local school board race draws the religious right’s big guns

Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, is fond of the maxim “All politics is local.” But in cities like Des Moines, Iowa, the Coalition is proving just the opposite: All politics is national. With the state’s bellwether presidential caucuses looming, even local school board politics bring in the religious right’s big guns. This past year, the Coalition explicitly targeted longtime Des Moines community leader Jonathan Wilson’s re-election bid for the school board. In the end, Wilson lost, and for only one reason: He is gay.

In March of 1994, full-time Christian-right activist Bill Horn moved his family from California to Altoona, a Des Moines suburb, to open a Midwest regional office of The Report, a fundamentalist group. (Horn previously had produced the 19-minute anti-gay propaganda video, “The Gay Agenda.”)

Last December, a school district employee used his office fax to leak Horn a draft proposal to include information about sexual orientation in the district’s curriculum. Jan Mickelson, a local right-wing Christian radio shock-jock, put Horn on the air to decry the proposal. Though the school board had nothing to do with the draft, Horn claimed the board was trying to “sneak” it past local parents.

The leak intensified a whisper campaign about 12-year board veteran Wilson’s homosexuality, which he had kept private. The 50-year-old lawyer began to receive death threats, and Des Moines police had him wear a bulletproof vest. Still, Wilson worried that speculation about him left the entire board vulnerable, so, at a school board meeting attended by his father and sister–both Methodist ministers–as well as by his ex-wife and two grown children, Wilson delivered a coming-out speech.

Wilson raised $60,000 for his subsequent re-election bid–10 times the regular cost of a Des Moines school board race–and hired two Democratic pros to run his campaign. With the endorsements of two major unions, the Des Moines Register, a corps of volunteers, and Wilson’s own outreach to area ministers, his prospects looked good.

But Wilson’s campaign efforts were no match for the national megastructure of the Christian right. On a visit to Iowa, Pat Buchanan denounced the curriculum proposal as “a moral lie.” Phil Gramm sent a letter to Iowa voters, soliciting money for Bill Horn’s outfit. The Christian Coalition papered local evangelical churches with its infamous voter guides. Des Moines Mayor John P. Dorrian and three city councilmen supported Wilson’s foes–endorsements unheard of in a city where officials traditionally remain aloof from school board politics.

An unprecedented 30,000 voters turned out for the election. Two Christian Coalition-backed candidates won the open seats; Wilson finished a distant fourth.

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