Showdown in Des Moines

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

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.


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.

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. It's our first time asking for an outpouring of support since screams of FAKE NEWS and so much of what Trump stood for made everything we do so visceral. Like most newsrooms, we face incredibly hard budget realities, and it's unnerving needing to raise big money when traffic is down.

So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate