IOWA — Ever since the Christian Coalition seized control of the Iowa Republican Party last year, even local politics here have taken a sharp turn to the right. With the state's bellwether caucuses looming in the upcoming presidential election year, a local issue can take on national proportions — especially if tweaked by powerful interest groups — which is what happened when Jonathan Wilson, a respected 12-year veteran of the Des Moines school board, announced his bid for re-election after it became publicly known that he is gay.
"This particular election is significant," Wilson says, "because my detractors abandoned their traditional stealth strategy and announced right out of the shoot...that they were going to challenge me in this race."
In March of last year, less than a year before Wilson announced his candidacy for another term on the school board, full-time Christian right activist Bill Horn moved his wife and five kids with him from California to Altoona, a Des Moines suburb, to open the "Midwest regional office" of The Report, an offshoot of the Rev. Ty Beeson's Springs of Life Ministries based in Horn's home state. (It was in Beeson's church that the Rev. Jim Bakker, after being defrocked in the wake of his sex and financial scandals, was ordained, again, as a minister.) Before his move to the corn belt, Horn's claim to fame was the 19-minute hate video, "The Gay Agenda," which he produced under Beeson's wing. Filled with sexually explicit footage and discredited statistics, the tape first made waves when it found its way to the joint chiefs of staff during the debate on gays in the military in the early days of the Clinton administration.
An early booster of Horn's video career was James Dobson, Ph.D., the sociologist who heads the Focus on the Family media empire based in Colorado Springs. "The Gay Agenda" had an earlier, cruder, precursor, first aired in 1991 as a segment of The Report's cable TV show. Dobson snapped up some 8,000 copies of Horn's "Sexual Orientation or Sexual Deviation: You Decide" and arranged to have them distributed throughout California. But Horn's biggest break came when Pat Robertson pitched "The Gay Agenda" in February 1993 on his daily television show, "The 700 Club," which claims more than a million viewers. So far, Horn says he's sold hundreds of thousands of copies of "The Gay Agenda" at $13.95 a pop, and has since followed it up with two more anti-homosexual video screeds. His success allowed Horn, a 36-year-old former sportscaster, to quit his job and become a full-time activist.
Back in Des Moines at WHO radio, the station that launched Ronald Reagan's broadcast career, local right-wing Christian shock jock Jan Mickelson introduced Horn to his dittoheads during the "don't ask, don't tell" debate. It wasn't long before Horn made his move to the heartland. Horn had barely plunked down in Iowa when, around Christmas 1994, school district employee Tom Lutz used his office fax to leak to Horn an early draft of a proposal for infusing information about sexual orientation in Des Moines' progressive multicultural curriculum. Mickelson, for whom hot buttons are stock in trade, put Horn and the proposal out over the airwaves, causing Pat Buchanan, presidential hopeful and the wannabe poster-boy of the Christian right, to denounce the curriculum proposal as "a moral lie."
Ever since his 1991 divorce, rumors about Jonathan Wilson's sexual orientation had run rife in Des Moines political circles. As the anti-gay rhetoric of the right's offensive reached a fever pitch (thanks to Mickelson), Wilson, a handsome, 50-year-old lawyer, began to receive death threats, even though the school board had not been involved in the controversial proposal. The Des Moines police had Wilson wearing a bullet-proof vest for a time. Still, Wilson worried that speculation about him left the board vulnerable to attack, so, at a school board meeting attended by his father and sister, both Methodist ministers, as well as his ex-wife and two grown children, Wilson seized the issue from his detractors. "I said, okay, I'll show 'em...I can take this threat of exposure away," Wilson explains. "I have the power."
At the board meeting, Wilson played to a packed house. "The negative things that have been said in recent weeks about gay people — the awful stereotypes — are lies," Wilson announced. "I know this because I am a gay person. Now this community knows that they are lies, too, because this community has known me for more than a quarter of a century."
Sitting in his cluttered offices at the WHO studios, Jan Mickelson, minimized the impact of Wilson's revelation. "There will always be a segment that likes the little-boy-lost Wilson routine," he asserted. "He flashed his baby blues and says, 'I'm a victim,' and 'Come rescue me.' And there's going to be a number of soft-headed people who will fall for that. But he is not really the issue. The issue is bigger than his own agenda."
To Mickelson, a neo-Christian Reconstructionist and self-described Calvinist, the issue is the entire education establishment, which he sees as presided over by liberals who seek to foist their anti-Christian values on an unsuspecting public. Mickelson counts himself to the right of the Christian Coalition, which he believes has traded Christian principles for political power. But The Report, the enterprise headed by his friend Bill Horn, competes with the Coalition for contributions from local evangelicals, and Mickelson himself penned a fundraising letter for Horn's outfit.
Of course, the Christian Coalition latched onto the anti-Wilson cause for its own fundraising purposes. In a letter to potential contributors sent last June, Iowa Christian Coalition president Ione R. Dilley targeted the Des Moines school board race for action, singling out Wilson for criticism.
In June, Wilson began his campaign with confidence, hiring two Democratic pros to run his organization. He filled his war chest with some $60,000, around six times the usual cost of running a school board race here; of the total, only $15,000 came from out of state, thanks to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. With the endorsements of The Des Moines Register, two major unions, a corps of dedicated volunteers, professional polling efforts, and Wilson's own outreach to area ministers, the candidate's prospects looked good. By any political playbook, Wilson made all the right moves — and lost.
In the end, Wilson's organization proved to be no match for the national megastructure of the Christian right, especially the Christian Coalition, which papered local churches with its infamous voter guides. Though he says he answered every question on the Coalition's survey, the guides showed Wilson as giving no response on several. On the eve of Iowa's August straw poll, presidential contender Phil Gramm sent out a letter to Iowa voters, paid for by his campaign, soliciting money for Bill Horn's outfit as Horn stirred the pot against Wilson. Then, in testament to the power of the right, Des Moines Mayor John Dorrian and two city councilmen endorsed Wilson's foes, hand-selected to run from a committee of area ministers — a move unprecedented here, where city officials have traditionally remained aloof from school board politics. After a dozen years of education advocacy at both the local and national levels, Jonathan Wilson was trounced in one of the highest turnouts ever for a Des Moines school board race. (Some 30,000 votes were counted.) And the right's victory in the school board race is seen as a mere opening salvo for the next year's mayoral contest.
"I hope this serves as a wake-up call to the thinking people of Des Moines," says Sue Luethens, who chaired Wilson's campaign and served for eight years on the school board with him. Linda Powers, a Wilson campaign volunteer and mother of four, feels that the battle has just begun. She's already signing up Wilson volunteers to monitor the actions of the new school board. "We can't let it end here," she says.
Despite his success at raising campaign funds, Wilson has a $6,000 campaign debt. Contributions are still being accepted by the Wilson Campaign Fund, 2500 Financial Center, Des Moines, IA 50309.
Adele M. Stan was on assignment in Des Moines for Mother Jones. Her story on the Christian right can be read in the online edition of the magazine.