Candidate

With big bucks and blessings from on high, Eugene Fontenot comes out from behind his wall to buy a seat in Congress

Take I-45 north out of downtown Houston and go about 30 miles, past the point where the coastal prairie slowly begins to give way to the heavily forested flatlands. Get off the freeway at Spring Stuebner Road and make your way west into the deep sticks of north Harris County, past rust-red barns, small churches, a knife-sharpening business on the right and a big blue sign on the left that advises you to "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and You'll be Saved." Keep going until you're about four miles from the freeway and, suddenly, there it is, looming up out of nowhere -- a 10-foot high brick wall that runs for more than two-tenths of a mile, just a few yards from the two-lane road.

It's the kind of high wall you'd find enclosing an exclusive country club or cemetery, so that the wealthy can recreate or rest in peace, away from the prying eyes of the passing rabble. But gaze past the electronically operated, ornamental iron gate blocking the entrance to the long tree-lined driveway, past the fountains and reflecting pool, and you can see, at least a quarter-mile off the roadway, a 13,000-square foot Mediterranean-style villa. It's a home. Inside are furnishings that have been blessed by God and stained glass windows etched with Bible verses.

It's a far cry, geographically and socially, from the plain-vanilla, white brick home at 5025 Jason in Meyerland, where you can park on the street, walk right up to the door and knock.

Both houses are the residence of Dr. Eugene Fontenot. The one behind the high wall at 5807 Spring Stuebner is the "dream home" he built for his wife, the one they had dedicated to the Lord by their pastor, the Reverend John Osteen of Lakewood Church, the one filled with expensive furnishings they say the Lord directed them to buy as they trotted about the globe in the 1980s (see "God Is Our Interior Designer," page 12). It's the one Fontenot's wife has said was intended to remind people of a church, the one in which the couple has held weekly Bible study classes, the one Fontenot claimed as his homestead for this year's property tax exemption, the one surrounded by acres of pine trees that Fontenot had planted and on which he took a "farming" loss on his tax return for last year.

The address in Meyerland, a good 40 miles south of the million-dollar estate on Spring Stuebner, is the one Fontenot and his wife are renting as part of his free-spending pursuit of a more earthly reward -- a congressional seat that came on the open market late last year.

Even though congressional candidates aren't required to live in the district they seek to represent, the modest $200,000 house in Meyerland was leased by Fontenot to give him some semblance of connection to the 25th Congressional District -- as much as a person can have a connection to a computer-drawn political entity that crawls across the bottom half of Harris County from Missouri City to Baytown and was created and refined for no greater purpose than to ensure that Mike Andrews, one of a dwindling breed of urban white Democrats in Texas, was reelected to Congress for the rest of this century.

But it's the grand glory-to-God house on Spring Stuebner Road that has more to say about the political reality of Fontenot, himself a somewhat distant and grandiose construct who's obscured behind a high wall of money, slick advertising and boilerplate rhetoric.

Eugene Fontenot Jr. is, as his radio commercials say, a different kind of candidate for Congress. He stands squarely at the intersection of three unsettling trends in American politics: the rise of the religious right as a serious force within the Republican Party; the public acceptance of inordinately wealthy candidates (à la Richard Fisher and California Senate hopeful and former Houstonian Michael Huffington) who spend seemingly unlimited amounts of their own cash on their campaigns; and the ever expanding influence of pollsters, consultants and other political enablers who can stitch together a credible candidate almost from whole cloth.

His opponent, Democrat Ken Bentsen Jr., has tried to demonize Fontenot as a scary creature from the murky bogs of the religious right, a characterization to which Fontenot and his operatives strenuously object. Or, at least, Fontenot appears to object, although trying to engage him on the topic is to take a dispiriting journey through the thickets of his sometimes tangled syntax -- and not to emerge into the light. But what little record of political involvement Fontenot established before he began running for Congress mostly stemmed from his financial support of candidates and organizations that believe government should operate according to their interpretation of the Bible, and who believe the hallowed constitutional wall between church and state shouldn't exist.

And what little he's told his new neighbors in the 25th Congressional District about himself has come almost exclusively in settings his campaign controls -- primarily in the hundreds of thousands of dollars of television and radio ads bought with the $1.6 million (as of the last public accounting) he's donated or lent to his campaign. As of this week, Fontenot had not engaged in a debate with Bentsen, and since he announced his candidacy late last year, he has conducted only one news conference. In the few appearances he's made with Bentsen before unaligned groups, Fontenot has read his positions from a prepared text and hasn't taken questions from his audiences.

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