Candidate

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

Reina Fontenot accompanies her husband on all his campaign rounds. On a recent block walk in Pasadena, she stepped forward and took the verbal reins when they came upon Spanish-speaking residents in a working-class neighborhood that appears to be, as the sociologists say, "tipping" from elderly white residents to younger Hispanic families. She pitched in on the English conversations, too, and helped a forgetful Fontenot remember the names of potential voters they had just spoken to or were preparing to buttonhole.

Along a more affluent stretch of the same street, the Fontenots met up with an older white woman who was out in her driveway. She recognized Fontenot from his ads, pledged her support, then abruptly launched into a heartfelt meditation on the decline of morality and the general unraveling of civilization as we know it. "It just blows my mind," she said.

A few doors later the woman was still on Reina Fontenot's mind. "She must have been a Christian," she told her husband, and before she could elaborate, Fontenot closed out the conversation with a "Yep, yep, yep," slapping his stack of door hangers against his palm for emphasis and heading across the street. Apparently, this was not a subject he wanted to discuss with a reporter around.

Indeed, for a guy who frequently proclaims "I'm not a politician," Fontenot has become quite the politician. Republicans who saw him early on say he's lost the shiny suits and overly slicked hair he sported at the beginning of his campaign. Like Bentsen, he's surrounded himself with some of the best political help money can buy. Last year, Fontenot paid about $4,500 to Fairchild LeMaster, a Dallas firm that helps Republican candidates refine their public presentation and speaking skills. His chief strategist is Denis Calabrese, a savvy political pro who's helped Tom DeLay and Richard Armey get elected to Congress. His polling is conducted by the Wirthlin Group, President Reagan's pollster, whose favorable numbers Fontenot recites with all the abiding faith of a new believer.

Whether because of, or in spite of, all that top-drawer help, Fontenot can waffle like the most practiced of politicians. Continuing along the same Pasadena street, he and his wife crossed paths with retired music teacher Jay Dunnahoo, who was out in his front yard raking grass. Dunnahoo smiled with recognition at the candidate and told him he was going to vote for him, even though he was bothered by the position Fontenot holds on abortion (that is, that abortion should be outlawed -- not even permitted in the event of incest or rape or when a mother's life is endangered). Dunnahoo identified himself as a member of Republicans for Responsible Decisions, a moderate group that wants the GOP to avoid discussion of abortion altogether in its platform. "That's just killing us at the polls -- it hurt Bush in '92," Dunnahoo said of the GOP's stance (which, unlike Fontenot's, would allow abortions in cases of rape and incest and to save a mother's life).

His supporters in the anti-abortion movement will be disappointed to learn that Fontenot did not equate abortion with murder, nor did he engage Dunnahoo in argument over the GOP platform. No, self-described "pragmatic conservative" Eugene Fontenot told Dunnahoo, "That's my belief, but I'm not going to push it -- Roe vs. Wade is the law of the land." Then he assured Dunnahoo that he hasn't made abortion much of an issue in his campaign -- suggesting, as his campaign operatives do about his religious right connections, that it's not an issue even worth considering simply because he doesn't say much about it. As an added assurance, Fontenot told Dunnahoo he probably wouldn't do much more in Congress than try to persuade other congressmen of the rightness of his position.

"That's what I wanted to hear," Dunnahoo replied.
But don't think Fontenot's turning all squishy just because he doesn't have the political courage of his anti-abortion convictions. There's no waffling when it comes to crime -- he's against it. And he's mostly against President Clinton's "so-called crime bill," the one that banned some automatic assault weapons and provided money for cities to hire more police officers. And what he was most against in the Clinton crime bill was money for midnight basketball, the béte noire of conservative columnists and Republican lawmakers, few of whom ever went looking for recreational opportunities after punching out from the 3 to 11 p.m. shift at McDonald's or other low-paying service-sector jobs that more and more Americans are working at odd hours.

Although funding for midnight basketball and other social programs was proposed in the Clinton package as a preventative measure, to keep kids off the streets and away from crime, apparently the idea has taken hold in Fontenot's head that it was a rehabilitative program for criminals. Or, you could be ungenerous and assume from his remarks that Fontenot thinks that participants in midnight basketball programs -- primarily black inner-city youth and young adults -- are all criminals to begin with. But there's really no telling what he believes, because when he's off-script Eugene Fontenot becomes a political Rorschach. Asked whether he thinks offering young people an alternative to being on the streets at midnight was worthwhile, Fontenot tortuously offered up a prime specimen of Fontenot-speak, reported here verbatim and unedited:

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