By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
His campaign manager, Jeff Yates, a hefty, booming-voiced Pasadena resident who at age 25 is running his first campaign, elaborates, with quite a bit more emphasis:
"It's not an issue in the campaign. And whether Mr. Bentsen says he's forced to talk about it or not, you can look at our literature, you can watch our TV spots, listen to our radio spots, it's not an issue in this campaign. Now he's trying to make it an issue in this campaign, but it's not an issue. Gene Fontenot's out there talking about crime, welfare reform, term limits, the balanced budget amendment, and Ken Bentsen keeps talking about how much [Fontenot] goes to church. Do you think the people of the 25th Congressional District really care about where or how many times he goes to church?"
Bentsen, of course, hasn't said anything about where or how many times Fontenot goes to church, although when the subject of faith arises he's quick to note his own membership in First Presbyterian.
"We're not talking about the religious right," he says, "we're talking about the right wing, call 'em the radical right, what you want. It has nothing to do with where people go to church. It has everything to do with what these right-wing people believe and that they would try to impose what they believe on everybody else. Pat Robertson just happens to be a TV minister, but he has a very right-wing agenda that he would seek to impose on everybody else."
Bentsen frequently cites Fontenot's ties to Citizens for American Restoration, a get-out-the-vote organization and political action committee headed by anti-gay and anti-abortion physician Steve Hotze. Fontenot was on the advisory board of Hotze's organization and has been one of its biggest financial donors, contributing more than $4,000 to it in 1992-93.
Citizens for American Restoration's "solemn covenant" for its members calls for civil government to limit itself to "proper biblical concerns." It not only censures homosexuality, adultery, pornography and divorce, saying "those who participate in such activities invite the judgment of God upon themselves and our society," but also condemns inheritance and property taxes, which it calls "unbiblical forms of taxation."
"We further commit ourselves to support and encourage those elected officials and candidates who pledge to faithfully serve God in the administration of their office. We also solemnly warn that violation of such a sacred trust invites the judgment of God upon not only their elected rulers, but also upon the communities which they represent and serve."
Fontenot also has been associated with Hotze and Robert Feldtman, another physician and contributor to Citizens for American Restoration, in Physicians for Quality Medicine Inc., which was incorporated in May 1993, shortly before Fontenot launched his congressional bid. Fontenot's Spring Stuebner mansion is listed as its business address. Fontenot explains (sort of): "It was an organization we formed to combat the ... you know, a group of doctors, to educate the people on the health care system."
Fontenot has given money to U.S. Representatives Tom DeLay and Jack Fields, more mainstream Republican candidates who court religious right support, but he was more generous in his backing of David Strawn, an unsuccessful Klein school board candidate who favored religious instruction in the classroom. In 1992, he also opened his mansion for a fundraiser to benefit John Devine, a write-in candidate from the religious right who challenged Democratic Judge Eileen O'Neill using the slogan, "Our judicial system needs Devine intervention."
When asked about his connection to Hotze's group, Fontenot suggests that, well, it really doesn't mean much. He got a letter from the group when he was an assistant election judge in 1992, he explains, and it was "a conservative group," so he sent them some money. "Like one other columnist said, 'I started with that group but now I'm just a pragmatic conservative.' I've gone from a radical conservative to a Christian conservative, but now I'm a pragmatic conservative." Of course, the political columnist who wrote words to that effect didn't exactly mean them as a compliment.
Still, when it comes to mixing religion and politics, Fontenot's not alone in his political opportunism. Democrats are guilty of a monumental hypocrisy when they attack the religious right on Saturday and then spend Sunday mornings, as Bentsen has done and will do again before the election, plying black churches for votes and seeking the blessings of black Baptist ministers, some of whom have made public statements as homophobic and misogynistic as any uttered by your garden-variety religious right figure.
Lawyer Gary Polland has acted as one of Fontenot's connectors to Jewish voters. He accompanied Fontenot to an AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) dinner in Washington last spring and helped him draft a pro-Israel position paper. Polland recently resigned from the regional board of the Anti-Defamation League after publicly protesting the ADL's characterization of Christian conservatives in the booklet The Religious Right: The Assault on Tolerance and Pluralism in America.
Polland says he met with Fontenot shortly after his primary victory and came away satisfied that Fontenot respects other people's religious beliefs. And he's not bothered by Fontenot's association with Hotze's organization.