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

"I do not think he's a religious zealot, unless you define someone who's religious as being a zealot," says Polland.

Fontenot himself is not quite so reassuring when he's asked whether he believes, as many on the religious right do, that the separation of church and state is a myth.

"I don't believe we should mix the religion and government," he says. "Government should, uh ... tolerate religion." As an example of what he views as government's intolerance of religion, he points to the Supreme Court's recent decision disallowing Hasidic Jews in New York to run their own publicly funded school district. If they're a "majority," Fontenot says, the Hasidim should be allowed to control the school district.

"It's a local thing, let's put it that way," he continues. "I don't believe the national government should have anything to do with religion. I can categorically say that. I think the more local control you have, the better."

People are pissed. People are scared. The national mood, as the polls tell us, is sour. Numbers may show the economy is growing and crime is down, but the numbers do nothing to assuage people's concerns about their pocketbooks and personal safety. The eternal middle-class fear of falling has been supplemented by the fear of having the front door kicked in at midnight.

Rush may not be right, but his cynicism about government prevails. Bill Clinton is a dead weight around the necks of Democrats. This is not the best of times for a politician to carry the last name of Bentsen, without the first name Lloyd, or to bear the standard of a political party that, at least in Texas, appears to be on the verge of intellectual bankruptcy. (Who is that woman in those Ann Richards' commercials, anyway?)

The 25th Congressional District will be as good a place as any to check the nation's pulse on November 8. It encompasses middle-class blacks in Missouri City, affluent whites in Meyerland and around Rice University, working-class blacks in Sunnyside and working-class whites and Hispanics in east Harris County. The district's demographic makeup should favor Bentsen. But it's not a dead-cinch "safe" district for a Democrat, and some in Bentsen's party are worrying aloud that it could be represented in Congress next January by Dr. Eugene Fontenot, who comes bearing a large satchel of cash and the snake-oil remedy of Newt Gingrich's "contract with America" promise of tax cuts for the wealthy and budget cuts for everyone else.

When Fontenot announced his candidacy, the written text of his speech, as distributed to reporters, followed the line, "But most of all I'm standing here for them," with this parenthetical instruction to the candidate: "Point to wife and kids." Nobody has to tell him to point anymore.

At a recent fundraiser at Mexican restaurant east of downtown, Fontenot moved easily among a small group of supporters. Much of the sideline chatter concerned the collapse of morality, the impending fall of civilization and what a terrible bum our president is. Then, reading his speech with what for him was an almost spirited intonation, Fontenot pressed home those themes, decrying 15-year-olds with guns, 16-year-olds having abortions, 17-year-olds graduating from high school unable to read. The barbarians are at the gate, Fontenot seemed to be saying. And then Eugene Fontenot, the politician whose dream house sits behind a high brick wall miles from the people he wants to represent, spelled it out. Too many people, he said, are worried about "how close it will get to their gate." And what made him run for Congress, Fontenot added portentously, was his own worry about "how close will it get to my gate."

Perhaps it's been a while since Fontenot checked on his spread up on Spring Stuebner, what with the campaign and all. But it's already pretty damn close to his gate. Somebody's spray-painted graffiti on his brick wall.

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