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.

Fontenot does spend a good deal of time "block walking" in the east Harris County portion of the district, but his encounters with would-be voters there are only slightly less spontaneous than his glossy TV commercials. When Fontenot and wife Reina go door-to-door searching for votes in Pasadena, Deer Park and La Porte, ferried to the targeted streets by a Mallard recreational vehicle sporting a slew of "Fontenot for Congress" and "Rush is Right" bumper stickers, the candidate greets potential voters with a string of rehearsed platitudes that ends with the declaration, "I'm the conservative," as if that pretty much sums up what anybody would need to know about him. Then he hands them a "door hanger" -- an 8 1/2 by 3 3/4-inch card that also can be hung on a doorknob when no one answers a knock. Printed on the back of the card is "Gene Fontenot on the issues," 82 words of nostrums on crime ("... let's start protecting the good people for change ... "), the economy ("... higher taxes punish success and reward failure ..."), welfare reform ("The government doesn't owe any able-bodied American a paycheck ...") and term limits (he's for them).

For voters who'd like to know more, Fontenot leaves them with this explanation as he hands them his door hanger: "What I stand for," he says, "is on the back."

On the front of his door hangers is a picture of Fontenot, looking intent as he cradles a phone receiver, and a sparse thumbnail sketch of his life: "battlefield surgeon" (he pulled a year's duty as a Navy surgeon in Vietnam in 1967-68), "practicing physician" (a claim he acknowledges is a mistake, since it's been a decade since he practiced medicine), "successful businessman" and "family man."

Born in New Orleans and raised just southwest of the city in the rural backwater of LaFourche Parish, Fontenot says his father was a dairy farmer, and he grew up in a household where French and English were spoken. He attended Louisiana State University, where he obtained a degree in chemistry in 1958 and was president of the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity, and later enrolled in medical school at the University Autonoma of Guadalajara, Mexico, where he graduated in 1963. Part of his medical residency was completed at the old Memorial Baptist Hospital in downtown Houston, and, after fulfilling his military obligation, Fontenot returned to the city and set up a family practice.

Fontenot retains a trace of a Cajun accent, and occasionally in conversation his voice will take on an avuncular lilt, making him sound like a bayou country Ronald Reagan. Like Reagan, he says "gosh" when he wants to underscore his mock incredulity at something his opponent has said. Unlike Reagan, his stage presence could be charitably described as slightly better than wooden, and his conversation and speeches are punctuated by a frequent and pronounced squint.

The full effect might leave you thinking "rube," but that would be a serious underestimation of Eugene Fontenot. He's a shrewd investor -- the financial disclosure report he was required to file when he launched his congressional bid last year showed him to have assets of at least $3.8 million, although the figure could be much higher, given that candidates are required to list their assets and income only in broad dollar categories. His 1993 tax return, which he released earlier this year, showed he reported an income of $346,000 last year. Fontenot formerly was a part-owner and director of Houston Northwest Medical Center and presently owns part of Cypress Fairbanks Hospital at FM 1960 and Jones Road, outside the 25th District.

Fontenot also has amassed an impressive academic record outside of his discipline -- he pursued an MBA from Southern Methodist University, took a master's degree in public health from Tulane and obtained a law degree from South Texas College of Law. He's quick to note that he's not a practicing attorney, explaining that he got his law degree only so other lawyers wouldn't take advantage of him in business dealings.

Despite his credentials as a doctor, businessman, lawyer and, now, politician, Fontenot seems to lack the natural gregariousness and "people" skills usually possessed by others in those lines of works. His reserved nature apparently is not limited to his public life, or so you would gather from Fontenot and his wife's explanation of how they met and married. At the time, Fontenot was a 40-year-old doctor and graduate student, and Honduran native Reina Stanley was an 18-year-old who worked as a cashier in the Walgreen's downstairs from his New Orleans apartment. The Spanish Fontenot picked up in medical school apparently proved handy in the pursuit of romance.

"I didn't know how to approach her," he recalls with a wink, "but then I heard her speaking Spanish and I said, 'Ah ha....'" The Fontenots have been married for 17 years and have two children who attend an exclusive private school in Meyerland, one of the two bona fides Fontenot cites when discoursing on why he knows more about the 25th District than Bentsen (the other being the five months in 1966 during which he worked at the old Northshore Hospital at Federal Road and I-10).

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:

"What I would try to do.... What are we trying to do? ... Let's do during the daytime ... I believe these kids unfortunately have gotten away from homework ... you know, let's do everything to help 'em, besides play basketball. If you wanna be a professional basketball, if you're good, that's fine, spend all your time on that. But let's get these people, you know, meaningful work ... and there is work out there, and you know, even McCarthy ... who was, who ran in '68? ... Oh yeah, it was Eugene McCarthy. Here's what he said: there's a place for working at minimum wage jobs. You're out there ... you're made to get up, you get there on time. That's discipline."

So, Fontenot was asked, does he think the reason people aren't taking jobs is because they're lazy or lack discipline?

"Maybe they don't know," he replies, "... you're not born with the ability to work. I know, you have to learn it, you have to be taught, like I was. I was, uh ... asked in a real nice way to get up at three o'clock in the morning and help milk the cows, and, uh, welfare, uh ... I think we can get these people ... you know give the employer the method ... let the employer provide the check to [the] welfare recipient, and go from there....

These people?
Maybe some midnight cow-milking would help impose discipline on "these people" and prepare them for all those minimum-wage jobs to be found in America's inner cities.

Ken Bentsen Jr. possesses the self-awareness to acknowledge, although at some prodding, that his last name "helps a bit" in his political endeavors. (He's the nephew of the former U.S. senator from Texas and current Treasury secretary; his father, an architect, is Lloyd Bentsen's younger brother). And he's got the political smarts not to fully acknowledge the obvious: that if his last name weren't Bentsen, he wouldn't be the Democratic nominee in the 25th Congressional District, nor would he have been twice elected chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party.

Tall and thin, with short, curly hair and a reserved, somewhat formal manner -- stiff is a description employed by other Democrats -- Bentsen comes across as just another well-bred white-collar professional, albeit one with an especially nice view of Houston from the 60th floor of the Texas Commerce Tower, where he works in the public finance section of the George K. Baum investment banking firm. A graduate of Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and St. Thomas University, Bentsen worked as a Washington aide to U.S. Representative Ron Coleman of El Paso for five years before returning to Houston in the late '80s. Married for four years and the father of two young children, he is a resident of the Southgate neighborhood. Bentsen oozes normalcy. He's a nice guy.

Mike Andrews' ill-fated decision to forgo reelection to his House seat and instead enter the Democratic primary for Kay Bailey Hutchison's Senate post opened up the position he had held for more than a decade. His absence drew a slew of Democrats and two Republicans, Fontenot and Dolly Madison McKenna, to the primary campaigns. An abortion-rights moderate who had been

the GOP nominee in 1992 (when she moved into the district from River Oaks), McKenna was blind-sided this year by Fontenot's big-bucks media spree. Bentsen, meanwhile, beat a better qualified Democrat, former state Representative Paul Colbert, and several lesser-qualified ones, including former City Councilwoman Beverley Clark, last seen addressing the national convention of the Christian Coalition and bearing false witness by claiming her "life as a Christian" was the main focus of her runoff campaign against Bentsen. Clark now supports Fontenot.

In his party's primary, Bentsen positioned himself as the candidate with appeal to bipartisan downtown power brokers -- former Texas Commerce Bank president Ben Love is a co-chair of his campaign; he's been endorsed by the Houston Chronicle -- and slightly to the left of Andrews on such issues as health care. Once out of the primary, Bentsen, like Fontenot, began tailoring his message for a wider audience. When one of his Democratic primary opponents sent out an incendiary anti-crime mailing, Bentsen responded with a press conference at a Sunnyside neighborhood center in which he pushed community investment and youth programs and lauded elements of Clinton's crime package; six months later, he wouldn't take a firm stand on the crime bill.

His race with Fontenot has cast him in an awkward position. While Fontenot is clearly the big-bucks candidate, Bentsen is the establishment figure, the cautious defender of the status quo, the non-incumbent who's apt to be stung by whatever anti-incumbent sentiment registers at the polls on November 8. And like other Democrats, from Clinton to Ann Richards on down, who've begun to do battle with the religious right, Bentsen goes out of his way to avoid appearing as if he's attacking people for their faith. That's a tricky proposition, given that those on the religious right, from Pat Robertson on down, accuse their critics of doing just that.

Fontenot himself has appropriated that defensive rhetoric. "They don't define what's religious right," he says of the Bentsen campaign. "I go to church like 190 million people go to their church ... or go to their synagogue or church," he adds, mindful that a large slice of Houston's small but heavy-voting Jewish populace resides in the 25th District.

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.

"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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