The Kingdom and the Power

Money may be the root of all evil, but it's fueled Steven Hotze's rise from a fringe player on the religious right to kingmaker in the local Republican Party. Now he's trying to stretch his influence further afield.

Lake describes herself as burned out on politics as a result of that struggle. After her first election in 1992, Hotze and his supporters on the county party's executive committee seized the regular Republican administrative apparatus and its west-side head-quarters on Augusta. "They thought I would act like a woman and just quit and give them what they wanted," laughs Lake. "Well, I hung on. I didn't let them run me off."

Lake responded to the challenge by creating her own fundraising mechanism and setting up headquarters on Chelsea in the Museum District. Hotze, true to his form as a political loner who likes to dictate rather than work in committee, eventually tired of party administrative duties. Snafus such as failing to pay the office phone bill resulted in a well-publicized service shutdown in the Augusta headquarters. He eventually closed that operation and went back to running his own political show out of his Katy medical clinic. After Lake was succeeded by Gary Polland, the party reunited at the Chelsea offices.

According to Lake, Hotze is a master at wrapping himself in Christian rhetoric while behaving in a downright devilish fashion.

"He's very devious, very frightening, very extreme in his beliefs," says Lake, who often found herself in the difficult position of counseling candidates on dealing with him. "I almost felt at times these were frightened children. Most of them had never had any dealings with a campaign and had no idea what they were getting into, but they wanted to run for office. And the first thing they encounter is having to deal with his power machine, and they felt very threatened."

Lake describes Hotze as a classic, talented demagogue who preys on voters by exploiting divisive issues. "He does this in order to ultimately achieve his agenda," says Lake. "He's a master at it." A Methodist with a degree in religious education whose father was a minister, Lake believes she's in a position to judge that Hotze "has blackened the eye of Christianity" with his win-at-all-costs politics.

Like other moderates who've dealt with Hotze, Lake cites his unpredictability. "I don't think I've ever known anyone who could look you in the eye and say something and then an hour later go out and do the completely opposite thing."

Lake has temporarily retired from politics, with the exception of volunteer work for the Bob Dole campaign. But she says she may return to the public arena in the future to fight Hotze's influence. "I shudder every time I think what he's capable of doing and why he's doing it. And yet, I feel very helpless because I don't know how to stop him. Because he is truly holding candidates and elected officials hostage."

At the other end of the Republican spectrum, Clymer Wright believes Hotze has changed in the past few years by focusing less on furthering the Christian conservative agenda and more on gathering money and the influence it brings.

"It's my view that some of the people he's now backing have not been all that good as Christians or conservatives," says Wright. "You can start following the money trail and it gets back to that. That's what's so disappointing about what I call the 'new Steve Hotze.' "

Perhaps Hotze has come to believe that to do God's political work sometimes requires cooperation with people who may not measure up to his own ideological standards. By 1990, he was willing to countenance a compromise on the party's abortion position with moderates at the state Republican convention, saying, "We've lost a lot of people [in elections] by going for broke every time."

On a recent Sunday, Steve Hotze paused outside the front entrance of Bethel Independent Presbyterian Church on Bering Drive, chatting with fellow congregates as they exited the noon service. The meeting hall is a large, linoleum-floored auditorium with minimal decoration, befitting an austere, Calvinist sect. The congregation of more than four hundred was composed mostly of older white couples, who had just weathered a long, rambling sermon on the subject of proper prayer, laced with references to the value of secrecy and praying not for public consumption but for maximum effect.

"Go to your secret place," advised pastor Robert Tolson. "Be secretive as an oyster."

The sermon could easily apply to Steve Hotze's evolving political style, working behind-the-scenes with a small group of people, a cash conduit and a technology that produces prayerful results on Election Day.

Having launched the crusade to inject moral issues into local politics, Hotze is now considering injecting his machine into next year's municipal elections and the still-cloudy race for mayor if Bob Lanier departs the scene. Hotze has met several times with mayoral chief of staff Dave Walden, and is known to be a big booster of Orlando Sanchez, the conservative Republican who won an at-large Council seat last year. Whether the methods that have made him a power in Republican politics can translate into the more diverse arena of non-partisan city races remains to be seen.

Once described as skeletal thin, with jumpy nerves, Hotze appeared fit, tanned and relaxed in a well-tailored brown suit that recent Sunday, perhaps the result of a new dedication to perfecting his golf game at Memorial Park. The Hotzes are in the process of moving into a half-million-dollar home in Tanglewood he purchased in August, prompting Margaret Hotze to say she's glad the family has left the Piping Rock residence.

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