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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.

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Jim Simmon