The Christian Coalition Takes San Diego

Jonathan Mozzochi, Gillian Leichtling & Steven Gardiner of the Coalition for Human Dignity
The following analysis of Christian Right organizing strategy in Southern California was prepared by the Coalition for Human Dignity for the Western States Center as part of a research project on the Christian Coalition. We reprint it here with permission from CHD and Western States. "Stealth" strategy is guerrilla warfare in the electoral theatre, and must be understood to be successfully challenged.

The year was 1990, the morning after election day. Longtime San Diego incumbents awoke to what must have seemed like an overnight palace coup. Prior to the election many local office-holders had been completely unaware that they faced any serious opposition, much less an organized overthrow by a supposed "fringe" element. When the smoke cleared, two-thirds of the candidates on the Christian Right slate (60 out of 90) had won their races for low-level state and local positions. Today, the 1990 elections in San Diego are considered a blueprint for Christian Right political organizing nationwide. Christian Coalition and other Christian Right strategists have since duplicated the winning methods of the "San Diego model" in a number of other states, attempting to gain control of school boards, hospital boards, water districts, community planning boards, city councils, county supervisory boards, state legislatures, land use boards, and Republican Party committees.

The San Diego model, using "stealth candidates" and running "covert campaigns," hinges on three political facts:

  1. Local campaigns only rarely generate the kind of interest or media attention that is lavished on national and statewide elections, so

  2. Voter turnout tends to be relatively low, and

  3. The absolute number of voters involved in most elections of this type is also small.
The result is that the systematic mobilization of a very few like-minded voters can often turn the tide in elections of this type. In fact, in many local elections, it takes only a few dozen, or at most, a few hundred committed voters to make the difference. Of course, this campaign works best when the opposition doesn't know that a systematic, ideologically coherent campaign is being run, hence the "stealth" factor. The candidate may know that someone is running against him or her and may even know that the opposition is a conservative, Christian fundamentalist, but he or she is unaware that the opposition has the backing of a covert political machine. Thus the stealth candidate may or may not try to hide his or her political philosophy, but will certainly try to hide the fact that he or she has organizational backing. Candidates are instructed in the Christian Coalition organizing manual to never reveal their affiliation.

In San Diego, it was the California Pro-Life Council (CPLC), an affiliate of the National Right to Life Committee, which was instrumental in the success of implementing the stealth strategy. The Christian Coalition and CPLC work closely in Southern California, where CPLC helped the Christian Coalition establish 32 chapters in only six months in the wake of the elections. Similarly, the Christian Coalition, as a powerful, multi- issue organization, provided the CPLC leaders with the training and strategy necessary to gain influence in the state Republican Party.

Perhaps the most successful part of the San Diego stealth strategy was the production of a simple voters' guide, quietly distributed on cars in church parking lots (intended to give the impression that these candidates were endorsed by the church) and mailed shortly before the election to voters previously identified as "pro-family" through phone surveys. Voter registration drives were also held in church congregations and telephone banking was done of names drawn from church directories. Candidates on the slate otherwise kept a low profile, declining invitations to participate in debates and candidate forums, declining to complete election questionnaires from citizen groups, and seeking little mainstream publicity. Deception and evasive tactics were also used, with some candidates seriously misrepresenting their qualifications and using names of non-existent people and organizations to attack the character of other candidates (Mainstream Voters' Project Bulletin, Vol. 1, No. 4, p.1).

After the election, winning "stealth" candidates began to make their presence known and their theocratic agendas heard. Christian Right board members in a number of San Diego County school districts used their positions to oppose counseling to pregnant teenagers, federally sponsored breakfast programs for poor children, and the release of students for confidential medical appointments during school hours. These board members also have the support of Christian Coalition "monitors," people who attend every meeting and sign up to speak, in order to defend the positions of their board members and monopolize meeting time. In addition to winning seats in non-partisan offices, candidates backed by the Christian Coalition have also taken control of the county Republican party. As Jay Grimstead of the Coalition on Revival explained, "We went out and recruited a bunch of nice, intelligent people who all happened to be godly and praying people, but didn't announce it. They just put their names on the ballots and got elected" (NY Times; 10/27/92). The Christian Coalition has already had a profound impact on Republican party politics in San Diego. Members of Congress explain that if they fail to vote along the Coalition party line, they face strong opposition in future elections.

The 1992 elections proved to be a different story. Christian Right candidates had less success than in 1990, when the opposition was completely unprepared. This time, 107 candidates aligned with or supported by Christian Right organizations ran for low-level offices, but only 36 won (still enough to make a significant impact, especially on the school boards). While their campaigns were far better organized and had much more national Christian Coalition support, they couldn't rely on the same secrecy that aided them in the previous election. Citizen's groups such as the Mainstream Voters' Project, along with the media, began exposing Christian Right candidates who ran for school boards while their own children attended private schools, repeatedly changed their mailing addresses in order to run in more receptive districts, or asked opponents, "Are you a Christian," as if there was no room left in politics for people of other faiths. One write-in "Democrat," 18 year-old high school student Julie Pierce (daughter of an anti-choice candidate running in a neighboring district), misrepresented her anti-choice views, political affiliations, qualifications, and home address in order to divert enough votes from the pro-choice Independent incumbent to allow the Republican to win in the 39th State Senate District. Such methods were far less effective when brought into the light of day, however, and the momentum of the Christian Right political takeover in San Diego has clearly been slowed.

For more information or to request a complete Fight the Right Action Kit, call NGLTF at 202-332-6483, TTY 202-332-6219.