Lon Mabon is on a mission from God
by Patty Wentz
Even with a spiffy new look and a toned-down rant, the head of the struggling Oregon Citizens Alliance still scares the bejeezus out of gays, women and fellow Republicans. And now the Christian Coalition wants in on the fun.
February 11, 1998
If the state held a popularity contest, Lon Mabon would lose. Polls suggest that 80 percent of Oregonians who know who he is would rather have a prison site in their back yard than have dinner with the director of the Oregon Citizens Alliance.
Mabon has hatched some of the most hostile ballot measures in recent Oregon history. For 10 years his small band of dedicated, fundamentalist Christian volunteers has helped him place three anti-gay initiatives and one anti-abortion initiative on the ballot. Mabon's efforts have unified his opponents, from gay and lesbian activists to liberals to moderate Republicans. Two years ago, the OCA dropped out of sight, and pundits gleefully chiseled out Mabon's political epitaph.
Now he's back.
Mabon has recycled a failed anti-abortion measure and whipped up another convoluted heterocentric manifesto. Having formed a new, tenuous alliance with the Christian Coalition, Mabon and company are out in our malls and churches quietly gathering signatures at a pace that will probably put their measures on the ballot.
Whether Lon Mabon succeeds or not, his return has several implications for Oregon. It forces his opponents to rally once again to fight him (sidebar: "A Clear and Present Danger,"). It also throws the Republican party a curve in a big election year. With Bill Sizemore vying for governor, and moderates like John Lim and Jack Roberts facing tough races, the GOP is hardly interested in reminding voters of its historic connection to the OCA. Perhaps most important, the OCA's relationship with the Christian Coalition could revive Mabon's ailing organization and dramatically change the state's political landscape as we head into the next century.
At 50, Mabon sports a sandy-colored beard that softens his face, and he speaks with a new, conciliatory tone. But he's the same extreme, unyielding, stubborn right-wing radical.
His anti-abortion initiative, for example, is an exact replica of the 1996 measure that failed to qualify for the ballot. It would prohibit abortion after 12 weeks of pregnancy -- unless the mother's life were at risk. It would make no exceptions for her health, nor in cases of rape or incest. If passed, it would give Oregon the most restrictive law in the country. It is, however, largely a symbolic gesture, since it flies in the face of Supreme Court protections for abortion.
That doesn't bother Mabon. He wants to challenge that ruling. He also acknowledges that voters would be more likely to support an abortion restriction if it were limited to the last trimester, but says his beliefs wouldn't let him settle for that. "I think I can get this passed," he says. "If I have an 80 percent chance of passing [a measure] in the third trimester and a 50 percent chance in the second, I'm still going to take that chance, to save more lives. This is our Schindler's list."
Mabon's unwillingness to compromise boosts the chances that Oregon will remain a pro-choice state, says Lisa Horowitz, executive director of Oregon NARAL. :The measure is so extreme," she says. "Even opponents of abortion will say this measure goes too far."
Extreme as it seems, Mabon's abortion initiative is mild compared with the fire-breathing initiative he calls the Family Act.
At first blush, it seems the Family Act would only amend the constitution to ban same-sex marriage. The GOP-controlled Oregon state Senate tried to do the same thing statutorily with the Defense of Marriage Act last legislative session until the House killed the bill. Since Congress passed legislation allowing states to ban gay marriage in 1996, 27 states have passed legislation similar to DOMA, most recently Washington. But no state has so amended its constitution.
The Family Act, however, goes beyond banning gay marriages. It would:
That sounds extreme, but it gets worse. The measure would also:
This last provision is clearly aimed at lesbians who use artificial insemination to get pregnant. "This guy is saying, we don't want you to have any health benefits, we don't want you to have kids, we don't want you to adopt kids," says Jean Harris of Basic Rights Oregon.
"This is Lon Mabon in full plumage," says Charles Hinkle, a Portland lawyer who has long represented the interests of gay-rights organizations.
Mabon says it's no accident that the measure's provision about sperm donors would affect even heterosexual married women. "Procreation is something that is important," he says. "And family relationships are important. And to dissolve that by the practice of artificial insemination and so forth cannot be done.
Despite the extreme nature of the measures, Mabon is well ahead of where he was on the failed 1996 effort. The anti-abortion effort has more than 51,000 signatures. He started circulating the Family Act five months later, and now has more than 31,500 signatures. Both require 97,681 signatures to be filed by July 2. The secretary of state's office recommends that petitioners turn in at least 117,000 to cover invalid signatures. That Mabon will get his two measures on the ballot seems likely. That he will succeed on election day seems less so.
Mabon figures he'll need at least $500,000 to run a successful campaign this year. "With the right amount of money, enough to run about a two-week media blitz, I think we won't fail," he says. "No matter how much they spend. I know it's out there. It just really depends on if enough people are willing to make it happen."
That's a problem for Mabon and the OCA. What was once a somewhat robust political concern with strong ties to the Republican Party has become limp.
Mabon estimates that about 28 of the 132 Republican Party state delegates are OCA faithful. He knows that's fewer than there were in the OCA's glory days, but isn't sure by how many. The group's strongholds remain in the rural areas: Klamath, Clatsop, Jackson, Douglas, Yamhill and Clackamas counties.
[The year] 1996 may have been the low point for Mabon. For the first time in a decade, the OCA failed to get any initiatives on the ballot. That same year, Gordon Smith rebuffed the group in an effort to seem moderate in his U.S. Senate campaign. Mabon retaliated and ran against Smith in the primary, but took only 8 percent of the vote.
Meanwhile, a number of Mabon's former allies, like gubernatorial candidate Al Mobley and state Sen. Marylin Shannon, turned away from him because of what they described as his megalomania. Trusted OCA employees John Leon and Mike Wiley deserted him and went public, echoing Shannon's charges.
The OCA's membership dropped to 2,500 households, down from its all-time high of about 3,400 in 1992.
Today, Mabon and his wife, Bonnie, and longtime loyalist Phillip Ramsdale are the only full-time staff members at his office in rural Brooks, south of Wilsonville. There are four part-time employees and five for six volunteers. Mabon says the OCA entered the 1998 election cycle at least $22,000 in debt. (Reports from the state elections office for 1992 and 1994 show that Mabon runs his operation with a lot of small donations -- most $100 or less.)
Over the years, opponents have outed OCA donors. Even people who supported Mabon in the past report that they are reluctant to expose themselves for fear of retaliation.
All of which might suggest that Mabon will be at most a minor irritant to many Oregonians, a nagging reminder of the moral intransigence that still circulates on the edges of Oregon politics. But Mabon is not a complete fool. He has Lou Beres up his sleeve.
In summer of 1996, Mabon contacted Beres, who was then vice president of the Oregon Christian Coalition board of directors, and asked if Beres would be interested in working with him on the abortion initiative this year.
Beres says Mabon told him he needed someone to handle the anti-abortion campaign in metropolitan Portland. More than that, Mabon needs the Christian Coalition to spiff up his image.
The Christian Coalition was founded by televangelist, media mogul and former presidential candidate Pat Robertson Like the OCA, it's working for a theocracy based on evangelical Christian principals.
During the 1996 presidential, campaign, the coalition, then headed by the politically savvy Ralph Reed, forced GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole to alter his plans to reach out to pro-choice convention delegates. The new national director of the Christian Coalition is former Oregonian Don Hodel, who was state chair of the Republican Party in 1966.
The Christian Coalition has been slow to build in Oregon. It started here in 1992. At the time, Mabon was leading the spiritual battle in the state and was named as its leader.
That changed after Ralph Reed paid a visit and was put off by Mabon's negative reputation. Since then, the two groups have worked independently. Today, the coalition says it has about 27,000 members in Oregon -- more than 10 times the number counted by the OCA -- and a mailing list of 118,000. Those numbers may be deceiving, however, as they include everyone who has ever donated.
That corps of Christian soldiers seems perfectly suited to waging a war via the Oregon ballot. The problem is that, nationally, the CC has steered clear of initiatives and focused on legislative battles.
But if there's a place to change that approach, Beres says, it's Oregon -- a state that embraces the initiative. Beres has been executive director of Oregon's Christian Coalition since 1997. Beres, 61, says he has been actively involved in the Republican Party for years and has served as the Multnomah County Chairman. His election wasn't universally cheered by the members of the Christian Right.
Where the national group is attempting to shed its extremist image and move into the mainstream, Beres has a reputation for digging in his heels. Beres admits that there are people within the religious right who think he's too extreme. He's been compared to Mabon as someone who can't accept the slow and incremental approach to politics that many on the religious right now think is necessary for success.
At a CC leader's conference he's attending this week in Washington, D.C., Beres hopes to get some money for the OCA's anti-abortion campaign from the deep pockets of the national CC.
Beres is well aware of how voters perceive the OCA, and he is careful to point out that any financial support the CC gives the initiatives will be independent of the OCA. The CC will run its own advertising, mass mailings and phone banks focusing on the abortion act, he says. "We're not stepping back from the Family Act, but [restricting abortions] is our No. 1 priority."
Mabon's negative image, Beres says, is outweighed by the fact that he has the experience and the infrastructure in place to run an initiative campaign -- something the Christian Coalition isn't ready to take on yet. "I just hope they don't throw out the message because of the messenger," he says. "No one else stepped up to do it. Lon is the only one who put one out."
Some say the Christian Coalition needs the OCA as much as Mabon needs the Christian Coalition. Linda Kintz, author of Between Jesus and the Market: The Emotions that Matter to the Religious Right, has been studying the religious right for several years. Despite its softer image, Kintz says, the Christian Coalition has an identical agenda to the OCA and has benefitted from Mabon's groundwork in Oregon.
"The Christian Coalition is gaining power as Mabon diminishes," says Kintz, a University of Oregon English professor who has attended Christian Coalition events, "I've heard at workshops that it's easier for the coalition to come into Oregon because Mabon seemed extreme by comparison. In other states, the Christian Coalition would get attacked immediately, but here ... they have gained space because they are seen as more moderate."
At this point, it looks as if the Christian Coalition and the OCA are on their own for this election cycle. Both Oregon Right to Life and the Catholic Church, two of the state's leading anti-abortion forces, are staying quiet on the initiative.
Even if Mabon fails at the polls, his potential alliance with the Christian Coalition is bad news for the state's Republican Party, which has been riven in years past by the divisions between its moderate and conservative wings.
"If I were advising Lou Beres I would tell him they don't need the OCA. It will be a millstone around their neck," says political strategist Dan Lavey, who helped Gordon Smith distance himself from the OCA after faltering in his first attempt to win a U.S. Senate seat. "Any time an issue comes along that concerns social conservatives, the OCA grabs that issue, and the others flee. I still don't think a credible voice for cultural or social conservatives exists in Oregon at the political level. Until the OCA disappears, you won't see that."
Mabon's problem, according to Lavey, is his inability to build relationships within the party. "Most people in the party don't know Lon Mabon's problem, according to Lavey, is his inability to build relationships within the party. "Most people in the party don't know Lon Mabon -- they know of him. He doesn't involve himself in party matters unless he's trying to push someone out, or himself in."
Not all Republicans, however, are turning their backs on the OCA.
"I don't think Mabon's a nonissue," says Perry Atkinson, vice chairman of the state Republican Party and a candidate in the 2nd Congressional District seat being vacated by Bob Smith. "I think he's using the initiative to re-create his base of influence, and the two issues could be achieved across the board, in spite of the animosity people may feel."
It's clear that even without Mabon, the religious right continues to maintain a stronghold on the Republican Party. In January 1997, Atkinson lost the chairmanship of the party by just one vote to Deanna Smith. Atkinson had the backing of the religious conservatives, Smith the more moderate Republicans.
Mabon critics within the party say he still holds influence. State Rep. Chuck Carpenter, a moderate Washington County Republican, says the religious right was in the middle of the back-room battles of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the state Senate last year.
With key votes from Republicans like Carpenter, the House passed ENDA, which would have prohibited employer discrimination based on sexual orientation. The legislation stalled in the Senate, however, never reaching a vote. Carpenter blames the religious right, in particular the OCA, which he says is still more politically savvy than the Christian Coalition. "They very quietly, behind closed doors, had a significant influence on moderate Republicans who ended up being spineless," he says.
Perhaps the man with the most to lose if Mabon succeeds in getting his measures on the ballot is GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Sizemore. A party outsider, Sizemore has managed so far to avoid the debates about social issues, instead sticking to issues of taxation and government growth.
Sizemore makes no bones about the fact that he's pro-life, but he claims he's ambivalent toward Mabon's initiatives. "It doesn't concern me one way or another," Sizemore says. "I don't believe that social issues are major issues in a governor's race. The authority for deciding abortion rests entirely with the Supreme Court."
That won't hold up during the next nine months. Eventually Sizemore will have to choose whether to embrace Mabon's measures and alienate moderate GOP voters or distance himself from the OCA and risk losing the support of the Christian Coalition crowd, including dozens of Republican Party officials.
Conventional wisdom, based on Gordon Smith's experience, is that Sizemore will need to publicly reject Mabon.
Mabon has controlled the social debate in Oregon during the past 10 years, but the next 10 months will determine his place in Oregon history. If he is successful in getting his initiatives on the ballot and can reposition himself with the help of the Christian Coalition; regardless of whether he wins at the polls, he'll have momentum enough to springboard into the year 2000 and another election. If he isn't successful, the Republicans who have been dancing on his grave will be right. In the past, Mabon has relished his role as an outsider. "We're the 82nd Airborne of the pro-family movement," he says. "We drop behind the enemy lines. We take the most casualties. We take the most hits.... If you are willing to compromise, you lessen your convictions."
It is easy to pigeonhole Mabon as a hate-mongering, power-hungry, homophobic woman-hater. But Mabon sees himself as more like the biblical Queen Esther, who hid her own Jewishness and, through manipulation of the government, saved the Jews from wholesale slaughter in the kingdom of Persia.
"God, and God's people, represented by Esther, were involved in the governmental process. She was the queen," Mabon says, "she was involved in government. And God was involved."
There is a certain irony in Mabon's equating himself with a queen, but his choice of role model is revealing. Queen Esther's mission was to save the Jews, where Mabon's crusade has been to stop what he sees as the decline of the family. "I believe that civil law is the basis to enforce God's standards," he says. "I believe that civil law is God's mechanism to handle human relationships in a community setting, but it should be based on right and wrong."
There is another interpretation of the Book of Esther that is popular with the Christian Coalition. In this version, Esther is not a warrior who demanded justice, but rather a diplomat who worked within the confines of her government.
Ultimately, Mabon's revival depends on how closely he reads his Bible.
History of OCA Initiatives
A Clear and Present Danger
|Jean Harris of Basic Rights Oregon is taking Lon Mabon seriously. Basic Rights is one of several groups that have fought -- and won -- against Mabon in the past. These days, Harris spends at Least 50 percent of her time fund raising. She says most people don't even know Mabon is back, so she has to educate them, then ask them for money. People are tired of fighting Mabon, she says, and may be tempted to ignore him this time. But, she adds, those who put their heads in the sand are "fooling themselves." Harris recently visited Los Angeles, where record producer David Geffen, who contributed $80,000 in 1994 for the campaign against Measure 13, gave her $5,000 and a promise of more money if the initiative makes it to the ballot. She is flying to San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and New York soon to meet with other potential donors. She figures she needs $2.5 million to win the campaign and adds that she must go outside the state if she is to raise that kind of money. In the past 10 years, a fund-raising machine fueled by the fight against the OCA has raised about $5 million. "You know, Lon, you helped create Basic Rights Oregon," says Harris. "Thanks a Lot."|