The Protect Marriage Coalition, which led the fight to pass an anti-gay marriage initiative in California, is now suing to shield its financial records from public scrutiny.
The lawsuit claims that donors to Protect Marriage and a second group involved in the suit have received threatening phone calls and emails. It asks for existing donation lists to be removed from the California secretary of state's website and also seeks to have both plaintiffs and all similar groups be exempted in the future from ever having to file donation disclosure reports on this or any similar campaigns.
Although public access advocates believe this sweeping demand for donor anonymity has little chance of success, it does point up the secretive and even conspiratorial nature of much right-wing political activity in California.
Howard Ahmanson and Wayne C. JohnsonThe man who more than any other has been associated with this kind of semi-covert activity over the past 25 years is reclusive billionaire Howard Ahmanson.
Ahmanson is a Christian Reconstructionist, a devout follower of the late R.J. Rushdoony, who advocated the replacement of the U.S. Constitution with the most extreme precepts of the Old Testament, including the execution -- preferably by stoning -- of homosexuals, adulterers, witches, blasphemers, and disobedient children.
Ahmanson himself has stated, "My goal is the total integration of biblical law into our lives."
As absurd as this Reconstructionist agenda may seem, the success of Proposition 8 demonstrates the ability of what is sometimes called the "Christian Taliban" to pursue its covert objectives behind the screen of seemingly mainstream initiatives and candidates.
Ahmanson's role in promoting Proposition 8 has drawn a lot of attention, but he appears to serve primarily as the money man, leaving his associates to carry out the practical details. One name in particular stands out as Ahmanson's chief lieutenant: political consultant Wayne C. Johnson, whose Johnson Clark Associates (formerly Johnson & Associates) coordinated the Proposition 8 campaign.
Johnson has spent many years working for Ahmanson-funded causes -- such as the battle against a 2004 initiative to promote stem cell research -- and organizations, like the anti-spending California Taxpayer Protection Committee.
Johnson Clark has also operated PACs for many candidates supported by Ahmanson. It ran Rep. John Doolittle's leadership PAC, which became notorious for sending a 15% commission to Doolittle's wife out of every donation received. It currently runs the PAC for Rep. Tom McClintock, a strong Proposition 8 supporter who was narrowly elected last fall to succeed the scandal-plagued Doolittle.
Proposition 8The series of events leading to the approval of Proposition 8 began in 2000 with the passage of Proposition 22, which defined marriage in California as being solely between one man and one woman -- but did so only as a matter of law and not as a constitutional amendment.
Proposition 22 was quickly challenged in court, leading to the creation by its supporters of the the Proposition 22 Legal Defense Fund. In 2003, Johnson Clark Associates registered the domain ProtectMarriage.com on behalf of that fund.
ProtectMarriage.com began campaigning in early 2005 for an initiative that would add its restrictive definition of marriage to the California constitution, but it failed to gather sufficient signatures and was terminated in September 2006.
In 2008, however, a reborn ProtectMarriage.com, flush with nearly a million dollars in funding from Howard Ahmanson and tens of millions from other doners, succeeding in getting Proposition 8 placed on the ballot and approved by 52% of the voters.
Proposition 8 is now California law -- at least for the moment, pending challenges to its constitutionality -- and ProtectMarriage.com has turned its attention to demanding that all 18,000 existing same-sex marriages be declared invalid.
The Ahmanson-Johnson StrategyThe partnership between Ahmanson and Johnson, however, did not begin in 2003 or even in 2000. It goes back to at least 1983, if not earlier, and has been a continuing factor in California politics for the last 25 years.
In a 1994 article on Christian Reconstructionism, Public Eye described Johnson's central role in an Ahmanson-financed attempt by the Christian Right to take control of the California state legislation. The strategy involved first pushing through a term limits initiative, which was accomplished in 1990, and then promoting its own candidates for the seats this opened up:
"The practical impact of term limits is to remove the advantage of incumbency ... which the extreme Christian Right is prepared to exploit. ... At a Reconstructionist conference in 1983, Johnson outlined an early version of the strategy we see operating in California today. ... The key for the Christian Right was to be able to: 1) remove or minimize the advantage of incumbency, and 2) create a disciplined voting bloc from which to run candidates in Republican primaries, where voter turn out was low and scarce resources could be put to maximum effect. ...
"Since the mid-1970s, the extreme Christian Right, under the tutelage of then-State Senator H. L Richardson, targeted open seats and would finance only challengers, not incumbents. By 1983, they were able to increase the number of what Johnson called 'reasonably decent guys' in the legislature from four to 27. At the Third Annual Northwest Conference for Reconstruction in 1983, Johnson stated that he believed they may achieve 'political hegemony. . .in this generation.'"
The mention of H. L. "Bill" Richardson as the originator of the Johnson-Ahmanson strategy is both eye-catching and significant. Richardson, a former John Birch Society member, was considered to be one of the most extreme right-wing politicians of his time. In 1975, he co-founded Gun Owners of America (GOA), an organization which is widely regarded as being well to the right of the National Rife Association.
Wayne Johnson began his political career in 1976 by working for Richardson -- and Johnson Clark Associates still operates a PAC for GOA's state affiliate, the Gun Owners of California Campaign Committee.
In 1992, Johnson and Ahmanson managed to help send a batch of conservative Republicans to Congress. Foremost among these was Richard Pombo, one of whose first acts after taking office was to introduce a resolution of commendation for the Reconstructionist Chalcedon Foundation.
In 2004, Johnson told an interviewer that Pombo's election was a high point of his political career. "There have been a lot of great moments, but Richard Pombo's 1992 upset victory in his first congressional primary has got to be near the top. The television stations didn't even have his name listed on their pre-programmed screens election night. Today, he's chairman of the House Resources Committee."
Two years after Johnson's enthusiastic declaration, Pombo was defeated by a Democratic challenger, following wide-ranging allegation of corruption, including being named as the Congressman who had received more donations from Jack Abramoff than any other.
The Anti-Homosexual AgendaAlthough the Christian Right never achieved its original goal of taking over California state government -- which may be why Ahmanson and Johnson have turned their attention to passing socially conservative initiatives instead -- it has been far more successful in establishing dominance over that state's Republican Party.
In 1998, Mother Jones reported:
"First they packed the then-moderate California Republican Assembly (CRA), a mainstream caucus with a heavy hand in the state party's nominating process, with their Bible-minded colleagues. By 1990 they controlled the CRA, and since then the CRA's clout has helped the religious conservatives nominate and elect local candidates and—crucially—catapult true believers into state party leadership slots. ...
"From radical fringe to kingmakers in a decade — how did they do it? 'Basically, there's two places you have influence: one is in the nominating process in the primaries, where you can elect people in ideological agreement with your views, and the other is in the party structure,' says former CRA vice president John Stoos, a former gun lobbyist, member of the fundamentalist Christian Reconstructionist movement, and senior consultant to the State Assembly."
Stoos appears to come out of precisely the same background as Johnson and Ahmanson. He served as the executive director of Gun Owners of California and was also the chief of staff and a legislative advisor to Tom McClintock from 1998 until 2003, when he got into trouble for his over-the-top Reconstructionist sentiments.
In the Mother Jones interview, Stoos referred to Christian politicians as God's "vice-regents ... those who believe in the Lordship of Christ and the dominion mandate" and pointed to the repeal in the 1970's of laws against homosexual acts as an example of the need for rule by "biblical justice."
"The proof is in the pudding," Stoos told Mother Jones. "Since we lifted those laws, we've had the biggest epidemic in history."
To many who voted for it, Proposition 8 may have been no more than a nostalgic attempt to keep a changing world more like the way it used to be. But for Reconstructionists like Ahmanson, Johnson, and Stoos, it clearly represents something else -- a dramatic first step towards "the total integration of biblical law into our lives."