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Right Hand of God

Jeff Wentworth, a five-term Republican state senator from San Antonio, is the kind of politician the Religious Right should love. After all, two years ago he wrote legislation that would make gay marriage illegal in Texas. His version of the Defense of Marriage Act passed the Senate in 2003 and was signed into law by Governor Rick Perry, barring the recognition of same-sex marriages and civil unions performed outside the state.

Two years earlier, Wentworth also did the right's thing by voting against the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Bill because it encompassed not only race, religion and ethnicity but also sexual orientation. At the time, Wentworth issued a news release explaining his "no" vote was a reflection of his constituents' concerns and fretted that the bill would create "special Americans," insisting that "hate-crime laws may actually increase prejudice rather than foster tolerance and understanding." All victims of crime should be treated equally, he argued, but the bill eventually passed and was signed by Perry.

So imagine Wentworth's surprise when he discovered in March 2002 that a Dallas-based right-wing Christian group was portraying him as "extremely liberal" because he'd voted for the hate-crimes legislation and was a supporter of gay rights. Mailers sent out to voters in San Antonio and south Austin featured one man kissing another on the cheek and two other guys in tuxedos cutting a wedding cake, with text insisting that Wentworth had voted to repeal Texas' 115-year-old law banning sodomy, thus "clearing the way for legalized homosexual marriages in Texas."

This was news to Wentworth.

He was not the only Republican targeted by what was then known as Free Enterprise Political Action Committee, which spent a small fortune during the 2002 elections in an effort to oust Republicans who weren't conservative enough for the PAC's leaders or its contributors. Also on its "get" list: then-Lieutenant Governor Bill Ratliff; Kip Averitt, a 10-year veteran of the Texas House running for his first term in the state Senate; Representative Brian McCall, a Plano Republican; and at least two other state legislators. All the mailers looked alike, save for the one attacking Ratliff, which also had a picture of a shirtless man in leather bondage gear. FreePAC, as it was known, tarred all of these Republicans with the same brush: "radical," "liberal," pushers of a "homosexual agenda," supporters of assisted-suicide doctor Jack Kevorkian. And not a word of it was true.

On March 6, 2002, Ratliff held a news conference in Austin denouncing the mailers as "unconscionable attacks being waged by" FreePAC, which was and is headed by Dallas' Richard Ford. The mailings, Ratliff said, "should embarrass and disgust even the most jaundiced political operatives." Ratliff likened FreePAC's mailings to "hate-mongering activities" practiced by the Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and Al-Qaeda, and he called on Dallas Morning News columnist Bill Murchison, a financial contributor to FreePAC, to condemn the mailings in the newspaper, which he never did.

"It wasn't any fun, but it didn't really bother me," says Ratliff, who now runs a private consulting business in Austin. "It disgusted me for the public to see that kind of political pornography." Wentworth, too, was appalled--still is, actually, even though he won re-election, as did all of the candidates Ford and FreePAC went after in 2002.

"Here's a guy who co-authored the bill to outlaw gay marriages," Wentworth says, referring to himself, "yet they put two men in tuxedos cutting a wedding cake on a mailer and said, 'This is the kind of stuff this guy will do.' It was the absolute reverse of my actual record, but they didn't care. Facts never get in Richard's way." In fact, the real reason Ford went after Wentworth is because the senator is in favor of a woman's right to choose; among his Republican colleagues, he's one of the few who believe abortion should remain legal.

But if Ford had it to do all over again, he would. As far as he was concerned, the mailers did their job--even if they didn't oust a single man at which they were aimed and, in fact, might have so outraged and repulsed voters they had the opposite effect. (Wentworth and Ratliff are convinced they won by landslides in their races because of the mailers' "boomerang effect," Ratliff says.)

"I think we were probably a little ahead of the curve," Ford says now. "Quite frankly, if we had it to do over again, I would try to do it a little more tastefully, because I think it would have been more effective, but the message, I think, was correct. And I'm also pleased to see that Bill Ratliff is no longer in the Senate." That's because Ratliff, the sole Republican to oppose his party's efforts to redistrict the state heavily in favor of the GOP, retired in January 2004.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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