The contest for the 30th Congressional District of Texas has taken Dallas back to its cuckoo-town roots in a way nobody here has seen since 1963.
First, U.S. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, the incumbent Democrat, went on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 and insisted she had done nothing wrong by diverting scholarship money from deserving students to her own grandchildren, arguing in her own defense that there aren't that many deserving kids in her district.
Second, The Dallas Morning News, proud author of the scholarship exposé, got so mad at her for being unrepentant in an editorial board meeting that it endorsed her Republican opponent, Pastor Stephen F. Broden, about whom it admitted it knew little.
Way too little.
Broden, a black political neophyte with strong Tea Party ties, was best known for serving as Glenn Beck's racial beard before he went postal in an October 21 interview with WFAA-TV reporter Brad Watson and advocated violent revolution.
The shock waves from Broden's to-the-barricades speech went national instantly, caused the Morning News to withdraw its endorsement and gave Dallas the kind of political attention it hasn't enjoyed since people were downtown spitting on Adlai Stevenson.
Lost in all of the excitement, perhaps, is another important reality: Even with Broden self-crippled, the 30th District race is still absolutely upside down from where it should have been.
It should have been "Broden who?"
Broden's previous political experience was limited to a stint as a Republican precinct chair in suburban middle-class DeSoto, where he lives with his wife. He is the parent of three adult children.
He has always had strong ties to white conservative Christians. It was not surprising he was invited to address a rally called "America's Awakening" in North Richland Hills on June 11, 2009—part of a national political organizing effort spawned by conservative Fox TV pundit and talk-show host Glenn Beck.
In his address, Broden made the inflammatory statements that came back to bite him in the Brad Watson interview. Even though Watson gave him some chances to back out, Broden nevertheless insisted in the interview that, "Our nation was founded on violence."
When Watson asked him if he still thought violent overthrow was a legitimate option in 2010, Broden said, "The option is on the table. I don't think we should ever remove anything from the table as it relates to our liberties and our freedom."
The remark came at the tail-end of a long, sometimes dry, even wonkish speech in which Broden first went on at great length about the need for citizens to seek change through constitutional means.
After the WFAA interview hit the fan, Broden and his campaign sought to pull it back with some instant revisionism. He only invoked violence, they said, as a philosophical and historical reference, as if the whole thing had been a lecture on John Locke's "Two Treatises of Government."
But no amount of revisionism can erase a key perspective from Broden's larger view of America. It's a thing The Dallas Morning News editorial board would have spotted, by the way, had it surveyed his views on abortion before endorsing him. (More on that later.)
Stephen Broden preaches that all of the nation's ills are the product of conspiratorial plotting by an evil "other," which he variously describes as Marxists, Fabian socialists, atheists and "Darwin atheists."
An interesting but overlooked aspect of his North Richland Hills speech is that he was almost as hard on elite Republicans as on elite Democrats. He blamed everything bad that has happened to America in recent years short of Hurricane Katrina on "the Godless imagination of Saul Alinsky" (a pioneering community organizer in the 1950s and '60s) and on "a godless elite...a power elite who will arbitrarily determine for us what is right versus what is wrong and what we should be doing at their behest."
In speeches and in person, Broden comes across as a person always trying to contain himself but always letting the cat out of the bag anyway. In the North Richland Hills speech, for example, he started by repeatedly invoking America's "Judeo-Christian heritage," but at key moments the Judeo part bit the dust. Instead he talked about "The Christian worldview, which is evident in the Declaration of Independence and the framing of our government," all of which would have been news to the framers. After all, it was Thomas Jefferson, whom the Tea Party loves to quote, who said, "But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."
In the North Richland Hills speech, Broden offered an off-the-cuff version of the Holocaust in which he said Jews died in German furnaces because of their own passivity and naivete, which he compared to American society today:
"It is almost that we are stunned in amazement at what they [the elites] are doing. Let me tell you, that is something that happened in Germany when the Jews were walking into the furnaces, and they walked in there and didn't even try to stop or fight their way. They walked in, because they did not believe that this was happening. They didn't believe that humanity could be so evil, so downright ugly, and they just walked into the furnaces believing that the people would do right. I am submitting to you that that's where America is right now."
This version of the Holocaust, not uncommon on the far right, is a close cousin of Holocaust-denial, ignoring, as it does, the role of the entire German state and the German people, as well as the efforts of Jews to escape Germany, not to mention the S.S., the cattle cars, the machine guns, the barbed wire and the dogs. But it's a story illustrating a worldview in which strong political and even moral disagreement are not enough. The true animating force in Broden's speech is the portrayal of persons with whom he disagrees as demons.
It's a lot for the 30th to swallow.
In the 30th District, even with her scholarship scandal, Johnson should have been invulnerable. She is former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, a faithful and productive bearer home of pork, the longtime darling of the city's conservative black preacher-ocracy and a loyal friend to downtown business interests.
As a 17-year veteran in the House, Johnson can command a sluice of campaign money from political action committees. As chair of the House subcommittee on water resources and environment, she enjoys broad generous support from public works construction interests. She is also enthusiastically supported by elements of the medical profession whose Medicare fees she has helped enhance.
Broden, on the other hand, ought to be not merely a token candidate but the Anti-Candidate in this district. In addition to being the black guy who hangs out at Tea Party rallies in the white suburbs, he is an Obama-bashing friend of ultra-right Fox TV talk host Glenn Beck.
And if those wet kisses of death were not enough to kill Broden dead in the 30th, on September 21 he was endorsed by Sarah Palin—the equivalent in Dallas minority politics, one would think, of a severed horse head.
Instead, it's almost a horse race. At least it's a race, which no one expected.
Dallas County Republican Party Chairman Jonathan Neerman offers his own carefully hedged assessment: "I have not seen any polling data," he says. "The only way Pastor Broden wins that district is if he convinces a wide swath of Democratic voters to split their ticket and vote for him over Congresswoman Johnson.
"If he does that, he wins," Neerman says. "I know he has made tremendous inroads, and if anybody is going to do it, it would be Pastor Broden."
So what are the inroads? A big one is money. In summary campaign finance reports compiled through October 13, Broden was neck and neck with Johnson in fund-raising, with both at just over half a million dollars.
In the July 15 quarterly campaign finance reports—the most recent available which lists individual contributors by ZIP code—Broden was slightly ahead of Johnson in the amount of money raised from donors who live within the 30th district.
He was leagues ahead of Johnson in money raised from small contributors. People giving less than $200 accounted for 28 percent of his total money, versus six percent for Johnson.
The even bigger inroad for Broden, however, is the one the incumbent herself paved for him with her maladroit handling of the scholarship scandal. In September The Dallas Morning News began publishing investigative pieces by Washington Bureau Chief Todd Gillman and other staffers exposing a pattern of nepotism in which Johnson had diverted scholarship money to her own family and the children of top aide Rod Givens.
The funds were not public, and Johnson might have finessed the mess. She ritually paid back at least some of the money, but in repeated appearances on national TV and before the Morning News editorial board, the veteran Congresswoman demonstrated again and again that she really did not see anything wrong with slipping some cash on the side to her grandkids.
The question, of course, is not how she looks on Anderson Cooper 360 but how she looks in the 30th.
The district, a roughly mitten-shaped domain reaching up from below DeSoto and Wilmer in southern Dallas County to White Rock Lake and Love Field (with a carve-out for the affluent Park Cities) was 60 percent non-white in the 2000 census and will be more so when the 2010 census is published. It has been poor since Reconstruction and yellow-doggedly Democrat at least since LBJ.
Early in the campaign, the portrait of Broden painted by Johnson's camp was of a candidate with almost no connection to his own community, financed by money from outside the district, most of it probably from rich white conservative interests. Last week, confronted with evidence that Broden was doing at least as well or better than Johnson at raising money within the district, the Johnson campaign took another tack.
Eddie Reeves, a spokesman for her campaign, said in an e-mail: "As has been the case throughout her tenure as an elected official in the Texas House, the Texas Senate and the Congress, Ms. Johnson has never been an aggressive fundraiser. She has largely relied on the good word of hard work for her constituents spreading the old-fashioned way: by word-of-mouth."
Numerous attempts to reach Johnson for this story failed. Reeves said she would not comment. He went on to state the Johnson campaign's core anti-Broden message: "Her opponent has spent the last few years cozying up to people like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin and others, who want to turn back the clock on the progress that we have made. All the misleading, distracting, mudslinging ads won't change the fact that he is fundamentally out of touch with the community, and that's why the people are rejecting his message of division."
The mudslinging charge comes from a campaign of attack ads on television that Broden mounted to take advantage of the scholarship scandal—a punch the Johnson camp surely deserved. The cozying charge has to do with his affinity for the Tea Party.
Broden, a 58-year-old pastor and former business executive with a master's degree in communications from the University of Michigan, doesn't dispute being cozy, only that there's something wrong with it. He welcomes the embrace of the Tea Party and returns it:
"They are heavily involved in helping me," he says in one of two interviews with the Dallas Observer. "I think the Tea Party is an incredible expression of our First Amendment right of freedom of speech, and I am proud to be associated with the Tea Party."
Last week a research group in Kansas City involved in monitoring far-right militia activity published a report alleging deep-running themes of racism, antisemitism and xenophobia in the Tea Party. In an introduction to the report, Benjamin Todd Jealous, president of the NAACP, said of the Tea Party, "While many of its leaders are motivated by common conservative budget and governance concerns, for too long they have tolerated others who espouse racism and xenophobia and, in some instances, are formally associated with organizations like the Council of Conservative Citizens—the direct lineal descendant of the White Citizens Council."
Broden doesn't buy it.
"I have spent a great deal of time with members of the Tea Party, and I have not seen that," he says. "I have not seen racism."
Instead, Broden says the Tea Party's values, like his own, are "based upon the founding principles and expressing what I believe is a stewardship responsibility to be engaged in the political process."
He has enthusiastically embraced and been embraced by Glenn Beck in his expression of opprobrium for the administration of the nation's first black president. On August 31, 2009, in the first of what since have become regular appearances by Broden on the Glenn Beck Program, Beck asked Broden: "Do you think I have it right that these are Marxist radicals that have positions of tremendous power? Is that right or wrong?"
"Oh, absolutely," Broden said. He went on to describe the regime in the White House as "an orchestrated attempt to radically change this country from what the founders had in mind...on the part of Marxists, socialists and atheists—I call them Darwin atheists—who are attempting to change this country, and the first step is the dispossession of our Judeo-Christian heritage."
Beck had invited him to appear on his show after seeing a tape of the North Richland Hills speech. Since that first appearance, Broden has appeared on the show, both by remote from Dallas and sitting at Beck's side in his Manhattan studio, almost always repeating the same mantra—that America must stop being politically correct and instead become "Biblically correct and constitutionally correct."
That kind of talk may play well on Fox TV, but what does it do for him back home?
In the 30th, after all, there is conservative, and then there is conservative.
No one is better connected to the old conservative leadership of the district, especially the African-American ministers, than William and Jordan Blair, father and son publishers of the weekly Elite News. William Blair, 89, in his youth a pitcher in the Negro League, keeps a picture on the wall above his desk of himself shoulder-to-shoulder with the late S.M. Wright, a famous early power-broker in black Dallas. To people who know old black Dallas, that faded photo is worth a million words, and Stephen Broden isn't one of them.
"I never heard of the man," Blair says dismissively of Broden, "until he ran for this office."
Sitting at his side, Jordan Blair, his son, says, "And I don't think he's truly conservative. I think it's just the flavor of the month."
Betty Culbreath—former director of Dallas County Health and Human Services, a member of the DFW Airport Board, former chair of the Dallas Plan Commission—says of Broden, "The man must be a Martian. I never heard of him before."
Broden is not from Mars, but he does come from Michigan, which is right next door. His parents grew up in Dallas but moved to Flint, a rough and raw factory town, to work in the auto industry after World War II.
Broden entered the University of Michigan in 1971, a year after black students calling themselves the Black Action Movement (BAM) used sometimes violent protests and strikes to persuade regents of the university to increase black enrollment.
"If BAM hadn't happened," he says now, "I wouldn't have had a chance to go to the University of Michigan. That's just the honest truth."
He completed a B.A. and then an M.A. at Ann Arbor. In 1977, Broden moved to Dallas with his wife, a college sweetheart, to take a management job with ARCO, a gasoline company for whom he established and oversaw car-wash businesses.
Soon after moving to Dallas, Broden met Ford Madison, a white real estate developer who had been active in inner city outreach through World Impact, a Christian ministry born of the 1965 Watts riot in Los Angeles. Madison, now retired and living in Bryan, was a first-hand witness to Broden's religious awakening.
"I used to have a garden office out north of the Galleria across the street from the post office," Madison says. "We had an early morning weekly Bible study of businessmen."
Madison says someone brought Broden to the prayer meeting as a guest, and he kept coming. "Through the process of that Bible study he had spiritual experience—you know, met the Lord Jesus Christ."
In the mid-1980s, Broden left Arco to attend Dallas Theological Seminary. He worked during that time as an on-air personality on KNOK Radio, now KHVN FM. Newsman and talk show host Robert Ashley of KHVN, a mainstay and respected opinion-maker in southern Dallas politics, remembers on-air sparks flying between Broden and John Wiley Price, now a Dallas County Commissioner. Price was doing a political talk show on KNOK while Broden was there.
"Stephen at one time was a news guy, and eventually he did a gospel program," Ashley says. "Stephen would do his gospel program, and then John Wiley would come on with a talk show. During the transition from Stephen's gospel music to John Wiley's talk show, the two of them were always engaged in some very fiery rhetoric on political issues.
"Stephen, of course, took the more Christian conservative view, and John's position expressed what John was."
While Broden was completing a master's degree in divinity at DTS, John Reaves, an African-American businessman who knew him from the prayer group, introduced him to people interested in funding a street mission to help wayward youth in South Dallas.
"There were some businessmen in North Dallas," Reaves recalls, "who wanted to do something to help the kids in the inner city. They made a deal to help get it started, and they wanted to give Pastor Broden an opportunity to mentor some of those kids."
Reaves and Broden decline to name those men now, saying the men are not eager for publicity, but both concede the wealthy white benefactors were the sponsors and funders of the church Broden established in 1987 in a rented warehouse near Fair Park.
Fair Park Bible Fellowship now occupies a tidy but austere new building on almost an entire city block on Rowan Avenue seven blocks northeast of the Cotton Bowl. The property, which the church owns, carries a tax appraisal value of $823,000.
After a recent meeting of Broden and Johnson together with The Dallas Morning News editorial board, the newspaper posted an Internet video in which Johnson disparaged Fair Park Bible Fellowship as a non-church. In the video she tells the editorial board that her "volunteers" have described Broden's church as attended by a tiny handful of members.
"There was no sermon," she says, "just a dialogue against the Obama administration."
On a Sunday morning when the Dallas Observer visited Fair Park Fellowship, the gathering was, indeed, small—around 30 people occupying only a fraction of the folding chairs in the 80-square-foot sanctuary. The crowd was evenly mixed, white, black and Hispanic. Judging by the cars on the lot, it was mixed in income levels, as well.
Broden did not speak to the congregants from the formal lectern on the raised chancel at the end of the church but came to a small metal lectern a few inches from the front row. Before preaching, he led the congregation through a half dozen hymns, some of which were gospel hymns, others of which were traditional Protestant hymns that could be heard in all-white churches in North Dallas, all sung a cappella save for the accompaniment of a couple of tambourines wielded from the pews.
His sermon was Bible-based but with direct references to everyday life and social conditions. "We are not serving a passive God but an active God involved in the lives of those who, by an act of volition, allow him to work within them," he told his flock.
Broden preached that sin and separation from God are the causes of the social and moral ills around them: "What's wrong with this world today is S-I-N, sin. Racism is a sin problem. Greed is a sin problem. Hatred, a sin problem. The problem of the world is sin. God solves the sin problem in Christ."
The neighborhood around the church is still tough today, but 10 years ago it was hell-to-pay. Back then, an army of crackhead zombies wandered through vacant lots where houses had been bulldozed by the city. Now neat new brick homes occupy many of those lots.
Reaves, who helped Broden get the church going in the late 1980s, argues that one measure of Broden's success is the fact that many of the people he has helped are nowhere to be found in the neighborhood today.
"That is a transitional church," he says. "What happens is, people get saved. They get in the church. They start learning more about what life is all about. They get off of drugs, and they get off alcohol or whatever is their addiction. They move out of that neighborhood, and you can't blame them."
But there are people in the area right around the church who say they are closely connected to it. A half block down Rowan from the church, LaDavia Johnson, 19, answers the door of an aging but tidily painted wood-sided bungalow, eager to tell how Broden helped her get into community college.
"I had stopped going to church for a while," she says ruefully. "But he used to stop me when he saw me going down the street. He would ask me, am I going to school, and am I still playing basketball? Do I need help with any kind of financial aid?"
She will start classes next semester at Eastfield College. She says the church was a factor in the lives of all the children in her family. "They took us on field trips to the YMCA and out of town two or three times to Colorado, Arkansas and Florida. It taught us a lot of things."
On down the block Doris Malone, 70, answers another door: "He really is good with helping, if people need clothes or food," she says. "People carry their problems to him. He's real good.
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"They have an outreach program for the children, too. All three of my children went. They tutor them with their school and carry them on trips they would never be able to go on. They give them incentives to work, too."
Across the street from the church on rags of grass around a battered apartment building, several children pause in their play long enough to tell a stranger that they take part in activities at the church.
During his Observer interview, Broden says he does not espouse the philosophy commonly called "prosperity doctrine," preached by famous televangelists T.D. Jakes, Benny Hinn and Kenneth Copeland.
"Prosperity in the Biblical definition is not that which is defined within the culture today," he says. "We have a tendency to believe that prosperity means materialism in America today. That is not prosperity as God sees it or as I teach it in the word of God. To be prosperous is to know your purpose and your destiny, to connect rightly with your God."