For four days last week, the phone in Renee LaVoi's office just kept ringing. The messages she was able to retrieve, she adds, came from all quarters--sympathetic fellow "Bible-believing Christians" as well as a host of offended high school students, African-Americans, liberals, even "heathens and pagans."
"The response was extraordinary," La Voi says. "And all were extremely emotional. About 60 percent were negative. Some of the calls were filled with swear words and very angry."
At first blush, it's surprising that LaVoi--a 50-year-old self-employed therapist, Republican activist, and losing candidate in last week's Minneapolis school-board election--managed to inflame such passions. After all, she was seeking a relatively low-profile office in an off-year election. At public forums, the eight candidates for the four school-board seats at stake sometimes outnumbered their audiences--an indication of a lack of interest in the race that was later reflected at the polls. Just 23,019 voters, fewer than 15 percent of those eligible, cast ballots in the contest.
The day before the election, however, LaVoi went public with a peculiar manifesto that sent shock waves through the city's political establishment. Along with questions raised about the positions of a DFL-endorsed candidate since the election, the flap has left some local pols wondering whether the partisan seal of approval has become little more than a rubber stamp.
The 700-word essay--titled "A Vote for Renee LaVoi is a Vote for Morality"--was published as an ad in the metro section of the November 1 Star Tribune. In it LaVoi invoked a string of stereotypes straight out of Edgar Rice Burroughs's vision of the Dark Continent. Pre-Christian civilizations in Africa, LaVoi began, "were violent and murderous. Some were headhunters, enjoying the pleasure of the kill. The music was full of evil, pounding drum beats. These heathen were deeply involved in witchcraft and the occult. The men were lazy, drunk or drugged and polygamous while the women did all the work." So what was the connection to the school-board race? A decaying American culture, LaVoi's ad continued, "has voluntarily chosen to trade places with Africa." When the now-evangelized "beautiful Christlike Africans" come to the United States, they discover that it is Americans who "pierce their bodies with rings in a multitude of strange places" and "listen, even in church, to rock music with an African-style throbbing drum beat." As LaVoi sees it, the wickedness has insinuated itself into public education--where, she says, school administrators also routinely "lie" to parents and dispense "perverted sexual education" to students.
According to city GOP chairman Lyall Schwarzkopf, LaVoi's views were not known to the delegates who endorsed her at the party's convention last spring. At the time, the Cedar Riverside resident, who also serves as deputy chair of the Republicans' Senate District 61 unit, was one of five candidates seeking a nod from the party. Schwarzkopf says LaVoi espoused apple-pie planks--improving student performance and the like--while offering no hint of her more unusual creeds. "If the delegates had known, she would never have been endorsed," Schwarzkopf says. "But there really isn't an awful lot of screening going on. It doesn't amount to a full political x-ray."
For her part, LaVoi says she wasn't "deliberately withholding" her religious views at the convention. "It just didn't seem relevant to the campaign," she explains. "But after the primary, it was obvious Minneapolis is a DFL town and I had nothing to lose, so I decided to strike out on the moral issues." (Until the day before the election, LaVoi had been included in GOP ads featuring the party's entire school-board slate. But on that Monday, she says, she chose to break from the pack and advertise by herself.)
Terrell Brown, president of the Minnesota Log Cabin Republicans, an association of gay and lesbian party faithful, argues that the GOP's endorsement of LaVoi reveals serious flaws in the screening process--defects, he says, born largely of the party's desire to list names on the ballot even in races where they are unlikely to prevail. "Part of the problem is there's a feeling on some people's part that you need a candidate no matter what," Brown says. "That's a bad idea."
The Rev. Albert Gallmon, one of the four DFL-endorsed (and duly elected) school-board candidates, agrees. Gallmon says parishioners at his north side congregation, Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, were shocked by LaVoi's Strib ad. "People at the church were buzzing all day," Gallmon says. "It's scary that there are people out there like that. I think [the Republicans] were just scraping to field four candidates."
As it happens, Gallmon's own endorsement by two influential DFL subgroups--the gay and lesbian Stonewall caucus and the Feminist Caucus--is now raising eyebrows as well. Scott Dibble, a member of the Stonewall board of directors, notes that Gallmon was little known to local DFLers when he screened before the caucus last spring. But, Dibble adds, the pastor came with impressive credentials, including a stint on the board of a renowned Washington, D.C. HIV/AIDS clinic. "We were pleasantly surprised by his position and knowledge on gay issues," says Dibble.
Shortly before the election, however, informational flyers distributed by the St. Paul-based Catholic Defense League offered a different picture. According to the flyers, Gallmon, responding to the league's questionnaire, had declared himself in favor of requiring school-district personnel to notify parents if they learn that a student is pregnant, seeking an abortion, HIV-positive, or struggling with a sexual-identity question.