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.
For many DFLers--and especially members of the Stonewall and Feminist caucuses--parental notification is a hot-button issue. "I think we realize that not everyone comes from the same background," notes Judy Schermer, past president of the Feminist Caucus. "But if someone answers those questions wrong, we would not endorse them. It just throws up flags." Kathy Regalado, endorsement director for the Stonewall caucus, says she wasn't aware of Gallmon's position on parental notification. "That doesn't sound like the man we spoke to," she asserts, adding that she views the matter as "a big breakdown in communications."
According to Gallmon, the Catholic Defense League flyer partly misrepresented his position. He is not, he says, in favor of always telling parents about a student's sexual-identity questions. But, he says, he believes notification should be the rule with matters that have a direct bearing on a child's physical health, including HIV status and pregnancy.
That stand, says Stonewall's Dibble, flies in the face of his caucus's core values. "If kids know before they walk in the door [to a school clinic] that their parents are going to find out," he argues, "then they just won't walk in the door."
So how come Stonewall and the other DFL groups didn't have a clearer idea of Gallmon's position? Apparently, says former Minneapolis DFL chair Michael Krause, for the same reason GOP functionaries misread LaVoi: "People are not taking this screening process seriously enough. They don't ask enough questions." The DFL has endured plenty of school board race snafus in the past, Krause adds, most notably in 1993, when a DFL-endorsed candidate was forced to withdraw from the election after it was revealed he'd been fired from his job as a private-school administrator amid allegations of misuse of funds.
According to Gallmon, his interviews with the DFL caucuses and a variety of other endorsing groups last spring were "comprehensive, but not very long. I think they were a little leery of me because I'm a pastor, but I answered all the questions truthfully."
But Regalado confirms that screening interviews tend to last no more than "five or six minutes," most of them spent going over a list of prepared questions.
Still, Regalado and Dibble--who learned about the Catholic Defense League flyer through an Internet discussion list, Mpls-issues--both remain supportive of the screening process. "Perhaps in this case we made an error," says Dibble. "Maybe we didn't ask probing enough questions." Dibble says his fellow DFLers will soon be asking some of those questions of the Rev. Gallmon in hopes of bringing him closer to the party line.
On the GOP side, LaVoi's chances of talking her way back into her party's good graces seem minimal. In the wake of the flap over her ad, she wonders whether she'll even be permitted to retain her position as deputy district chair. Yet she says she has almost no regrets. "I am rethinking using Africa as an example," she says. "I could have chosen one that wouldn't have pushed these sensitive buttons--ancient Greece or ancient Rome or the Incas, examples of pleasure-seeking and hedonism bringing about a society's collapse." But, she hastens to note, "I'm not planning on running again. There probably wouldn't be any point. Obviously Minneapolis isn't thinking the way I'm thinking." She pauses, then adds: "Of course, I could move outside the city to a suburb."
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