Donor shifts, tests Democrat waters
Just as news breaks that political fundraising is down for both parties, Republicans have lost one of their more generous contributors.
In what one might call a biblical move, Christian philanthropist Howard Ahmanson – one of three major funders of California’s Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriages – has abandoned the GOP for the Democratic Party. No one ever said the multimillionaire isn’t idiosyncratic.
In a rare interview Thursday, Ahmanson shared some of his thoughts about why he switched parties. In a word, taxes.
Specifically, he was offended by the California Republican Party’s insistence during a recent state budget battle that there would be no tax increases for any reason, no matter what. “They’re providing one issue, and it’s just a very silly issue,” Ahmanson told me by telephone.
So, without fanfare, Ahmanson printed out an online form and mailed in his Democratic Party registration. Ahmanson, who was born to great wealth, has spent a lifetime trying to figure out what to do with his good fortune. It has been, at times, a burden of guilt, complicated by a lonely childhood. He also has Tourette’s syndrome, which has contributed to his reclusiveness.
Now 58, Ahmanson is recognized as one of the nation’s leading evangelical Christians and one of conservatism’s most reliable supporters, though he is hardly a Republican talking-point man. He follows his own script and has parted company with social conservatives before. He thinks those who argue for school prayer, for instance, are confusing the moral with the religious. Morality is how we relate to one another, he says. Religion is how we relate to God, “and it’s not the government’s business.”
One can’t mention Ahmanson without also discussing his association with Calvinist theologian R.J. Rushdoony, who believed in a literal application of biblical teachings and is credited with inspiring the Christian home-schooling movement.
Rushdoony’s ideas captured Ahmanson’s imagination in what the philanthropist now calls “my wild youth,” but he has mellowed. Ahmanson certainly doesn’t believe that homosexuals should be executed, as some of his critics have suggested, but he does believe that gays should “come to Christ and then recover.”
He is also no longer the welfare abolitionist he used to be, “though I hate the attitude that welfare, once granted, is a moral entitlement that can never be reduced. And Social Security and Medicare are included in my definition of welfare.”
Ahmanson’s conversion to the Democratic Party, following decades of donating millions to conservative think tanks and causes, certainly qualifies as a “shocker” in political circles. “What!!!!!” has been the typical response as I’ve sought reactions.
A few Republicans have e-mailed Ahmanson, but he hasn’t gotten around to responding yet. He figures most are curious to understand his thinking. Some also may worry whither goest those deep pockets, though Ahmanson’s contributions to individual candidates are relatively modest. As one conservative philanthropist put it: “He’s more issue-oriented than party-oriented.”
Thus, it isn’t possible to draw conclusions about the direction of the Republican Party based on Ahmanson’s joining the “enemy camp.” He did make some observations about the GOP, however, and sees the party’s current problems as tension between “the upscales and the downscales” – the upper-middle classes and the lower-middle classes.
“If I were in the GOP, I’d advocate the party should be downscaling.” Heading, that is, toward a populist position.
It is probably safe to say that when Democrats decided they needed to start talking more about faith and take God back from the GOP, they hadn’t quite figured on landing Ahmanson. But Ahmanson is certain he’ll find friends among Democrats who believe, as he does, that conservative ideas are not exclusively Republican.
On the other hand, he says that Democrats who have contacted him think he will be disappointed to find a lack of support for his views. Says Ahmanson: “We’ll see how tolerant they really are.”
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.