Dennis Mansfield is no typical lobbyist, despite his dark suit, his near-constant presence in the Capitol and his tendency to laugh loudly when lawmakers crack jokes.
The director of the Idaho Family Forum sees himself as a soldier in a holy war. His enemies are the legislators who vote against his bills. That’s where the niceties end, and the threats about election-year retribution start.
Mansfield says anyone who votes against his agenda will be targeted in 500,000 voter guides to be distributed to every church across the state. Already, his group has run radio ad campaigns in the districts of two eastern Idaho senators to pressure them into backing strict anti-abortion measures.
Mansfield’s argument that the next election should be decided in the state’s churches is stirring debate among other religious groups that say that’s improper. Nevertheless, the prominence of conservative Christian lobbying groups on issues like abortion is likely to be a factor in this year’s elections. Every seat in the Idaho Legislature is up for a vote.
With Idahoans deeply divided on abortion - and North Idaho heavily favoring abortion rights in recent polling - the impact may not necessarily boost the Family Forum’s chosen candidates.
“I think it’s a good organization-builder for them,” said Boise State University political science chairwoman Stephanie Witt. “It rallies the troops, gets people to send money in, adds to their mailing list - which is an end in and of itself, for any group.”
But the politics of abortion may have the same effect for groups on the other side of the issue, she noted, like the Idaho Women’s Network.
With an overtly religious agenda that allows no compromise - even with other religious groups - Mansfield says he’s a “disciple of Jesus Christ, cleverly disguised as a lobbyist.”
“We want them to vote with common sense,” he said of legislators. “But if they don’t, every single church and parish in this state will have that handout that says candidate so-and-so supports taking a child out of its mommy, stabbing a scissors in the back of its little neck and sucking its brains out. You try to talk your way out of that one.”
Rep. June Judd, D-St. Maries, was offended earlier this month when a constituent called and had a long discussion with her about her views on abortion, then wrote a scathing letter to the Lewiston Morning Tribune suggesting in graphic terms that Judd favors partial-birth abortion.
“That wasn’t what I said,” Judd complained.
But Mansfield said, “You’re either with us or against us. June Judd failed miserably.”
Conservative Christian groups like the Family Forum and the Idaho Christian Coalition have been more successful with their lobbying efforts on abortion than with previous efforts to enact anti-gay rights laws.
Witt said that’s largely because the strong stance against abortion fits in better with the beliefs of the Mormon church, to which more than 40 percent of Idaho legislators belong.
But the lobbying groups ran into trouble this year in their push for tax credits for parents who home-school or send their children to private or parochial schools. A wide coalition of mainstream churches joined public education interests in opposing the bill, and its backers couldn’t even get it introduced.
Mansfield said religion belongs in politics, and he welcomed the involvement of other religious groups on that issue.
“It’s great - what it says is that the religious left can accompany the religious right in discussions,” Mansfield said. “Prior to our existence, the religious left never made a peep.”
Rabbi Daniel Fink, a Boise rabbi who also chairs the Idaho Planned Parenthood board, called that “historically inaccurate.”
“Going back to abolition and the anti-slavery movements, women’s suffrage, social reform, and events leading up to the New Deal and civil rights, there is a very long history of religion being involved in progressive politics,” Fink said.
Fink said that, like Mansfield, he doesn’t believe religious voices should be precluded from political debate. But he said, “I think we do better to speak on issues, rather than on particular candidates.”
Activists on the abortion issue have been using religious rhetoric for years, but this is the first time since 1990 that they’ve successfully used it in the halls of the Statehouse to push through restrictive abortion bills. With overwhelming House votes for both bills, Mansfield is riding high.
A former California building industry lobbyist and one-time co-owner of a hydroseeding company in San Bernardino, Calif., Mansfield said he moved to Idaho at the invitation of former Lt. Gov. David Leroy, who now is a Boise attorney.
Said Leroy, “The world would be better off if there were far more people like him involved in American government.”
Raised a nominal Catholic, Mansfield said he became a Christian in 1978 while working for the Republican Party in Los Angeles.
Mansfield is one of three registered lobbyists for the Idaho Family Forum this session. Another lobbyist represents an affiliated group, Physicians Resource Network. Mansfield also works closely with lobbyists for the Catholic Diocese of Idaho and the Idaho Christian Coalition.
Whether or not the group’s abortion legislation becomes law, Mansfield said, “The Idaho Family Forum is not going away.”
Noting that U.S. Sen. Dirk Kempthorne is likely to become Idaho’s next governor, Mansfield pledged to make abortion “Dirk Kempthorne’s issue.”
Kempthorne’s office declined to comment. “He’s not governor now, he’s senator, and he’s focusing on Senate activities,” said press secretary Mark Snider.
Mansfield has faith his group’s stance on abortion is the only right one. “You cannot have two diametrically opposed views be correct. Gravity doesn’t fall up and down,” he said.
But Fink said the abortion issue comes down to the question of when a human life begins.
“That’s not a question that science is going to come and answer,” he said. “It’s a theological question, as opposed to a scientific question.”
Different religions answer the question differently, Fink said.
Rep. Don Pischner, R-Coeur d’Alene, voted against one of the abortion bills, although he said he believes life begins at conception. “I’m not going to take my religious faith and put it on everyone else,” he said.
“Plus, the folks back home, they’re just overwhelming, the numbers that wanted me to vote no.”
Mansfield said he and his troops will continue to apply pressure.
“The voice that’s been absent from the debate,” he said, “has been the voice of believers in Christ.”
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