Tormenting Teddy

By BOSTON PHOENIX STAFF  |  August 26, 2009

A certified member of the Christian Right
By Dan Kennedy

Outside Pilgrim Covenant Church, it's a beautiful Sunday morning. The sun reflects off the first snow of the season; the hills of the Mount Wachusett region rise gently beyond the bare trees that line Route 13 in Lunenburg. Inside, Gary Todd is standing at the lectern, adjusting his reading glasses. He begins reciting Lamentations 1:1-5, the Old Testament story of Jerusalem in captivity.

"Here's the important part," he says before concluding:

Her foes have become the head,

Her enemies prosper,

Because the Lord has made her suffer

For the multitude of her transgressions;

Her children have gone away,

Captives before the foe.

"When I pre-read it, I though 'Boy, this is like America,'" Todd says a short time later at his neat, two-story home in a working-class neighborhood of Fitchburg. "I think the country is lamenting who it is, and it wants to change."

Todd hopes Massachusetts voters want to change badly enough to throw out US Senator Ted Kennedy this November and replace him with a 47-year-old born-again Christian who's never before run for political office. On the face of it, it seems like an impossible challenge- just to earn the right to go up against Kennedy, Todd must beat a Republican-primary field that includes two multimillionaires prepared to spend each other into penury and a popular former radio-talk-show host. But Todd seems unfazed by – even oblivious to – the suggestion that he may be embarking upon a short, unhappy journey.

"When Gary Todd beats Ted Kennedy, they will finally say, 'Nobody is too big or too powerful or too well-known,'" he says as he sits in his living room amid a Norman Rockwell scene: Sunday dinner cooking in the kitchen, family photos on the walls, his three-and-a-half-month-old grandson sleeping in a swing.

Gary Todd is a genuine nice guy, a polite, well-groomed man who can say the most appaling things with a salesman's enthusiasm and a boyish, earnest smile. He's against abortion under any circumstances, and talks about the "uplifting" lives being led by victims of incest and their children. (Unlike many pro-lifers, though, Todd is consistent: he opposes the death penalty, too.) He's against distributing condoms to kids to prevent AIDS. He calls the Clintons' health care plan – and those advanced by Ted Kennedy over the years – "socialized medicine." He says he's for "equal protection" for lesbians and gay men but he opposes every measure that would fulfill that goal: he wouldn't allow them to serve in the military, and he's against gay marriage and domestic-partnership benefits. "I guess you'd have to come back to the Biblical perspective: love the sinner, hate the sin," he says benignly.

For someone who would be a United States senator, Todd has kept a remarkably low profile over the years. Although he's chairman of his fundamentalist church and has been active with the Rosary and the chamber of commerce, civic leaders say he's not particularly well-known. Mayor Jeffrey Bean says of Todd's lack of participation in local government, "I was somewhat surprised that he would try to go from John Q. to US senator. I thought there might be a few steps in between." Adds Ann Connery Frantz, managing editor of the Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise: "I haven't seen him as a presence on the scene." Frantz offers this insight into his character: she once wrote a story about a furniture company for which Todd was working as head of public relations. After the story was published, Todd marched into her office and showed her a copy on which he'd marked 19 errors. "He's a perfectionist, to put it mildly," she says.

Not surprisingly, Todd thinks his lack of experience is an asset. "I'm not carrying a lot of political baggage or preconceived ideas of how things should be done," he says. And, admittendly, the other Republican candidates are either almost as inexperienced as Toddy (Mitt Romney and Janet Jeghelian) or have the sort of experience that might drive away more voters than it attracts (John Lakian). Nevertheless, an advertising-sales executive for three small evangelical-Christian radio stations doesn't just wak up one morning and decide to run against Ted Kennedy. There has to be an outside impetus – an occurrence that shakes a person out of his comfortable complacency and makes him believe he can do something he'd never even though of before.

In Gary Todd's case, that event came in the form of a phone cal last spring from a man who'd bought an ad from him the previous fall.

Politics by Committee

Ron Mills looks like a political consultant – he's balding, with a salt-and-pepper beard, wears wire-rimmed glasses, and has a somewhat rumpled, hunkered-down appearance. The Needham-based strategist is given credit by some for the Republicans' victories in 1990 State Senate elections, when they doubled their numbers, from eight to 16, in the 40-member body. But he's a controversial figure, both for his conservative views and for his squabbles with other Republicans, including state party chairman Jim Rappaport. Some blame Mills for the 1992 defeats of then-Senate Minority Leader David Locke, of Wellesley, and then-Senator Bob Hedlund, of Weymouth, although both of those men say they were pleased with the work Mills did for them.

Mills's and Todd's paths crossed for the first time in September 1992, when Mills was purchasing radio time for Peter Blute, the Shrewsbury Republican who would go on to defeat veteran US Representative Joe Early (D-Worcester) that Novemeber. "I literally stumbled across Gary," Mills says in an interview at a Ground Round near his home/office. "I was very impressed with this guy on the phone."

One year ago, Mills says, he and a group of business and poltical figures – neither he nor Todd will identify them – put together a profile of the ideal candidate to beat Ted Kennedy. A short time later, Mills says he started quizzing Todd without telling him what it was about, and decided his background as a Vietnam veteran, businessman, and curch leader was a reasonably good fit with the profile. It was only then that he told Todd what he had in mind.

Todd went to his parents' retirement home, in North Carolina, to think about his conversation with Mills. He says he made the decision to run while reading a book his wife, Anna, had given him – The Senator: My Ten Years with Ted Kennedy, by former Kennedy aide Richard Burke. Neither Todd nor Mills will disucss Kennedy's well-publicized personal problems; the only way Kennedy can win, Mills says, is "if you make people feel sorry for that clown." But Todd was no doubt impressed with Burke's tale of the senator's purported boozing, coke-snorting, and womanizing. (The book is preceded by a remarkable "Author's Note" in which Burke admits that every one of the hundred of direct quotations contained therein was "recreated from memory"; that the names, and in some cases the job descriptions, of 13 people were changed; and that three characters were "composites." "This is a true story," Burke pleads.)

It would be easy to assume that the non-politican Todd is little more than a virtual-reality construct put together by the grizzled political operative – a well-tailored, clean-living, smiling, glad-handing tabula rosa upon which Mills can try out his theories in their purest form. Both insist that's not the case, of course, although their answers to questions are notably similar – from accusing Romney, Jeghelian, and Lakian of being "liberals" to campring people who consider themselves anti-abortion but pro-choice to those who refused to speak out against slavery 150 years ago.

Then there's what's become known in Republican circles as "the tape," as in, "Have you seen the tape?" Mills puts together a 10-minutes video for Todd that eh's sent to some 500 Republican city, ward, and town committees. The second half is a standard bio of the candidate – Marine, family man, community leader – with Todd, an experienced broadcaster, providing well-modulated narration over the strains of the theme from Chariots of Fire.

It's the first half, though, that has everyone talking – a disjointed collage of video clips featuring Kennedy speaking and meeting with a variety of public figures, including Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Richard Daley, and Leonid Brezhnev. Toots and the Maytals sing "Pressure Drop" in the background. The high/low point is a sequeince in which Kennedy speaks out against allowing private insurance companies to profit from health care, and is then shown meeting with Romanian dictaror Nicoalae Ceaucsescu; that dissolves into a screen of text that reads: "The horrible conditions of the state-run hospitals led to the Romanian revolution and the execution of Ceausescu." Is Mills saying people would be enraged enough to execute Kennedy if his health plan were enacted? Is that a responsible suggestion to make given that two of his brothers were assassinated?

"That may be an implication you draw, but it's not an implication I would draw," Mills replies testily. As for the effectiveness of the video, Mills says his purpose was to "let Kennedy speak for himself."

Mills's handiwork, though, has so Republican officials scratching their heads. "I don't know what the hell he was trying to say, what it means. I was bewildered," says Andrew Himmel, chairman of the Braintree Republican Town Committee, a Mills adversary who nevertheless credits Mills with having "done some brilliant things" in the past. Another Republican official, also anti-Mills, says the substance of the anti-Kennedy message eluded him as well: "I like to flatter myself that I'm a pretty sharp guy, and I missed it. If you can't hit that bull's-eye, what the heck are you aiming at?"

Then there are the organization obstacles to Todd's candidacy. Todd says he hopes to raise $3.7 million, but he and Mills admit most of that would come after the primary. So far, Todd says, he's raised $25,000, adding he's put most of his efforts into building a volunteer organization. "If you have people, the money will come," he says. "We're going to be able to raise money all across the country." Mills says the campaign will require neither money nor much of his time "because this is a campaign that's people-based. It doesn't need complication from consultants." So how, without money, does Todd get out his message? "If I told you that," Mills says, "I would be giving away our strategy, wouldn't I?"

The Right (wing) stuff

The conventional wisdom is that Governor Bill Weld as created a new political paradigm in Massachusetts – that by taking conservative stands on taxes and crime and liberal ones on social issues like abortion and gay rights, he has hit upon a popular formula that could make him a presidential player in 1996. "I think Governor Weld really represents the future, the mainstream of political thought in Massachusetts," says State Senator Richard Tisei (R-Wakefield). Clearly Gary Todd is attempting to swim upstream, but, then, he seems as interested in conducting a moral crusade as he does in winning the election.

Nevertheless, running as a Christian-right candidate in Massachusetts can be a difficult proposition. Support for abortion rights here is "in the vicinity of the high 60s, close to 70 percent. And that's up in the last few years," says Frank Connolly, of the political-research firm Marttila & Kiley, of Boston. A majority also favors equal rights for gays and lesbians, Connolly says, although he adds that support is soft.

David Williams, of the Salem-based polling firm Williams & Associates, worked on Danvers Republican Peter Torkildsen's successfully challenge of US Representative Nick Mavroules (D-Peabody), in 1992. Torkildsen's pro-choice stand, Williams says, gave moderate and liberal Democrats the "comfort level" they needed to vote against the incumbent Democrat, who, in addition to being under federal indictment (he's now serving a 15-month prison term), was anti-choice. (Williams is polling for Janet Jeghelian in the Senate race.)

Todd, though, professes not to worry, saying he can moblize social conservatives who, until now, have been politically inactive. His rhetoric is a kinder, gentler version of the hateful attack on abortion rights and on gays and lesbians that Pat Buchanan delivered at the 1992 Republican National Convention.

It's clear, to give Todd his due, that his stands on the issues spring form a source considerably deeper than what may ormay not play with the voters. A lifelong Catholic, he found himself, in his 40s, looking for something more personal. "In 1987 I just surrendered my life to the Lord," he says. "A Christian is one who surrenders. And until 1987 I had never surrendered my lifeot the person we know as Jesus Christ. It was like a knowing." He joined the Pilgrim Convenant Church, a 100-year-old congregation affliliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church of America. At a recent service, Todd moved easily among the members, asking about family and receing support for his candidacy. "People are praying for him. He's a great guy," said Scott Curtis, a church member who was filling in for the vacationing pastor that particular morning.

Make no mistake: Gary Todd and his supporters think about the world in a very different way form the dominant liberal culture in which they find themselves.

Take abortion rights. The standard pro-choice response to anti-abortion activists is that they should have every right to be anti-abortion – they just shouldn't try to impose their views on others. To a liberal, that sounds like a compromise, and indeed it is the position taken by many anti-abortion liberals, most notably New York Governor Mario Cuomo. But from the anti-choice point of view, that's not a compromise but a capitulation. Conservatives, according to liberals, are supposed to keep their beliefs to themselves and do nothing to stop the 1.6 million abortions that take place in the United States every year – abortions that are, to a pro-lifer, baby-killings.

Thus, liberals propose liberalism – tolerance, diversity – as the solution to the abortion issue, whereas religious conservatives are more likely to see tolerance and diversity as the values that led to Sodom and Gomorrah, and that have created the modern-day equivalent in the form of promiscuity, AIDS, abortion, drug abuse, and open homosexuality. Offensive to liberal values? Sure, but absolutely consistent with a world view that holds the Bible to be literally true and that exalts righteousness as the ultamiate social value. Understand that, and you understand why Gary Todd can say with absolute sincerity that abortion should be illegal in every circumstance, even if a girl is raped by her father. His bottom line, he says, is to ask himself, "What does the Bible have to say about that?"

As the only pro-life candidate in the race other than perennial gadfly Mildred Jefferson, Todd thinks he'll be able to attract money and organizational support from the kinds of groups that make many liberals shudder, including Massachusetts Citizens for Life (MCFL) and Pat Robertson's groups will remain informal: "The Christian Coalition said to me, 'Do not affiliate yourself directly with us because people will use it as a club.'" (Arlene Champoux, treasurer of MCFL's federal political-action committee, say that group has not yet begun reviewing candidates. Endorsements, she says, are reserved for those whose campaigns are politically visible, although she adds, "We are always delighted ot have as many pro-life candidates as possible in the race." Christian Coalition spokesman Mike Russell deferred to executive director Ralph Reed, who was out of the country.)

Because of this irreconcilable clash of value systems, people with Gary Todd's views are often treated with a mixture of fear and contempt that often crosses the line into prejudice. Asked whether he feel spart of an oppressed minority, Todd answers, "Not oppressed, but recognizing that if you don't become actively involved, then you'll get what you deserve, because other people will have done it for you." Ron Mills, as always, is more blunt: "We're living in an age of intense bigotry. We're living in an age where the elite in politics and the elite in the media make fun of faith. We have demonized faith, and that is a serious problem."

Deliver us from Evil

Gary Todd's first hurdle is the Republican State Convention, to be held this May. Like the other candidates, he's been making rounds, speaking to Republican groups in person and phoning local committee members asking for their support. Party activists believe Todd will have little trouble getting 15 percent he needs to make the primary ballot. Most, in fact, predict that will be his high-water mark, and that during the primary's campaign he will be overwhelmed by Romney's and Lakian's money and Jeghelian's name recognition.

Ron Mills, though, offers an unlikely but coherent formula for victory. First, by making an appeal as the only conservative in the primary, he could win the Republican nomination by emerging as the alternative to the three "less filling/tastes great" versions of Ted Kennedy. After that, Mills figures, Todd would need 1.2 million votes to win the election. "Any Republican would get 750,000 votes. That's the baseline Republican vote," Mills says. That would leave Todd with just 450,000 votes to make up. And given that George Bush and Ross Perot won 53 percent of the Massachusetts vote in 1992, those 450,000 votes, Mills says, are within reach.

Mills is now on full spin cycle. "The ballgame is the Republican primary," he says, lighting another cigarette, "because I think Ted Kennedy is that vulnerable. As long as the Republican doesn't do something stupid, he's going to win. All it's going to take is one of these Davids to hurl a stone at this Goliath and he's going to collapse, because he's not that agile." He calls Kennedy "that piece of dead flesh that has occupied that seat," "a fossil," and "Tyrannosaurus Ted."

It must be tantalizing for Todd, when he listens to Mill's scenarios, imagining himself going to Washington, delivering Jerusalem back from her foes, and restoring righteousness to the land. Back in Fitchburg, as his wife, daughter, and son-in-law help clear off the Sunday-dinner plates, he talks easily about the way he's approached problems in his own life, confident they can work on a larger level – the crime-watch group that has kept his neighborhood safe, the way members of his church rally around and help each other through good times and bad. It's an appealing small-town vision.

But there's no place in this vision for a woman struggling with an unwanted pregnancy; for a lesbian or gay man seeking to lead a full, loving life; for a teenager, with no AIDS-prevention education other than a stern warning to abstain, risking death by succumbing to the normal pressure to have sex.

"I would like to see stronger traditional family values in Fitchburg, in Massachusetts, in the country," Todd says serenely. "Anything that deviates from that to any great degree weakens the country."

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