Conservative isn't retreating

Published May 19, 2007

ORLANDO - For a combative Christian political crusader like John Stemberger, these are trying times.

The front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination are thrice-married Rudy Giuliani, who openly supports abortion rights, and John McCain, who once called Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson "agents of intolerance." Charlie Crist, whom Stemberger bashed last year as a "conservative impostor, " now sits in the governor's office with soaring approval ratings after clobbering Stemberger's preferred candidate in the Republican primary.

Stemberger, the loudest voice in Florida's Christian right movement, lately looks like he's all mouth and little might. But in the same week that Falwell died, Stemberger sounds neither cocky nor chastened.

"It's not our job to be victorious. It's our job to be faithful. It's our job to stand up for truth and to speak the truth, " the Orlando trial lawyer said in an office sprinkled with photos of Jeb Bush and Robert Bork and a "Beware of Attack Lawyer" warning sign.

Even as hundreds of conservative activists converge in Orlando today for Stemberger's Florida Family Policy Council awards banquet, it's clear the heady post-2004 days are over.

Back then pundits gushed about social conservatives sweeping President Bush into a second term. More than 1, 000 activists gathered in Fort Lauderdale for the Coral Ridge Ministries' Center for Reclaiming America political conference to hail Bush's re-election and the center's ambitious expansion plans.

Today that center is shuttered, its leader slowed by a heart attack. And in Florida, people like Stemberger, for now, have few powerful allies to call on.

Stemberger's keynote speakers today in Orlando include two presidential contenders with impeccable social conservative credentials, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, who are barely registering in the presidential polls. Stemberger said he also invited Gov. Crist to address his group.

"We didn't get a response, " Stemberger said.

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To hear the 44-year-old Stemberger tell it, he's a puppy dog who worries about Republicans too often coming across as meanies.

"I want to be known as the guy who's leading the charge for civil discourse, " said the fellow who is more commonly viewed as Florida's chief attack dog for the religious right.

"He's a bulldog, " said an admiring Brett Doster, a top Republican consultant who also has close ties to Florida's social conservative movement. "He absolutely, passionately believes in what he's doing, and he's very articulate ... and he's willing to engage very personally on issues."

That's why everyone believed it in 2004 when Stemberger's name appeared on a controversial piece of political mail. He had inserted himself into the nasty U.S. Senate Republican primary between Bill McCollum and Mel Martinez. Stemberger's name wound up on a mailer blasting McCollum as "the new darling of the radical homosexual extremists."

That was an unfortunate misunderstanding, Stemberger says, stressing that he never described McCollum so harshly and did not approve the Martinez mailer using his name.

Here's another one he calls an unfortunate misunderstanding, this from his professional life: As a trial lawyer, Stemberger once provoked an international uproar by suing Dollar Rent A Car in a wrongful death case and saying the company should have known that a car renter, being Irish, was likely to get drunk.

Florida has plenty of prominent social conservative activists and groups, from the Christian Coalition to the Florida Baptist Convention. But none has leaders as assertive and media savvy as Stemberger, whose Florida Family Policy Council is associated with James Dobson's thriving Focus on the Family national organization.

"John is probably the strongest voice for the Christian values voter in the state. He has probably the largest bully pulpit, " said Pam Olsen, who leads the Florida Prayer Network and led the 2004 Bush-Cheney social conservative outreach efforts in Florida.

A self-described "loudmouth blond prayer lady with four kids, " Olsen suggested politicians and pundits would be foolish to underestimate the electoral might of religious conservatives.

"Never count God out, " she said, noting that Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama will be powerful motivators. "We were caught sleeping in '06, and hopefully we won't be caught sleeping in '08."

Indeed, the Florida Family Policy Council's growth in just two years suggests the potential of the movement. The organization narrowly missed gathering more than 600, 000 signatures needed to get a ban on gay marriage on the 2006 ballot, has a full-time vice president in Tallahassee and created and distributed more than 1-million "judicial voter guides" for every judicial election in the state.

"It's just a testament to his organizational skills, " said Ken Connor, who was Stemberger's mentor and used to lead Florida Right to Life and the national Family Research Council. "John, I think, always will be a force to be reckoned with. He's strategic in his thinking, he's insightful, and he has the right blend of realism and idealism."

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The product of an apolitical Catholic family in Daytona Beach, Stemberger may seem an unlikely candidate for Christian activism. But in junior college he attended a student government retreat and was struck by the prevalence of marijuana. He decided he needed to stand up for his values, ran for student president and won.

Ultimately, his interest carried him through legislative internships and Florida State University student politics and to the state GOP. He was the party's political director in the early 1990s before starting his own personal injury law firm.

Stemberger, who is married with three children, has a much rockier relationship with Gov. Crist than Gov. Bush, who appointed him to a Judicial Nominating Commission. Stemberger aggressively campaigned for Tom Gallagher in the Republican gubernatorial primary and in one essay likened the contest between Crist and Gallagher to a stark moral choice.

Stemberger was taken by surprise when Crist told supporters he didn't want the state GOP jumping behind Stemberger's push for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

"I'm fine with going to the back of the bus in terms of priority. I'm not fine with going under the bus and being rolled under, and that's essentially what he did, " Stemberger said of Crist.

Movements tend to ebb and flow, and it's ebb time for the Christian right. For now.

"People are just not really focused on the moral issues right now, " Doster said. "People are saying, 'Who cares if the gay couple's moving in next door? My property tax bill has gone up $1, 500.' "

Stemberger is too astute not to acknowledge that political reality or the series of setbacks social conservatives have seen since 2006.

Does that mean he'll pipe down for a while? No way.

"It's kind of like with evangelism. It's our job to preach the Gospel, it's not our job to make people get saved, " Stemberger said. "Having said that, I'm dead serious about wanting to win - winning the marriage amendment and seeing policy influenced for conservative traditional values."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or 727893-8241.