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  • Politics is a fluid field for minister

    By HOWARD TROXLER and KITTY BENNETT, Times Staff Writers
    ©St. Petersburg Times, published August 24, 1997


    The Rev. Henry J. Lyons spoke out in a clear, strong voice. As thousands of heads nodded in agreement, he charged that black voters had not done enough to stop the Republican takeover of Congress.

    "We had the numbers on the books," Lyons intoned, "but we didn't go to the polls. We can't let it happen again. I said, we can't let it happen again."

    The delegates of the National Baptist Convention USA, assembled last Sept. 6 in Orlando, rose with a roar as Lyons called forward his special guest: President Clinton.

    "He has been our friend for many years," Lyons said. "I don't see any parting of the ways now."

    Yet this scene was not quite a reunion of ever-faithful allies.

    Lyons' endorsement came only after long and vigorous wooing by Clinton and his wife. In campaigns past, Lyons had backed the Republican Party as well as the Democratic.

    In fact, in more than 20 years as a visible religious leader, Lyons has zig-zagged across the political landscape -- Republican and Democrat, management and labor, sometimes on both sides of the same issue.

    Often, the candidate or group Lyons supported paid money, either to his state and national organizations, or directly to Lyons and his associates.

    Seen in the most negative light, it was a trade of influence for money. Some political and business leaders complained privately they felt strong-armed.

    But in the most positive light, it was self-empowerment. Lyons sought the most clout, the most opportunity, the most result. He never allowed anyone to assume that his support, or the support of his organization, was automatic. And so the president of the United States came to Orlando to promise, explicitly: "We are not taking anyone, or anyone's vote, for granted."

    "Why should he (Lyons) be any different from any business or labor group?" asks Jim Krog, who ran Gov. Lawton Chiles' campaigns in 1990 and 1994 -- the first time without Lyons' support; the second, with it.

    "There are a lot of people who base their politics on what is best for their interest group," Krog says. "I don't think there's anything wrong with that."

    Grady Irvin, one of Lyons' attorneys, says that Lyons' political involvement has been based on broadening minority access to the mainstream political system.

    Traditionally, many politicians limited campaigning among African-American voters to showing up at churches on Sunday, Irvin said. Once they were there, Lyons asked for more than just words.

    "What he (Lyons) sought to do," Irvin says, "was to bring to the black community the same style of politics that existed in the white community."

    Republican to Democrat

    In his younger days, Lyons was a registered Republican, an admirer of Ronald Reagan, a critic of open-ended welfare. In 1978, he supported drugstore magnate Jack Eckerd, a Republican, for governor. Records show that Eckerd's campaign paid Lyons a total of $1,844 for travel and other expenses.

    Lyons switched parties in December 1983 to run Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign in Florida. He has been a Democrat since.

    In 1986, Lyons signed up with the campaign of Steve Pajcic, a Jacksonville Democrat running for governor. Pajcic used an old strategy for reaching out to minority voters: He paid thousands of dollars to black ministers for "get-out-the-vote" operations.

    "If you were going to get the endorsement of a black religious leader," recalls Sergio Bendixen, a consultant to the Pajcic campaign, "that implied that you would use them for get-out-the-vote operations, and therefore run the money through them."

    The campaign probably spent more than $100,000 in get-out-the-vote money, Bendixen says. Records show that Pajcic's campaign directly paid Lyons $24,155 for travel and get-out-the-vote efforts.

    Lyons campaigned for Pajcic church by church, instructing the congregations that the candidate's name rhymed with magic: "He's going to do for Florida what Magic Johnson did for the L.A. Lakers."

    But Pajcic, now practicing law in Jacksonville, does not remember Lyons with unalloyed gratitude. He remembers asking Lyons about reports he had switched to supporting Republican Bob Martinez. Lyons told him no.

    "Was his support beneficial? Yes," Pajcic says. "Was it as beneficial as other support in the African-American community? No. Were the expenditures for get-out-the-vote with Dr. Lyons cost effective? I don't know the answer to that."

    Pajcic beat rival Jim Smith in the Democratic primary, partly on the strength of overwhelming black support. But he lost to Martinez in November.

    In 1990, Martinez

    Lyons passed up the Democrats in the next governor's race in 1990 and endorsed the re-election of Republican Martinez, who had helped put state money into church organizations.

    Whereas Pajcic in 1986 had listed page after page of get-out-the-vote expenses, Bill Nelson, the early Democratic front-runner, spent nothing. Nelson lost to Lawton Chiles in the Democratic primary.

    Meanwhile, Gov. Martinez had worked with black churches on adoption, cocaine babies, drug abuse and welfare reform. Like Clinton six years later, he came to stand with Lyons on stage at a church convention.

    Martinez also had tax dollars at his disposal.

    In May 1990, state records show, the governor's office began writing a series of checks to a corporation called the Florida Institute of Drug and Substance Abuse, of which Lyons was president. The checks were written to the Palatka address of the Rev. Frederick K. Demps, a Lyons associate. The five checks added up to an even $50,000.

    Also that spring, with the help of Republican lawmakers and with the governor's approval, the Legislature appropriated another $300,000 for the Palatka institute, according to state records.

    That September, Lyons and nine other black religious leaders endorsed Martinez over Chiles. "Bob Martinez has done more for the poor, the elderly and the disadvantaged young than any governor in my memory," Lyons said. "He has truly cared."

    Martinez, now a consultant in Tampa, says he does not remember every detail of a grant awarded many years ago. But he strongly denies there was anything political about it.

    "I had visited enough education and treatment facilities," Martinez says, "to find that often, when a religious group was involved with it, they instilled with their teaching and their effort more than simply right and wrong."

    Alliance with Republicans

    In 1992, there was tension between black political leaders and the state Democratic Party over how to draw the state's political districts.

    Democrats wanted to draw the districts to spread out black voters, to help elect more Democrats. The black leaders wanted them concentrated, to elect more black office-holders.

    The Florida Republican Party stood to gain from this growing tension. If black voters were concentrated in a few districts, the Republicans would have a better chance everywhere else.

    That January, Lyons was one of a group of black leaders who went to Tallahassee to testify in favor of maximizing the number of black office-holders.

    But the Democrats turned the tables. They made the Republican Party admit it had paid the expenses of Lyons and the other witnesses and, in some cases, also "lobbying fees."

    One black office-holder who was vitally affected by redistricting was Corrine Brown, a state senator from Jacksonville about to run for Congress.

    Brown's campaign records for 1992 show a $5,000 expenditure to a St. Petersburg company named Summit Paper & Supplies, with the address of 3455 26th Ave. S -- the address of Lyons' church. The report said the money was for a computer.

    In fact, Lyons and another minister, the Rev. Wilkins Garrett, had jointly formed a company named the Summit Corp. of America at a different address. But the company had been dissolved six years before Brown wrote the $5,000 check.

    Publix Super Markets

    In June 1993, Lyons, then president of the Florida General Baptist Convention, held a news conference to denounce Publix Super Markets Inc. for not hiring enough women and minority managers.

    "We are asking our people to shop elsewhere where their dollars are appreciated," Lyons said.

    But Publix and Lyons eventually reached an understanding. Company officials met with Lyons to discuss the company's minority efforts. The company even became a corporate sponsor of the convention's annual meeting.

    On Feb. 17, 1995, Lyons wrote a letter on the state association's letterhead to a Publix vice president praising the new relationship.

    "Our members will know that Publix is a great place to work and shop," Lyons wrote.

    However, last September, the union fighting Publix -- the United Food and Commercial Workers Union -- held a news conference to announce a new boycott. The scheduled speaker: Henry Lyons.

    The news conference backfired. Lyons came late, then said he didn't have time to talk to reporters. Reporters waved copies of his 1995 letter endorsing the company, but Lyons refused to comment.

    Publix officials said they were surprised, given Lyons' 1995 letter of praise. What's more, Lyons had only recently asked the company to help sponsor the national Orlando convention, too.

    The union had its own financial relationship with the church. The union had put an undisclosed amount of money for job-training and other programs into member churches of the National Baptist Convention.

    Quincy Farms

    In another labor-management case, Lyons sided with Quincy Farms, a Panhandle company that sells fresh mushrooms under the PRIME label. The company was fighting attempts by the United Farm Workers union to organize.

    The Rev. Joseph Lowery, in one of his last official acts as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference before retiring, had come to Quincy to rally the workers. Jesse Jackson endorsed a boycott.

    But last Oct. 15, Lyons wrote a letter to Rick Lazzarini, the president of Quincy Farms, thanking him for providing a tour of the facility.

    "I am aware of the recent allegations regarding Quincy Farm's employment practices and feel they are unfounded," Lyons wrote. He added: "In the interest of my constituents, please know that I stand ready to assist your efforts in any way possible."

    Lazzarini said in an interview that the company might bring Lyons back for consulting or orientation seminars with employees, in an unpaid capacity.

    He said as part of the relationship, the company has made contributions to an education fund of the National Baptist Convention's headquarters in Nashville. He declined to say how much.

    Lyons' endorsement of Quincy Farms did not sway the rest of his organization. The Labor Relations Department of the National Baptist Convention later passed a resolution supporting a threatened boycott of Quincy Farms.

    The Rev. Bennie R. Mitchell Jr., head of the convention's labor department, warned in a letter of "a process in place to reach (our) 8.5-million members and other consumers in every state and almost every community. This process is used to fight injustice throughout this country and internationally."

    Big Sugar

    As the 1996 election neared, the association of large corporations and family interests known collectively as "Big Sugar" had a problem.

    There was a citizens' initiative on the ballot to impose a penny-per-pound tax on sugar, to use in the Everglades.

    Big Sugar went into action. It spent millions on consultants and advertising to convince the voters the tax was a bad idea.

    As part of its campaign, sugar worked hard to bring African-American leaders to its side.

    "It was a key voting bloc in Florida," says John Sowinski, campaign manager for Citizens to Save Jobs and Stop Unfair Taxes, the lead anti-tax group, financed largely by the sugar industry.

    Most black leaders in the state sided with sugar, including Lyons, who was visited early by U.S. Sugar's lobbyist. They argued that thousands of minority jobs were at risk.

    Sowinski's group made a $5,000 contribution to the National Baptist Convention's gathering in Orlando to sponsor one of the meals. Sugar supporters staffed a booth and handed out fliers.

    "We thought it made sense, because we had an audience at which we could basically make a commercial," Sowinski said.

    The tax was defeated by 54 percent of the voters. African-American voters contributed significantly to the victory, voting against the tax by 60 to 70 percent, Sowinski estimated.


    ©Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.