Armies of the Right

They'll take nothing less than abstinence

The scorched-earth campaign against sex education in Arizona, energized by recent victories, now is cutting a swath through Governor Rose Mofford's legislative agenda. And the shell-shocked supporters of sex-ed that goes beyond "Just Say No" are groping to understand their defeats amid predictions that teens now served by school-based clinics for the young and pregnant may be forced to drop out.

The inability of Mofford's people to push her teen-pregnancy-prevention program--a very modest one by national standards--past a slim majority of opponents in the House Appropriations Committee last week is the most recent example of a movement of religious conservatives on the roll.

Other recent victories by social conservatives include a vote to cut school tax rates that will deprive the Phoenix Union High School District of an estimated $6.5 million during the next two years, the recent addition of two right-wing candidates to the district's governing board, and decisions by state, county and school-district officials to drop support of clinics at Carl Hayden and Chandler high schools for pregnant and parenting teens.

By the time Mofford's measure for locally developed and controlled teen-pregnancy programs emerged from committee, it had been mauled almost beyond recognition. The bill was amended to prohibit pregnancy-

prevention funds from being used in any program which involves abortion, abortion referral, contraceptives or contraceptive referral. And the conservatives are still not satisfied. They want the bill to state clearly that funds are to be used for abstinence-only programs.

The abstinence-only activists who once were dismissed as a collection of menopausal biddies have, plain and simple, outgunned and outmaneuvered their opponents. "My sense is that the Mecham political climate has given these folks a sense of power and political muscle," says Mary Price, a member of the Phoenix Union High School District board who supported the Carl Hayden parenting center.

"It's tough for those of us not into fundamentalism to understand how the movement works," says Judy Barrett, president of the Classroom Teachers Association, which represents teachers in the Phoenix Union district. The district recently suffered crippling financial damage when opponents of school-based clinics joined forces with anti-tax groups to defeat the schools' request to sustain current tax levels. Most visible among the movement's rising stars is Gilda Dougherty, a 43-year-old former college math teacher who lives with her husband and twin teenage sons in west Phoenix. An articulate and telegenic figure, Dougherty has come to be the social conservative most likely to be seen on local TV or quoted in the newspapers.

"Up to about four years ago, I was never active in politics," Dougherty says. "My family was not active in politics. Education was my field--my involvement was always totally in education."

But Dougherty exemplifies the close link between the ultra-right and the Republican Party in Arizona, although she says she was led into politics by her ideals, not by political ambition. Like many of her conservative colleagues, she now holds a minor post in the GOP (she's a precinct committeewoman), but she swears she has absolutely no intention of running for office. Rather than a springboard for ambition, Dougherty's party involvement is a useful position from which to organize the grassroots network by which the conservatives have mustered vote after vote in their favor.

And just how have these conservative crusaders managed to win so many battles? Why, the old-fashioned way, of course.

David Wood, one of two fundamentalists elected to the Phoenix Union Governing Board last November, describes a "grassroots grapevine" that enabled him to reach large numbers of voters while causing barely a ripple in the mass media.

"We did get some word out to the Christian community, I spoke to groups in some conservative Republican precincts, I did a little radio," says Wood, until recently a salesman for a local Christian radio station. "We were scheduled to speak at a few churches as well, which I gather is somewhat unusual."

Mary Price, who watched the ultra-conservatives closely before the recent school budget vote, observes, "They gained their numbers in quiet ways. The newspapers missed it completely, and even people who follow the district said, `Where did this opposition come from?'

"A few of us had a sense of alarm, but no one would listen. We tried to interest our supporters, service clubs and senior-citizen groups, but they thought we were secure. They simply didn't see [the conservatives] as a threat."

The press was no help, either, Price says. "The newspapers blew it, quite frankly," she says of coverage of the district's budget vote. "They didn't explain the vote well and wrote a . . . very grudging support on the editorial pages."

Just a few days before the February 14 vote, a few brief news accounts belatedly noted a flurry of "con" statements appearing in election material sent out by Maricopa County, she says. Yet nearly 8,000 voters turned out, an extraordinarily high number for a school election, and they thumped the school district 3-1.

Wood contends the vote was a referendum on the school-based clinics because fundamentalists made it one. But Dougherty is more cautious. "It was a combination of the folks who are against taxes and people who oppose school-based clinics," she says.

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