The Republican primary victory on Aug. 5 of white supremacist James Hart in Tennessee's 8th Congressional District is eerily familiar to Southern Californians.
It seems like a page out of the 1980 playbook of Tom Metzger, the Ku Klux Klan grand dragon who won the Democratic nomination for Congress in San Diego County against the then-entrenched Republican incumbent, Rep. Clair W. Burgener.
Because the popular Burgener, a soft-spoken conservative, was considered such a shoo-in for a fifth term, no well-known Democrat wanted to oppose him. Why be a sacrificial lamb? So the campaign for the Democratic nomination started as a contest for the party privileges that go with becoming an official, albeit losing, Democratic nominee.
Insider party privileges, such as winning an automatic seat on the San Diego County Democratic Central Committee and having the right to appoint members to the Democratic State Central Committee, drew party worker Edward Skagen into the race. Bud Higgins, another political unknown, similarly was eligible for these low-profile prizes.
Metzger, better known and not yet well understood, changed the dynamics of the primary election. He received 33,071 votes, or 37.1 percent of those cast in northern San Diego County, southern Riverside County and all of Imperial County. That was enough to come in ahead of Skagen by 392 votes and to win the Democratic nomination in what was then California's 43rd Congressional District.
Well-known Republicans in Tennessee similarly believed it pointless to challenge Democrat John Tanner in this election cycle. He is in his eighth term, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee and is a leader of the so-called "blue dog" Democrats -- moderates who joke that they've been squeezed so hard by the left and right wings of the party, they fear turning blue.
Although write-in candidate Dennis Bertrand sought to stop Hart in the primary election, Hart triumphed with more than 80 percent of the vote in a district that covers 19 counties in northwest Tennessee.
The political parties were reversed in the California and Tennessee scenarios, but the cynicism is the same.
What motivated Metzger and what now drives Hart were opportunities to get media for their message of white supremacy. The fact that we read in newspapers across the nation about the Tennessee candidate proves the publicity value of the congressional nomination.
Metzger probably didn't expect to beat Burgener, any more than Hart really anticipates unseating Tanner. For Hart, the reward will be all the attention he can stir up for the discredited Nazi theory of eugenics -- that some racial groups are genetically superior to others.
I became press secretary to Burgener's campaign in 1980, after Metzger won the Democratic nomination. It quickly became apparent that there were two major problems with which we had to contend. The first was that news reporters thought that it was unusual, offbeat, even a matter of human interest, that a real live Ku Klux Klansman was running for office in California. It was sort of a "man bites dog" story, interesting because it was different, without much thought given to what that difference was all about.
The second problem was that Burgener didn't want to say anything about Metzger. The congressman's first instinct was to ignore Metzger, so as not to build a tent for his opponent.
That strategy might have worked against an unknown, but Metzger already knew how to command media attention. The task for Burgener was to define Metzger and white supremacy for San Diegans. Tanner will have a similar responsibility in Tennessee's general election campaign.
Ultimately, Burgener came to understand that Metzger was a symbol who needed to be confronted and not simply a political opponent. The campaign got hold of a documentary film about the faces of hate, in which Metzger's group was pictured, and in which Metzger said some intolerant things. Burgener's campaign held a screening for the media, and Metzger and some followers thought they could make light of it by showing up uninvited in Nixon masks.
After the media heard on film the kind of hatred that Metzger and his followers spewed about African Americans, Mexican Americans and Jews, suddenly having a Ku Klux Klansman as an official Democratic nominee from San Diego didn't seem like a human interest story anymore. Reporters demanded of Metzger whether he really believed in the hard-core hate he had been filmed spouting in the documentary, or did he believe the softer line he had been taking in the campaign?
Metzger was unmasked, and from that day until Election Day, stories focused not on how unusual Metzger's philosophy was but on how un-American it was.
To illustrate that Metzger was outside the mainstream of American politics, the Burgener campaign adopted what it called the "Hatfield and McCoy" strategy. It found rival Democratic and Republican candidates, some of whom were long-time political enemies, and had them stand together at the same lectern to endorse Burgener.
A typical formulation was, "We never agree on anything else, but when it comes to this election, we can agree -- enthusiastically. We urge everyone to reject the hatred of the Ku Klux Klan and vote for Clair."
To their credit, Democrats were willing to put aside partisan differences and urge the reelection of the Republican incumbent. In Tennessee, the test will be whether Republicans will be willing to return the compliment.
Burgener won the contest with more than 86 percent of the vote -- the outcome no surprise. The Ku Klux Klan and the racist doctrine of white supremacy were dealt a resounding rejection at the polls.
After the election, Metzger went on to become the leader of the White Aryan Resistance, eventually losing millions of dollars in a court suit brought against him for instigating the beating death of an Ethiopian student in Oregon.
The leadership of our mainstream political parties meanwhile vowed that in the future, they would prevent the hijacking of their congressional nominations by extremists. For a quarter of a century, they were mostly able to keep that vow -- up until now.
Donald H. Harrison is editor of the San Diego Jewish Press Heritage.
We welcome your feedback.
Your information will not be shared or sold without your consent. Get all the details.
Terms of Service
JewishJournal.com has rules for its commenting community.Get all the details.
JewishJournal.com reserves the right to use your comment in our weekly print publication.