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Rural Texas pastor bucks the norm, running for legislature as Democrat

Discussion in 'General Baptist Discussions' started by gb93433, Mar 15, 2006.

  1. gb93433

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    Associated Baptist Press

    Rural Texas pastor bucks the norm, running for legislature as Democrat

    By Hannah Elliott

    Published: March 15, 2006

    COVINGTON, Texas (ABP) -- Pastor and politician Kerry Horn has been called an agent of Satan. He has faced country farmers trembling with rage. And his faith has been questioned by members of his own congregation. And that’s just the reaction of his “Christian”

    “People find it interesting," Horn said. "I just live with it.”

    Horn’s situation is interesting, to say the least. Horn, 48, is running for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives in the fall 2006 election. The fact he also is pastor of First Baptist Church of Covington, Texas, makes potential voters perk up their ears. The fact he is running as a Democrat in the deeply Republican region leaves some voters confused and others downright distressed.

    After Horn’s announcement that he’d run on a Democratic ticket, he said, several locals at a community meeting got worried -- and mad. One burly fellow couldn't see any reason why a self-respecting Baptist pastor would ever associate with Democrats, let alone join the party. “I thought he was going to hit me,” Horn said.

    Emotions in the House race are running high in part because, while Democrats led the state decades ago, Republicans have since dominated for years in most Texas counties. And because of close ties between the Religious Right and the Republican Party, many Bible-belt believers associate the Republican platform with Christian values. That makes Horn not only an oddity but, to some, a threat.

    Many of Horn’s advocates -- some of whom are Baptist pastors themselves -- have supported Republican candidates in the past but have become sour to what they call the latest attitude change in Austin. Others have decided to vote for Horn because they trust him, no matter what political party he represents.

    Joe Williams, a pipeline inspector, often eats at a diner inside Covington's busy Shell gas station. Leaning back in his overalls after lunch on a bright spring day, Williams said he’s not too picky when it comes to choosing who gets his vote.

    “The number one thing people around here want is honesty,” Williams said. “If we can get a good, honest person in office, we’ll do all right.”

    In his opinion, Williams said, the leadership in District 10 -- Hill and Ellis counties -- needs “new blood,” no matter what party the candidate represents.

    Clint Quattlebaum eats at the same diner, the lone building between highways 171 and 67. The station gives him a place to meet friends and catch up on news.

    A member of First Baptist Covington since the 1960s, Quattlebaum said he hopes Horn can improve community education, the local infrastructure and crime rates. Horn, the church's pastor for nine years, conducted Quattlebaum’s wife’s funeral several years ago, and the retired letter-carrier said locals respect the pastor.

    “I like Kerry,” Quattlebaum said. “He is honest. I will vote for him. I think he has a chance.”

    Horn will need more than a chance to win this race. He faces influential incumbent Jim Pitts, who has served District 10 since 1993. Pitts chairs the powerful House Committee on Appropriations and earned Texas Monthly magazine’s citation as one of Texas’ 10 best legislators in 2005.

    Pitts also has endorsements from many key organizations in Texas, including the National Rifle Association, Texas Right to Life, Texas Hospital Association, Texas Farm Bureau, Texas Municipal Police Association, and Texas State Association of Fire Fighters.

    But Horn is no political rookie either. He began his political career as a Republican, working as an assistant sergeant at arms in the state Senate in 1981. He graduated from Stephen F. Austin University in 1983 and worked as a field operative for the Republican lieutenant governor. Later he coordinated events for the Republican Party, worked as a consultant for legislative races, and orchestrated federal relations for Margaret Spellings, now U.S. Secretary of Education.

    Still the race between Horn and Pitts is shaping up as a David-versus-Goliath clash, with Horn playing David against a party he used to promote. No matter, Horn said. Back then, he considered himself a “Rockefeller Republican,” in a time when “a conservative Democrat was more conservative than a Republican.”

    “When I was there, we took great pride in our independence,” Horn said. “Washington didn’t call the shots. We took great pride in our ability to pull together for the good of Texas.”

    Horn said he eventually left Austin in 1990, when he could no longer “emotionally support the issues.”

    “The attitude then became very negative,” Horn said. “The Moral Majority was neither moral nor a majority. No political party can claim moral superiority over the other as long as it’s made up of the same fallen people.”

    After a period of soul searching -- while serving as a deacon and Sunday school teacher at First Baptist Church in Austin, and driving a laundry truck -- Horn began to consider a possible vocation in full-time ministry. The career move took some prompting, though, from Horn’s wife, Laura.

    Horn had considered going into the ministry during high school, and he was ordained at First Baptist of Austin in 1992. But he kept the pastoral role in the background as he explored the political realm.

    Then one Sunday, after he gave announcements and the pastoral prayer at First Baptist, friends mentioned that Horn should consider leading a church himself. While Horn waffled on deciding to preach, Laura secretly arranged an appointment with Robert Sloan Jr., then president of Baylor University, which had recently formed Truett Seminary.

    “Sloan told me, ‘I want you in this [seminary]. You bring a dynamic to this class, a diversity,’” Horn recalled. “That first class at Truett was the brightest, most gifted group of men and women I had been around. The friendships developed there are solid and sound, and always will be.”

    Matt Cook, pastor of Second Baptist in Little Rock, Ark., belonged to that first group. He and Horn participated in a preaching practicum together and often met for lunch after they graduated. Now, he said, Horn is fulfilling a desire many pastors have --to impact the world.

    “Kerry will jump in and try what most of us want to do on our worst days,” Cook said. “He reminds me of an old-style Southern politician. Homespun wisdom, that’s Kerry for you. He’s not willing to be pigeon-holed.”

    Cook said Horn’s challenge of running against an incumbent, and a powerful one at that, might prove daunting to others, but not to Horn.

    “Kerry is an ornery enough cuss to jump in and give it a try,” Cook said. “He wouldn’t run if he didn’t want to win. But he’s more interested in getting the truth out there.”

    Kyle Reese, the pastor of First Baptist Church in San Angelo, Texas, agreed. He too belonged to the first graduating class of Truett Seminary.

    “He’s walking a tight rope as a Democrat, but I think he can pull it off,” Reese said. “If anyone can do it, Kerry can. He knows his way around Austin.”

    That knowledge of the political landscape will come in handy for Horn. For people in rural areas like Hill and Ellis counties -- which have a combined population of 143,681 and an average per capita income of roughly $20,000 -- issues like education and taxes are touchy subjects.

    According to Horn, a fifth-generation Texan, schools in a community the size of Covington comprise an integral part of the town. Laura Horn works as a second-grade teacher, so Horn gets to see the system first-hand. He said leadership in Austin has frustrated local teachers, who have not received a pay raise in six years, while teachers have to meet increasingly difficult state requirements.

    In the same vein, propositions to consolidate small rural schools into bigger ones and mandates urging more reporting from teachers to authorities in Austin don’t sit well with small-town educators.

    “Consolidation is not the issue. Accountability is not the issue,” Horn said. “At issue is the legislature using them as a smokescreen to usurp local authority. They’ve kept us in the dark and fed us manure and think we don’t notice.”

    Representing Hill and Ellis counties -- roughly 60 miles south of Dallas -- requires a political balancing act. Ellis County is on the verge of “suburban” Dallas, Horn said, and infrastructure improvement is the critical need. Meanwhile, Hill County remains more agricultural and has a need for development planning.

    Because Ellis County is less affluent, cuts in Medicare and Medicaid are hitting Covington residents harder, Horn said. Prenatal care for women is an important tenant of Horn’s agenda.

    Martha McGregor, the county Democratic chairperson, said Horn’s integrity will help him protect “the true family values of Texans,” including the issues about which he feels most passionate.

    “Our current state leadership has underestimated the electorate's capacity to tell that their rhetoric does not match their actions,” McGregor, a practicing attorney, said. “Kerry draws attention to those inconsistencies by telling the truth and trusting the people.”

    Representatives from Pitts’ office in Austin did not return phone calls for this story.

    Despite his political aspirations and the demands of a campaign, Horn depicts himself as a candidate with a life -- a family life, that is. When it comes to attention and time, Horn’s family comes first, he said, and he plans to keep it that way. The Horns have a daughter in high school and a son in 8th grade.

    Even if he wins, there's still a church to serve as pastor. First Baptist will remain a large priority for Horn's time and energy, even if he becomes bivocational. Both politics and the pastorate involve “helping people with issues in which they may not be able to help themselves,” he said.

    But when he's doing church visitation, he's not campaigning, Horn said. He plans to keep his congregants out of his politics, he said, and “I’ve always kept politics out of the pulpit.”

    Before the news of his campaign appeared in local papers, Horn sent church members a letter announcing his plan to run. “They don’t know quite what to make of it,” Horn said. “They may not know that the legislature is not a full-time job. There is the concern that my accessibility will be limited.”

    Quattlebaum said many Covington locals want Horn to win, even if it takes time away from the church. “It’ll be a lot of work if he wins,” Quattlebaum said. “He’ll be busy, but he can do it.”

    More challenging, at least in the minds of some critics, is how Horn reconciles his position as a pastor with some parts of the Democratic platform traditionally shunned by Baptists, such as abortion rights. Horn said he is not bound to all parts of the national Democratic agenda.

    “It’s very simple,” he said. “I’ve learned that I care more about people than I do about catering to powerbrokers. As a pastor, I try to make sure the opportunity for the choice of abortion to be moot; I preach that sex outside of the bonds of marriage is wrong, no matter if you’re gay or straight.”

    Horn said he has a “moral compass calibrated by a higher standard than a party platform.”

    He has little patience for Christians whose political opinions are focused on certain hot-button moral issues. “Here you get enraged about abortion and homosexual action, but you wink and nod at adultery,” Horn said. “Don’t give me this holier-than-thou business when you dismiss other sins.”

    Horn's impatience for “demagoguery,” as he calls it, grew out of his bout with cancer in 2004. While now 100 percent cancer-free, Horn said, it took a year to recover from the disease.

    “My father died at 49,” he said. “I’m now 48, and I realize how young that was. It made me realize I’ve got a lot to offer on several different fronts. It made me a little less patient with foolishness. I just want someone to tell me the truth.”