Christian soldier

He has backing from Omaha insurance giants and the Christian right, but his rocky divorce threatens both.

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Scripture tells us that some 2,000 years ago, Christ entered the temple and threw out the money changers. Two years ago, Jon Christensen (R-Neb.), riding a wave of reform spirit and Christian indignation, entered the halls of Congress, but must have decided that the money changers weren’t so bad after all.

Christensen, a freshman Republican from Omaha, launched his political career with a few moneyed backers, such as Omaha businessman David Sokol, and the support of an army of right-wing Christian activists. A virtual unknown, he used legions of canvassers to defeat two moderate Republicans in the 1994 primary and set himself up for a November win.

Christensen is closely allied with the conservative activists at Omaha’s Christian and Missionary Alliance-affiliated Christ Community Church. Says former Omaha Mayor Mike Boyle, “He’s right out of the Pat Robertson politicians’ school.” Christensen’s opposition to abortion and homosexuality and his belief that creationism should be taught in schools jibe with fundamentalist teachings.

Christensen didn’t remain an unknown for long. Like many of his fellow freshmen, he quickly got a plum assignment. In fact, more than a third of the freshman Republican class got seats on one of the three most powerful money committees in the House. Fifteen GOP newcomers sit on the Banking Committee; eight more took spots on the Commerce Committee; and three freshmen — Christensen, John Ensign of Las Vegas, Nev., and Phil English of Erie, Pa. — got positions on the most powerful: the House Ways and Means Committee.

Because it has jurisdiction over the nation’s taxation system — doling out tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy — the committee’s members are always among the most prodigious fundraisers in the House. Nearly every lobbyist in Washington, D.C., wants a piece of the action on Ways and Means.

“Getting on the money committees, like Ways and Means, is like having a cash cow,” says Common Cause President Ann McBride.

So it has proved for Christensen. Using his position to attract givers, he raised a staggering $845,232 in campaign contributions during 1995 and the first four months of this year — and the intense period of fundraising in the months before the election had only just begun.

Although the freshmen came into Washington clamoring for campaign finance reform, most abandoned that goal when faced with financing their second run. Rep. George Radanovich of California, president of the GOP freshman class, pooh-poohed reform, telling Mother Jones that the Republicans’ first priority is “incumbent protection.”

McBride characterizes the change a bit differently: “They came into Washington to shake things up, and they stayed to shake it down.”

Christensen warmed to that task even before he took office. At a time when most newcomers hadn’t yet unpacked their bags, Christensen raised $60,000 in soft money for the Republican Party from just nine Omaha-area businesses, according to the Omaha World-Herald; some of the contributors said that the money was meant to secure a Ways and Means seat for Christensen.

The givers included a trio of insurance and health care companies, Mutual of Omaha, Guarantee Life Insurance, and Central States Health & Life Company of Omaha, whose gifts totaled $18,000.

Their investments paid off when Christensen obtained a post on the Ways and Means health subcommittee. There, he spoke out against health care reform, voting against a proposal that would have guaranteed that workers who lost their health insurance could buy individual coverage from companies like Mutual of Omaha.

Mutual, like other insurers, bitterly opposes the idea, since under current law it can reject people it considers bad risks.

And the money continues to roll in. During 1994, Christensen raised $966,000, with more than $170,000 of that from PACs. But for his re-election effort, Christensen has pulled out all the stops. By the end of April, he already had $305,910, in PAC money alone, in his campaign coffers.

His contributors’ list reads like a who’s who of Washington special-interest groups, with insurance companies, drug makers, hospital and health care interests, and tobacco companies at the top.

Throughout his term, Christensen has allied himself with the conservative party leadership, joining the push for tax and budget cuts, and for the elimination of health, safety, and environmental regulations. Indeed, according to Congressional Quarterly, out of the 66 House votes during 1995 on issues proposed in the “Contract With America,” Christensen voted with the GOP leadership 98 percent of the time.

He has also lined himself up with the most outspoken members of the freshman class. In June, he and a group of renegade freshmen voted against the GOP’s own 1997 budget resolution, despite public pleading on the House floor from Speaker Newt Gingrich. The freshmen rejected it because it didn’t go far enough in slashing spending. In key votes to gut welfare, defund the Environmental Protection Agency, paralyze regulatory agencies, cut taxes by $189 billion with benefits going to people earning up to $200,000 per year, and slash Medicare spending by $270 billion, Christensen was a reliable yes vote.

There could be trouble ahead, however. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has targeted Christensen’s Nebraska district for an upset, and Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, lists his among 15 vulnerable GOP seats.

Christensen has also been weakened by a messy and very public divorce, in which his wife, Meredith, stunned conservative voters in Omaha by admitting in court papers that she “engaged in marital infidelity” and was “unable to remain faithful.”

This is the third time the couple’s marital troubles have brought them to court in their nine-year marriage — the first two led to reconciliations. The divorce, granted in June, will be troublesome for Christensen’s fundamentalist allies, as it undermines his claim to embody Christian family values.

“His divorce is going to hurt him,” said one constituent at an Omaha fish fry in February, where Christensen was greeting voters. “In the Bible Belt, people don’t understand it.”

But as much as the divorce may hurt Christensen in the Bible Belt, the money belt is where he will really feel the pinch.

His Texas-born wife had served as his principal fundraiser, often using the connections of her family, which does business with the Hunts of Dallas.

During their marriage, in fact, she seemed to be Christensen’s main support. His personal financial disclosure forms show that during 1993, the year before he ran for Congress, Christensen earned only about $32,000 selling insurance and fertilizer.


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