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Why a GOP Benefactor Switched Parties

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Sunday, March 29, 2009; Page A13

Just as news breaks that political fundraising is down for both parties, Republicans have lost one of their more generous contributors.

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In what one might call a biblical move, Christian philanthropist Howard Ahmanson -- one of three major funders of the campaign for California's Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriages -- has abandoned the GOP for the Democratic Party.

No one ever said the multimillionaire isn't idiosyncratic.

In a rare interview Thursday, Ahmanson shared some of his thoughts about why he switched parties. In a word, taxes.

Specifically, he was offended by the California Republican Party's insistence during a recent state budget battle that there would be no tax increases for any reason, no matter what. "They're providing one issue, and it's just a very silly issue," Ahmanson told me by telephone.

So, without fanfare, Ahmanson printed out an online form and mailed in his Democratic Party registration. Thus far, he's heard nothing back, but confesses to hoping he'll receive a little card or something.

Ahmanson, who was born to and inherited great wealth, has spent a lifetime trying to figure out what to do with his good fortune. It has been, at times, a burden of guilt, complicated by a lonely childhood. He also has Tourette's syndrome, which has contributed to his reclusiveness.

Now 58, Ahmanson is recognized as one of the nation's leading evangelical Christians and one of conservatism's most reliable supporters, though he is hardly a Republican talking-point man. He follows his own script and has parted company with social conservatives before. He thinks those who argue for school prayer, for instance, are confusing the moral with the religious. Morality is how we relate to one another, he says. Religion is how we relate to God -- "and it's not the government's business."

One can't mention Ahmanson without also discussing his association with Calvinist theologian R.J. Rushdoony, who believed in a literal application of biblical teachings and is credited with inspiring the Christian home-schooling movement.

Rushdoony's ideas captured Ahmanson's imagination in what the philanthropist now calls "my wild youth," but he has mellowed. Ahmanson certainly doesn't believe that homosexuals should be executed, as some of his critics have suggested, but he does believe that gays should "come to Christ and then recover."

He is also no longer the welfare abolitionist he used to be, "though I hate the attitude that welfare, once granted, is a moral entitlement that can never be reduced. And Social Security and Medicare are included in my definition of welfare."

Ahmanson's conversion to the Democratic Party, following decades of donating millions to conservative think tanks and causes, certainly qualifies as a "shocker" in political circles. "What!!!!!" is typical of the response I've gotten as I've sought reactions.


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