Jill Harris recalls being "shocked" when she learned last month that Robert W. Ray had been named to replace Kenneth W. Starr as independent counsel, a job that requires him to write the final report on the investigation of President Clinton and complete a probe into the firings at the White House travel office.
Harris, a lawyer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., read in the newspapers about Ray's credentials as a successful prosecutor in Manhattan and Washington with great interest. But she and a number of other residents in Brooklyn's Park Slope and Windsor Terrace neighborhoods remember Ray in another role--as an unsuccessful school board candidate who vehemently opposed an elementary school curriculum designed to teach children about families with two moms or two dads, an approach he characterized as an "assault on the moral authority of parents."
While recent articles about Ray have focused almost exclusively on his credentials as a tough-minded prosecutor, his stances in school board races in 1993 and 1996 reveal that he is no political neophyte and that he harbors strong views on social issues. Ray, who has been described as not having a political agenda, is moving into a job that his predecessor left after becoming so embroiled in politics that he no longer felt effective.
In the highly charged 1993 school board race, which took place in a school district filled with many nontraditional families, Ray allied himself with a group of conservative candidates called the Children's Slate, which vigorously fought against the Rainbow Curriculum. The curriculum was a multicultural approach to teaching elementary school children about alternative lifestyles. On the Sunday before the May 1993 election, Ray distributed a leaflet outside his church: "Stop the Rainbow Curriculum. The teaching of homosexual lifestyles in first grade," the leaflet read.
Ray's campaign flier struck a nerve in his opponents.
"It is very inflammatory. When he ran for school board, he was running as an anti-gay candidate and a right-wing candidate. He targeted his message," said Harris, who described herself as the first openly gay candidate to win a school board race in Brooklyn.
"It was really pretty outrageous," added Katharine Kennedy, who worked in support of a liberal slate of candidates in the 1993 race. "It was very anti-gay . . . and kind of went against his moderate appeal."
In an interview, Ray adamantly rejected the notion that he is anti-gay. "I was not an anti-gay candidate and I was not a right-wing candidate, and there is a public record to support that," the 39-year-old prosecutor said. "They are mistaken. . . . I was running because I was trying to take politics out of schools."
Ray said he ran for the school board in 1993 largely because he did not want his three young children exposed to a curriculum that he did not consider age-appropriate. "I had children in the public schools who would be directly affected by it," he explained.
A registered Democrat when he ran for office, Ray tackled the sensitive issue of the Rainbow Curriculum in a carefully crafted yet fiery statement he provided to the District 15 school board for a candidates forum.
"I believe the 'Rainbow' controversy represents an assault on the moral authority of parents," Ray wrote. "While public schools are vitally about tolerance and diversity, they are not to be used as vehicles for social acceptance of alternative lifestyles."
Bob Bell, a conservative member of the school board who was elected in 1993 as part of the Children's Slate, said Ray's stance on issues was well-reasoned, and described him as a bright, articulate parent who wanted to make the schools a better place. He said the two often talked in the evenings after candidate forums and agreed that the Rainbow Curriculum included material that was "totally inappropriate" for elementary school children.
"I think he felt, as I did, that social issues didn't belong being taught. Bear in mind . . . this thing was a first-grade curriculum and was very explicit," Bell said.
While some saw Ray's affiliation with the Children's Slate as a declaration of his conservatism, others saw it as an opportunistic move by an ambitious man looking for a way to get elected.
Ray challenged sweeping characterizations of his stance in the race. "It is not a declaration of conservatism," Ray said. "I ran as a parent. I ran against the Rainbow Curriculum."
Indeed, Ray was more moderate than the conservatives with whom he aligned himself on the Children's Slate, according to Pauline Toole, a candidate who won a seat on the school board as part of the liberal "Good Schools" slate in 1993.
Toole said Ray, who sought and received permission to run for the school board while working as a federal prosecutor, "painted himself as a conservative" but was not a "raving right-winger." In discussions on a variety of issues, she said, Ray appeared to be a moderate and would have seemed even more moderate if he had been running in a school district that was less liberal.
Toole said Ray's affiliation with the Children's Slate appeared to reflect a "strategic" decision on his part about the best way to get elected from a certain sector of the school district.
She also recalled that during the 1993 campaign, as Ray apparently sensed that he was falling behind, he began talking less about conservative issues and more about educational policy. For example, rather than discussing family values, he began to focus more on how resources in schools ought to be directed.
"He supports bilingual [education], which is not something conservatives support," Toole said.
Toole said Ray, a 1982 Princeton University graduate, appeared politically naive but highly articulate during candidate forums. She said he would have brought a balanced view to the school board if he had been elected.
"It is not that he is politically out of step or has a tin ear," Toole said. "He is still in political graduate school."
Since taking over as independent counsel last month, Ray has pledged to "live up to the finest traditions of what it means to be a professional prosecutor" and perform his job in a "prompt, responsible and cost-effective manner."
Ray joined Starr's office in April, after spending about four years working on independent counsel Donald Smaltz's probe of former agriculture secretary Mike Espy, who was acquitted. Before that, Ray spent 6 1/2 years as a federal prosecutor in Manhattan.
Toole predicted that Ray will do a fair job in completing the work of the independent counsel, including the final report on the Clinton probe. Depending on its timing, that report could affect Hillary Rodham Clinton's New York Senate bid, as it is expected to address her role in the White House travel office firings.
"I think he will try and do a balanced job," Toole said. "My guess is it won't be a hatchet job. My guess is it is also going to be very critical of the administration."