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Lions, lambs and Birchers in District 17 

Affiliations with a radical fringe group and complaints over his use of taxpayer resources to fund his political campaign have stymied Republican Steve Hester's campaign -- a full eight months before the election.

Hester, who is the vice president of Harrison School District 2 in southeast Colorado Springs, is considered the Republican front-runner in the race to replace state Rep. Andy McElhany in the legislature. He proudly claims to be a fan of the John Birch Society.

And for the past several weeks, Hester has been distributing a brochure that includes his school e-mail site. In addition, he has allegedly distributed his Harrison school district-funded business cards as part of his campaign for the legislature.

Both are potential violations of state election laws that prohibit tax dollars from being used to fund a personal political campaign, according to state election director Ed Arcuri.

"It looks like taxpayer money is being used," Arcuri said. "If the [school] board is aware of this, they need to tell him to stop doing it because it's their funds that are being used."


An excellent job

John Musso, who oversees elections and legislative matters at Harrison School District, last week said he was unaware of Hester's use of public school resources.

Musso said he thought "Steve would do an excellent job if he's elected" to the legislature. The school district, he said, hasn't formally endorsed Hester's candidacy.

"We haven't thought about [it] in terms of endorsing; it hasn't gotten to that point yet," Musso said.

Despite Musso's apparent zeal over Hester's candidacy, the school district is also, by law, prohibited from taking a position on political candidates.

Hester was one of three candidates who ran for three open school board seats in Harrison School District in 1997. After the Independent's inquiry last week, Hester said he had cancelled the school district e-mail site. However, by law he must immediately report the in-kind contribution from the school district, Arcuri said, which as of press time he has not done.


Feeling like a donkey

This year's House District 17 race began with a crowded field of potential Republican candidates, but has dwindled to just two -- Hester and Mark Cloer, a substitute teacher. Other Republicans -- including Springs Beautiful Chairman Pete Frech and school-choice advocate Tasha Tillman -- have opted not to run.

The district, which encompasses most of southeast Colorado Springs, is the most evenly split among Republicans and Democrats in El Paso County, and Democrats are banking on the race to retake the legislative seat.

The population of District 17 contains only 500 fewer Democrats than Republicans, and has been represented by a Democrat 40 percent of the time over the past decade.

Those numbers are not lost on Ed Raye, the former chairman of the local Democratic Party, who is already running an enthusiastic race for the seat. State party leaders have already targeted the race, and have offered money and volunteers to help him win, he said.

"I'm feeling very good about the support right now," Raye said.


Spelling it out

Despite Hester's work on the campaigns of state Sen. Mary Ellen Epps (he claims he was "sign chairman" of her campaign) and McElhany (Hester was the state representative's "issues chairman"), he has reaped similar support.

Neither lawmaker has endorsed Hester, and last week McElhany -- who is currently seeking to replace Sen. MaryAnne Tebedo in the senate -- distanced himself from his former volunteer.

Though he has been approached, McElhany said he has opted not to issue any endorsements. "People in the district can make up their own minds."

"They are all good candidates, they are all good Republicans," McElhany said. "There's no such thing as a bad Republican."

But there is such a thing as a bad speller, and Hester apparently is one of them. His brochure includes numerous grammatical and spelling errors, an issue, since he is the vice president of the Harrison School Board, that is not lost on some of his detractors.

For example, Hester states he is an "honor graduate from the Advance Noncommissioned Officers coarse (sic)" and wants to "Preserve 2n Amendment."

Hester is very clear about his position with regard to prisoners: "The more time criminals spend in jail the less time they have to commit crime." And one of his more novel campaign platforms is to "limit weight lifting in prisons."

"We don't need them going in like lambs and coming out like lions."


Hate-filled agenda

His admiration for the John Birch Society has also recently raised some political eyebrows.

"I will not run from my association with this fine Constitutional Educational group," Hester wrote in a Feb. 25 letter to the Independent defending the group.

Actually, the John Birch Society is much more than just a "constitutional educational group." Headquartered in Appleton, Wisconsin, the group's covert anti-Semitism and racism -- and much more overt sexism and open homophobia -- have been well-documented.

The Birchers were founded as an anti-communist group in 1958 but quickly found itself on the political fringe when its leaders proclaimed leading conservatives to be communist agents. Society founder Robert Welch once accused President Eisenhower of being a "dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy" and other Bircher leaders promoted books depicting Martin Luther King Jr. as the leader of a massive communist conspiracy.

The Birchers' main targets have included the United Nations, "financial terrorism" by the Federal Reserve, the Trilateral Commission, the Rockefellers, the Rothchilds and other world bankers, and the Council on Foreign Relations. Many of their causes were later taken up by activists in the now-faltering Patriot Movement.

A report prepared by the Boston-based Political Research Analysts, a political research center, describes the core of the organization.

"That the Birch Society clearly attracted members with a more hate-filled (even fascistic) agenda is undeniable, and these more zealous elements used the JBS as a recruitment pool from which to draw persons toward a more neo-Nazi stance on issues of race and culture."

Beginning in the late 1970s, the Birch Society dwindled in numbers and influence, and further diminished when Ronald Reagan took office and they attacked his policies.

Thanks in part to a new media-savvy facelift, in recent years the group has rebounded and its membership is now estimated at more than 55,000. In 1998, the John Birch Society hosted a high-profile booth at the state's Republican Convention at the Colorado Springs World Arena.

Ed Raye, the Democrat running in the District 17 race, said he was surprised when he learned of his main rival's stance on the John Birch Society, but said he has no plans to make the issue part of his "agenda."

"My position on education, safe streets and senior issues is why people will vote for me," Raye said. "I don't want to win this because of some sideshow issue of the John Birch Society. I want to win because I've got the right position on the issues."

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