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Scrutinizing and Specterizing Mike Leavitt
Religious right questions credentials of Bush's conservative
nominee to head the Dept. of Health and Human Services

by Bill Berkowitz
December 20, 2004

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Last month, the religious right went after Sen. Arlen Specter and made him cry uncle. While they didn't succeed in stopping the so-called moderate Pennsylvania Republican from taking the helm of the Senate Judiciary Committee come January, there's no doubt now about who's his "daddy." The Christian right's no-holds-barred campaign forced the Senator to pledge not to allow his personal beliefs to block any of President Bush's judicial nominees. While lashing out at Sen. Specter has been a multi-year project for religious right groups unhappy about his pro-choice and pro-gay views, what's up with their criticism of Mike Leavitt, the former governor of Utah who has headed up the Environmental Protection Agency over the past year and was recently nominated to succeed Tommy Thompson as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services?

Unlike Specter, Leavitt is a solid conservative who is firmly "pro-life" and supports the religious right's social agenda. Grist Magazine, an environmental journal, called him "a rising star in the Republican Party and a fierce Bush loyalist." Yet despite his conservative credentials, there's something about Mike Leavitt that's troubling to some powerful religious right organizations.


In the Tuesday, December 14 edition of Washington Update, the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins confessed that his organization, "won't be decking the halls or donning our gay apparel on the appointment of Mike Leavitt at the Department of Health and Human Services." And Peter Brandt, senior director of government and public policy at Focus on the Family, the Colorado Springs, Colorado-based multi-million dollar ministry and media-empire, recently told CitizenLink, Focus on the Family's daily online news feed, that he "has concerns about Leavitt and how he, as head of HHS, will respond" to such critical issues as abstinence-only sex education.

"This is a man who, as Utah governor, vetoed a (2000) law which would have required that students be exposed to a strong 'abstinence-until-marriage and fidelity-thereafter' message," Brandt said. That's particularly troubling, he added, because "if confirmed, he would be the man in charge of the excellent abstinence-only programs HHS administers."

Brandt told CitizenLink that he is bothered that under Leavitt's administration, Utah gave Title V (abstinence until marriage) funding to Planned Parenthood -- the nation's largest abortion provider. "He also decided that sponsoring hockey leagues was an appropriate use of abstinence-only funding," Brandt said. "His history leaves us somewhat uneasy as to where he will be when it comes to these important programs -- all of which would fall within his purview."

In a telephone interview, Brandt said that Focus on the Family is "not opposing Leavitt's nomination," and he doesn't think that it will. The purpose of his comments in CitizenLink was to make Leavitt "aware" of the organization's "specific concerns." "He's taken some actions that appear to be contradictory to the president's initiatives," Brandt said.

When asked why Focus on the Family was first out of the box questioning Leavitt's record, Brandt responded: "We are a communications company. This is what we do. We raise issues and we want to influence the government on issues that we are involved with. Our 150-200 thousand readers rely on us to keep them appraised of the issues that we think is important to them."

Leavitt's support for Bush's abstinence-only sex-education project doesn't constitute a litmus test, Brandt told me: "The idea that this issue is a litmus test for Leavitt is not really accurate. We are raising a yellow flag, not a red flag. We are expressing some significant concerns about the governor's actions and we hope he heeds what we are saying and will communicate with us on these issues."

Is Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council merely scrutinizing Leavitt's record or, by launching a pre-emptive strike, are they trying to elicit a loyalty pledge from him?


In the immediate afterglow of his victory over his Democratic opponent -- and in anticipation of taking over the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- Sen. Specter issued a warning to the president that he shouldn't send up judges that were outside the mainstream because they would have difficulties getting confirmed under his watch. Specter's words were like a meat cleaver cutting through butter for Christian right groups, epitomizing what they knew to be true -- he couldn't be trusted in such a critical position. Within hours, Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and the American Family Association launched its Stop Specter campaign.

The Senator, who tried to mount a counter-media campaign, was no match for the organized right. While there's no doubt that a small but hardy band of GOP Senate moderates exists, they have a limited capacity to organize and they have no troops in the field. And while the right's campaign didn't succeed in stripping the Senator of the chairmanship, it scared the be-jeezus out of him. By the time the Senator was interviewed on the Fox News Channel, he was adamantly professing his loyalty to the president and the Party. He also cited a laundry list of examples including, voting to confirm William Rehnquist as Chief Justice, supporting Clarence Thomas' nomination to the Supreme Court, and supporting every one of President Bush's anti-choice judicial nominees.

In the end, cowed by the religious right, the Senator pledged to move President Bush's judicial nominees as quickly as possible -- regardless of their position on abortion or gay rights -- and he agreed to allow the anti-same sex marriage constitutional amendment to be run through his committee.

As head of Health and Human Services, the biggest agency in the federal government, Mike Leavitt would oversee the nation's Medicare and Medicaid programs, the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the Indian Health Service, the Administration on Aging and several other agencies. HHS has a 2005 budget of $580 billion -- $67 billion of which is discretionary funds.

In a July 22, 2004, column entitled "A Closer Look At Sex Ed Funding," Paul Weyrich, the CEO and Chairman of the Free Congress Foundation, complained that it was "time to instill stricter standards of accountability at the Department of Health & Human Services and break up the favoritism displayed by HHS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in bestowing federal funds on promiscuity-promoting organizations whose agenda leads to teen pregnancies, abortions, and STDs."

"If confirmed by the Senate, Leavitt will face a number of tough, controversial decisions -- including Medicare reform, funding for stem-cell research, cloning and other sensitive ethical health issues," the Family Research Council pointed out in December 15, press release. "The best predictor of future positions on controversial issues is the record of past decisions. Leavitt's past decisions raise legitimate questions about where he will be on these key values issues in the future if confirmed," Perkins said.

Is Leavitt the man to "break up the favoritism displayed by the HHS," refuse funding for "promiscuity-promoting organizations" and handle "key values issues?" While Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council may be worried about Leavitt's stance on abstinence-only sex education, and other issues, they will more than likely support his nomination. By raising their voice often and early, they are also making it clear that will be scrutinizing him closely during his confirmation hearings. If they can obtain a Specter-like pledge from him on other critical issues, so much the better.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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