How a White Supremacist Won a Primary

Politics

How a White Supremacist Won a Primary

Tom Metzger’s candidacy stands as a grim example of what can happen when racism is on the ballot.

The June 6, 1980 edition of The New York Times / Photo courtesy of The New York Times

This post originally appeared in the Nov. 14 Politics Report. Get the Politics Report delivered to your inbox.

In 1980, white supremacist Tom Metzger won a race to become the Democratic nominee for a North County congressional seat. One local congressman called his victory the beginning of “the low point in my career, the worst thing I’ve ever been through in my life.” A Democratic activist said it was predictable and preventable if only party officials had bothered to listen to her warnings. And Tip O’Neill, speaker of the House of Representatives, thought it was worthy of a congratulatory form letter. Oops.

Metzger, a Fallbrook television repairman who’d served as the California grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, didn’t win the general election. But the candidacy of Metzger, who died this month at the age of 82, still stands as a grim example of what can happen when racism is on the ballot.

Metzger’s victory in the 43rd Congressional District’s Democratic primary against two opponents was a stunner that made national news. Party activists had tried to raise the alarm about Metzger but the local Democratic brass didn’t care, the Washington Post reported. “The big leaders told us to wait until after the primary. They wouldn’t take Metzger seriously,” said Sarah Lowery, coordinator of the local Carter for President Campaign.

Metzger wouldn’t have had a chance in the Republican primary for the 43rd District, which encompassed southern Orange County, Imperial County, and a big chunk of North County from Oceanside and Carlsbad to Escondido and Valley Center. Then as now, the region is a GOP stronghold, and the incumbent – Clair Burgener – was popular. But the Democratic primary was wide open, so Metzger switched parties.

What did voters know and when did they know it? George Condon, a White House correspondent for the National Journal who covered the races as a reporter for the San Diego Union, reviewed his old articles when I contacted him this week. He said it’s clear that the local media paid attention to Metzger’s primary race even if the Democratic Party didn’t. “Voters did know what they were doing,” Condon said.

At the time, one of the candidates vanquished by Metzger agreed with that perspective, saying voters showed that they’d “rather have violence or the threat of violence” than other solutions to problems. According to an election week report, Metzger won the primary by 318 votes.

Both parties united to stop Metzger from winning in November, with the national Democratic chair calling his primary victory “an acute embarrassment.” In another embarrassment for the party, the speaker of the House reportedly sent Metzger a congratulatory form letter.

Burgener, a Republican mainstay with an independent streak, was deeply appalled by the white supremacist’s victory. He went on to win in November with 86 percent of the vote. It was reportedly the highest margin of victory in congressional history.

Condon, the Union reporter, would go on win a Pulitzer Prize for his Union-Tribune articles exposing the corruption of Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, another North County congressman. He remembers being struck by “how open [Metzger] was about using the campaign to promote his brand. He never denied it was a racist brand. He was proud of that during the campaign.”

Condon also recalls a visit to Metzger’s Fallbrook home, where he ran his TV repair shop. “He was an electrician and had made a cross with lightbulbs so when lit up it would simulate a burning cross. It was in a very prominent place in the room. I also remember seeing a swastika or two.”

Metzger was “always affable and professional with reporters, which took a little getting used to since we were well aware of the hate he carried and the violence we believed he was capable of,” Condon said. “The thing that was toughest for me to take was to see him indoctrinating his kids. His son John was just 12, I think, during the campaign. I couldn’t shake the thought when I was at his house that John and the other kids didn’t have a chance. They were fed hatred every day by their father. And if he was affable to reporters, I can imagine he was loving to his kids, making it even harder to resist the hatred.”

Metzger would go on to form the White Aryan Resistance organization.

Both Tom and John Metzger went on trial in 1990 in Oregon, facing a wrongful-death suit over the murder of a African immigrant by skinheads. The Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti-Defamation League accused them of inspiring the killing.

Both men (John Metzger was then 22) represented themselves in court. Tom Metzger led with this introduction: “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. I’m Tom Metzger, evil one.” The jury believed him: They socked the Metzgers with a $12.5 million settlement. The elder Metzger “lost his San Diego-area home [it was sold to a Latino family], his television repair business and other assets,” the AP reported. “Although left penniless, Metzger continued to produce a racist newsletter for years and operated a racist hotline, taking calls personally.”

A San Diego attorney named James McElroy adopted the then 7-year-old son of the man who was murdered in Portland, the AP reported. He’s now in his 30s, married and working as an airline pilot, McElroy told the AP.

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