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Founder of group seeking to elect conservative judges dies of heart attack

Pastor Don Hamer, the founder of a new Chula Vista-based group that is working to elect conservative judges in local elections, died of a heart attack on Wednesday morning, Hamer was pastor of the Zion Christian Fellowship in San Diego and was a leading voice locally for Proposition 8, the initiative passed by voters in 2008 which ended same-sex marriages in California.

In December, Hamer founded a group called BetterCourtsNow.com. Its stated goal is to target local judicial elections and elect judges who oppose abortion and same-sex marriage. The group’s website includes video testimonials by Hamer and 20 different supporters.

“He was a great guy,” said Dr. Jennifer Morse of Hamer. “I love the guy. I’m still absorbing the news.”

Morse is the founder and president of the Ruth Institute in San Marcos. She also provided one of the video testimonials on the website. Morse said she did now know what would happen to Better Courts Now in the wake of Hamer’s death.

Many of the other testimonials are delivered  by local citizens. But some of the others read like a who’s-who list of people engaged in socially conservative politics in the San Diego area. The best-known names to people in Sacramento are probably Assemblyman Joel Anderson, R-La Mesa, and one of his predecessors in the 77th Assembly District, Steve Baldwin, who held the seat from 1995 through 2000.

Other prominent people on video page include: Ron Prentice, San Diego chairman for the Yes on 8 Campaign; Dean Broyles, an attorney the Western Center for Law & Policy; Brian Jones, vice mayor of Santee; and Charles LiMandri, west coast regional director of the Thomas More Law Center. LeMandri also made headlines last year when he represented the former Miss California, Carrie Prejean, in her legal dispute with the Miss USA pageant.

Judicial elections could be a ripe area for targeted donations, said Jennifer Tierney, a consultant who has represented several judges with the firm she founded, the Gemini Group. These races are typically very low-cost affairs, she said, with a winning candidate usually raising and spending only between $30,000 and $125,000. But they’re not subject to any donations limits. Anyone can give, including not just individuals but PACs, corporations or unions.

Better Courts Now has said that it will release its list of endorsed candidate by the end of the month. But the deadline for group they are targeting, superior court judges, has already passed. This year, Tierney said, five local superior court judges received challenges, with four challengers qualifying. One of these challengers, Craig Candelore, indentified an endorsement from Better Courts Now in his ballot statement.

In a typical election cycle, she said, the typical number of challenges ranges from zero to two.

 “It’s really hard to say this is a pattern,” Tierney said. “We have five challenged judges. That’s a lot given past history. Is that a trend? I really don’t know. Ask me in two years.”

These non-partisan races will be decided on the June ballot. The only option for adding more challenges at this point is a write-in campaign, which almost never suceeds, Tierney said.

Tierney said that even though she is probably the most prominent local consultant working on judicial races in the area, they represent a minority of her business and wouldn’t be enough for her “to make a living on.” Many judges hire her to do their campaign paperwork and essentially keep her on retainer in case they are challenged.

Judicial campaigns usually focus on slate mailers and endorsements from law enforcement groups. The occasional campaign also includes local radio spots. The most important money most spend is $6,550 to get a 200-word ballot statement in from of voters. But of the recent conservative challengers, she said, only Candelore filed a ballot statement.

One significant limit on judicial campaigns, Tierney said, is that judges are supposed to refrain from commenting on issues that might show up before them if they are elected. Since this could be just about anything, judges tend to run on their legal qualifications. But an endorsement from a group like Better Courts Now can work for shorthand for a certain set of positions—and might also lead voters to believe the opposing candidate takes different positions, she said, even if they don’t.   

The testimonials on the Better Courts Now website make it very clear what positions the group supports. They’re all between one and 2.5 minutes long, and emphasize many of the same points repeatedly.

For instance, in his testimonial, Anderson states: “It’s important that we unify our votes so we ensure that solid men and women of high morals, who will not legislate from the bench, are elected to office.”

Later in his 97-second video, Anderson adds, “We are in full agreement that we need to get behind BetterCourtsNow.com.” Both of these statements appear nearly verbatim in several other videos.

Most speakers note that they are appearing as private citizens. The phrase “judicial elections are important” appears many times, and several speakers also note that local judges often rise up through the ranks to higher posts.

Another key point is the pocketbook issue of turning back judicial decisions. In his testimonial, Hamer said the state supreme court’s decision on gay marriage “Threw our state into chaos and cost conservatives like you and me $40 million dollars.” Eric Anderson, a local homeschooling father, warns “We’re going to have to do it all again, unless we replace our liberal judges with ones who respect our laws.”

The group appears to be operating in full compliance with the law. It filed a statement of organization with the San Diego County Registrar of voters on Jan. 12 and, as well as with the Secretary of State two days later. According to the Secretary’s office, if the group contributes only to local races, they won’t have to report any donations on the CalAccess system.

Morse said she met Hamer when both were working on behalf of Prop. 8, though she said he first conceived of the group several years ago. She also added that Better Courts Now has no direct relationship with the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), a prominent group opposing same sex marriage around the country.

The Ruth Institute was founded in August, 2008, she said. It is in the process of becoming part of the NOM. That group was founded in 2007 by Maggie Gallagher, a noted gay marriage opponent who also founded the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy (IMPP). According to the IMPP website, they are also fighting for laws allowing covenant marriages, which are more difficult to dissolve than standard legal marriages. NOM just launched an add campaign targeting both Sen. Barbara Boxer and Tom Campbell, one of her Republican challengers, for opposing Prop. 8.


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