Thursday, December 6, 2001
Upstairs from the chapel at Bethel Baptist Missionary Church, a large maple conference table dominates Reverend H. H. Lusk''s office. It''s a not-too-subtle symbol of the pastor''s power. A dozen people could be seated around that table with room to spare. And if the table doesn''t speak its message loudly enough, Lusk is happy to amplify.
Slowly leaning forward from where he sits at the head of the table, he thumps the surface thrice with a forefinger. His eyes are intense, his voice unwavering, as he says, "They all came here. Farr, Keeley, Panetta. They have all addressed the church. City councils, mayors, supervisors have all come through here."
There can be no mistake: Bethel Baptist Church has been a place of political power as much as it''s been a place of spiritual community, and Lusk, the church''s pastor for 40 years, has been both the symbol and architect of that power. His opponents accuse him of playing the race card; his supporters identify him as the champion of an under-represented segment of society. No one denies the role his church has played in influencing matters of state in Seaside.
Of course, the interconnections between religion and black political action is at least as old as the Civil Rights Movement. In 1957, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was formed with Reverend Martin Luther King as its first president; Reverend Jesse L. Jackson''s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition continues to play a role in national politics and Reverend Al Sharpton has risen to become one of the most influential power brokers in New York City.
So too, in Monterey County, where Seaside''s Ministerial Alliance--dominated by pastors from predominantly black churches--has played an important role in pushing an agenda heavy on civil rights and social reform. Although it is a loosely knit organization, and one that has not, as an organization, made political endorsements, the collective group of ministers met on a regular basis, and addressing the group became standard procedure for politicians throughout the Central Coast.
While it would be hard to describe the organization as colorblind, Lusk denies that the alliance has been monochromatic in its support for political candidates. Lusk says "[We have supported] people we feel are going to be fair for all the people--black and white." But, he continues, almost in the same breath, "we made sure that we have had our share on the city council."
"We have about 12 black churches [in Seaside], out of about 15 in the county," says Lusk. "I''d say that 75 percent of black Americans go to church. That''s a lot of power. We could sway things any way we wanted."
Kevin Logan, a legal assistant in Monterey and a member of Lusk''s congregation, offers an even more succinct analysis. "When politicians want to garner the African-American vote, they have to come to the churches. The church is still the heart of the African-American community."
Bill Monning, who has been deeply involved in local politics for more than a decade, agrees. Monning, who is white, was the Democratic nominee for state assembly in 1994 and narrowly lost to Republican Bruce McPherson. He found the potential support of Seaside voters so crucial that he located his campaign headquarters in the city. More specifically, he deemed it important for his campaign to appeal to the members of the community''s black churches--which he refers to as "town halls"--for support.
During his campaign, Monning met with the Ministerial Alliance and privately with Lusk. He made a point of visiting the city''s churches, addressing the congregations--including Lusk''s Bethel Baptist flock--when possible.
"In different cultures, the pulpit is very political," Monning testifies. "Ministers and preachers don''t necessarily feel the need to separate church and politics."
Although Monning did not win Lusk''s personal endorsement (neither did McPherson), he remembers the meeting with Lusk in positive terms.
"He''s a very charismatic and articulate guy, and he has a great sense of humor," Monning says. "There was a lot of laughter and he has a lot of self-confidence."
But what seems like charisma and self-confidence to some, seems more sinister to others.
More than one person interviewed for this story declined to go on the record, saying they feared retaliation. Although no one pointed to any single bad thing they believed Lusk had done or had commissioned, they muttered vague allegations about thuggish associates and fears for the safety of their persons and their property. They weren''t terribly surprised when the DA''s office alleged that Lusk tried to hire contract killers on three witnesses in his current embezzlement trial.
There''s little doubt that Lusk, whether he''s viewed as malicious quasi-gangster or street-smart preacher, is a tough guy. A former member of the Citizen''s League for Progress, a human/civil rights orga-nization in which Lusk was very active, recalls a meeting during the 1998 city council campaign. The group was meeting to discuss the endorsement of incumbent councilmember Tom Mancini.
Lusk arrived late to the meeting, where most of the members were leaning toward a pro-Mancini endorsement, according to this source.
"I remember him coming into the meeting and basically telling us how to vote," says the former CLFP member. "His input was fairly strong. He would come in and state his case, and there weren''t a lot of questions asked. People wouldn''t question him out of fear of retaliation. [His demeanor] wasn''t confidence; it was cocky. Like he assumed the black community would go along with anything he said."
One of the few who is willing to criticize Lusk openly is former Seaside mayor Lou Haddad.
Haddad, who is white, was elected to the Seaside City Council in 1964. He says he encountered Lusk as a political player two years later when Haddad was running for mayor. At the time, Haddad says, Lusk was a supporter; they were both fighting for more state funds and greater recognition for the city. With Lusk''s help, Haddad won the seat.
But during the six years of Haddad''s mayorship--turbulent times throughout the nation--he managed to alienate Lusk and his supporters. Haddad remained in office until 1972, when he stepped down to run (unsuccessfully) for the Monterey County Board of Supervisors. He returned to city service in 1978 when he was appointed to fill a vacancy on the city council. It didn''t take long for old grievances, held in long memories, to surface.
Haddad said the situation came to a head when he made a motion to the city council to fire the (black) city manager for misuse of city credit cards, a motion that was adopted and enacted.
Partially in retaliation for that and earlier offenses, Haddad says, a Lusk-led recall initiative removed him from office in 1980. Haddad says the real reason that Lusk wanted him removed was, at least in part, racially motivated. "They had a black candidate up to run for mayor and they thought I was a threat."
The fuel that powered the old civil rights movement and which propelled Lusk into a position of political significance is waning. The numbers alone tell a story about declining political clout. Although a difference in wording between the 1990 and 2000 census makes direct comparison difficult, it is clear that Seaside''s black voting bloc is losing power.
In 1990, there were 9,129 African-American residents--about 23 percent of the total population of 39,000; in 2000, there were 3,997 black residents--about 12.6 percent of the city''s 32,000 post-Fort Ord population.
These are numbers of which Lusk is acutely aware. "A lot of blacks have moved to Salinas or Greenfield because of affordable housing," he says. Others have moved even further away, back to homes in the South where they still have family members and where the cost of living is significantly lower.
Upstairs at Bethel Baptist Church, Lusk sits at the conference table and recalls the old days at the same time he looks, perhaps wistfully, to the future.
"We demonstrated and did a lot of work in this community," he says. "I''m about the only one left--and the others who are left are too old to do anything. We''re not as active as we were, for a lot of reasons. We have a lot of young ministers who have their own ways. But we''re coming back."