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McGovern faces fight over 'values'

THE NATION'S culture wars are coming to a new front: the Commonwealth's Third Congressional District.

Ronald A. Crews, an evangelical pastor, former Georgia legislator, and leader in the local and national charge against same-sex marriage, plans to challenge Democratic US Representative James P. McGovern of Worcester. Speaking by cellphone while waiting to take off for active duty in the Massachusetts National Guard, Crews said he expects to file the required certified signatures next week.

The race, he said, will give voters "a clear choice."

That it will. McGovern's office is already describing Crews as "a radical extremist on nearly every issue . . . and completely out of step with the traditional values of Massachusetts."

Crews contends that McGovern is the one who is "out of the mainstream" on issues like gay marriage, abortion, and national defense. Crews, 55, moved from Georgia to Ashland four years ago. In Georgia, where he was sworn into office wearing clerical garb, he successfully pushed a ban on same-sex marriage through the Legislature in 1996. He says one reason he lost his Georgia House seat in 1998 is the "homosexual activists who moved into my district just to be able to vote against me." He became a paid lobbyist for the Georgia Christian Coalition and undertook a campaign to revive an antisodomy law overturned by the state Supreme Court. He is strongly antiabortion and once launched a filibuster to get a bill banning late-term abortion out of committee.

To run for Congress, Crews says he is taking a leave of absence from the Massachusetts Family Institute, where he has been leading the fight against same-sex marriage in this state.

The Massachusetts Republican Party is supporting him, according to executive director Dominick Ianno. "Ron is organized, he has got a strong network of supporters, and he will be a formidable challenger to Jim McGovern. His race is about more than gay marriage," says Ianno. Crews also says he expects support from the national GOP.

McGovern won election in 1996 by defeating the incumbent Republican congressman, Peter Blute of Shrewsbury. He won reelection in 1998 against Republican Matthew J. Amorello of Grafton.

Asked to describe the major political differences between himself and Crews, McGovern says: "I have spent my career trying to build things. From what I understand, he spent most of his lifetime trying to tear things apart, to tear things down." McGovern says he believes that his constituents care about bread and butter issues, not culture wars. "When Ron Crews gets up in the morning, the first thing he thinks about is gay marriage. . . . I don't think that is the most important issue for most families. Jobs, health care, education, how to make the world a more peaceful place, those are the issues people care about."

Crews says his campaign is about more than gay marriage but cites McGovern's opposition to a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as an institution between a man and a woman as a key difference. He also contends that McGovern "does not support our soldiers," citing his vote against authorizing war with Iraq and against military spending for soldiers stationed there. He says he is also concerned that McGovern "is very pleased with his photo opportunity with Fidel Castro." That is an apparent reference to a photo taken of McGovern and Castro in connection with McGovern's effort to help preserve papers belonging to Ernest Hemingway, who maintained a home in Cuba.

Massachusetts's political compass does not swing uniformly to the far left, despite the rhetoric promoted by the national GOP. After all, Mitt Romney, a Republican Mormon from Utah, is the governor. Even so, could a right-wing religious conservative with shallow Massachusetts roots unseat an incumbent liberal congressman?

Michael Goldman, a longtime Democratic activist and consultant, says Crews "has less than zero chance of winning. That district is not nearly as conservative as his candidacy."

But to Republican consultant Charles Manning, the important message is the willingness to challenge the Democratic establishment, not the probability of defeating it. "All these guys should be challenged," says Manning. "You would have to say in a congressional delegation that is hardly known for its muscle in Washington these days . . . Jim McGovern is one of the weakest congressmen."

Adds Manning: "Ron Crews can say, `I'm running against Fidel Castro's favorite candidate.' "

Attention, voters of the Third Congressional District: This is not your father's Republican Party.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is 

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