Features

Counterculture clash

Roe v. Wade | Publisher-activist Jim Holman is a black sheep in the left-wing alternative-weekly fold

Issue: "What women want," Jan. 21, 2006

SAN DIEGO - 2002: A city councilman, who is also an ordained minister running on a morality platform, accepts campaign contributions from a strip-club owner.

2003: A rising-star mayor moonlights as a slumlord, pocketing millions while evicting impoverished tenants who complain.

2005: A prestigious hospital chain tests a synthetic blood substitute only on trauma victims too ill to consent in poor and minority neighborhoods.

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Those are among the sidewalk-pounding investigative reports that appear in the archives of the San Diego Reader, the kind of urban alternative weekly found in free stacks in bohemian coffeehouses and other bastions of cool. You might expect the publisher of such tough exposés on religious hypocrisy and social injustice to be a card-carrying liberal, take his political cues from George Soros, or at least wear Birkenstocks to work.

Instead, Jim Holman is a bit of a square peg in the alternative-weekly universe, a devout Catholic of libertarian leanings with Horace Greeley newsman instincts coursing through a persona that seems two parts Renaissance man and one part Mr. Rogers.

Mr. Holman's name became news in 2005 when he became the major financial backer of Proposition 73, a California ballot measure that would have required abortionists to notify parents before performing abortions on minor girls. Discreetly wealthy and passionately pro-life, Mr. Holman helped brainstorm the initiative and contributed $1.2 million to pay for signature gathering, media, and grassroots outreach. While the governor's reform package weathered a brutal media storm, Prop 73 was unrelated to it and enjoyed winning poll numbers as late as November. But on Election Day, it failed, dragged down in Mr. Schwarzenegger's political undertow.

"I was disappointed, but not surprised," Mr. Holman said. "I concur with political analysts who say Prop 73 would have won if not for the anti-Arnold surge."

Mr. Holman, working with Sacramento-based Parents' Right to Know, isn't going away. A new version of the initiative is already working its way through the qualification process for the 2006 ballot. Seventeen years of that kind of activism have made him something of a black sheep in the decidedly left-wing alternative-weekly fold. He's "a bit of an anomaly in our business . . . which sprang from the counterculture ethos of the '60s and '70s," said David Rolland, editor of City Beat, a weekly that began publishing in San Diego in 2002 in direct challenge to Mr. Holman's paper.

"Jim's religion is becoming a fairly well-known matter," Mr. Rolland said, adding that a lot of his publishing colleagues are offended by Mr. Holman's views on homosexuality and abortion. Still, he said, "I find him to be very polite, kind of a nice guy . . . you can be nice and be opposed to abortion, and be nice and think homosexuality is wrong, I guess."

Of course, when a man's newspaper is among the elite of its genre, he can afford to keep his own counsel. Distributors thump down 171,000 copies of the 220-page, glossy-cover tabloid every Thursday, making the Reader the third-largest alternative weekly in the country, behind only the L.A. Weekly and The Village Voice.

Mr. Holman spoke with WORLD just after noon one weekday, walking into Reader headquarters from a sunny street in San Diego's bustling Little Italy district, having just attended midday mass at a Catholic church a block away. In a faded-jeans business, he wears a white button-down shirt, burgundy tie, and pressed dress slacks. Slim, with salt-and-pepper hair, he leads the way to his upstairs office, a tight interior cube with aging carpet, no view, and walls still painted early '90s salmon pink.

He sits behind a sprawling L-shaped "work station" desk that was modern back when it belonged to someone else. For Mr. Holman, it is now merely functional. Bookshelves surround him, packed with tomes on everything from Catholic theology to politics to French literature. There is art: a constellation of Father's Day crafts from his seven children, Scotch-taped to one wall.

Friendly and open, but also media-savvy, Mr. Holman speaks about himself in small doses-not defensive, just careful. Not surprising for a man accustomed to being branded an ultraconservative ideologue and a recluse.

"The recluse label could be because I have not been interested in socializing with journalists and politicians," Mr. Holman said wryly. And the ideologue tag? That "depends on point of view," he said. "I'm against the death penalty and in favor of open borders. I don't think those are conservative positions."

Born in Pasadena in 1946, Mr. Holman earned a bachelor's degree in government and international relations at Carleton College in Minnesota in 1968 and received an Earhart Fellowship to study intellectual history. Before going to grad school, he served as a U.S. Navy river patrol boat officer in Vietnam. In March 1970, the Viet Cong ambushed his vessel on the Cua Dai River, sinking it with homemade grenades. Mr. Holman sustained shrapnel wounds and was awarded a Purple Heart.

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