This year's campaign for Congress looks to be the liveliest since 1994's "Contract with America" explosion. And, unless she has a last-minute change of heart and mind, Star Parker, president of the Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education, is announcing this month her candidacy to represent a poor, heavily Democratic, majority-black congressional district just east and south of Los Angeles.
Parker, born in 1956, is a Republican who hasn't held political office before, but we joked last month that she had a ready reply if attacked on grounds of inexperience: You're wrong. I've stolen. I've lied. I know how to do wrong. Indeed she does. Drugs, armed robbery, four abortions: "I was very flirty and promiscuous, and several bouts with sexually transmitted diseases didn't stop me."
Parker, on welfare, learned that "welfare policy hurts the very people we're trying to help. It boiled down to, 'Don't work, don't save, don't get married. We'll take care of you.'" She wanted extra cash that wouldn't be reported, but when she applied at one Los Angeles business headed by "really good-looking guys," they refused to pay under-the-table and also said that her lifestyle was "unacceptable to God."
They didn't hire her but they did keep calling her, asking her to go to church with them, and she finally did-"and things started changing. I felt equipped to make proper decisions. I could say no to junkie friends. I could say no to the guys I knew." Parker went off welfare, took a job answering phones in the basement of a food distribution company, learned that she had a gift for selling, gained a degree in marketing, and started her own business.
The business was a magazine that spotlighted church-sponsored events of interest to singles. It did well but crashed in 1992 when Los Angeles (including many of her advertisers) burned in the Rodney King riots. Parker began speaking out against those who thought "that even these riots were somebody else's fault. I had been hearing for so long the rhetoric that everything that happens to blacks is because of somebody white."
Parker particularly spoke out on two issues within her own experience. One was education: After balking at a fifth abortion, she gave birth and by 1992 had a child in the sixth grade-"and her school was horrible." She became a strong advocate of education vouchers and soon was nationally known. The other issue was welfare reform: She and I were involved in that in 1995 and 1996, and I saw her epignosis-knowledge from personal experience-filling in the blanks for members of Congress who had previously moaned about costs without adding up the human toll.
We were both disappointed by the Bush administration's voucher-less education policy and its faith-based initiative: TeamBush used social service vouchers sparingly and dropped its early plan for poverty-fighting tax credits, while maintaining the Democratic system of bureaucratic grant-making to favored charities. Parker sees that in education, "Rich people can afford to send their kids to private schools, but poor people are forced to send their children to broken schools." Her clear prescription: "Money should follow the child."
Is her story part of the "only in America" stream? In part, yes, because in this country, as Parker says, "the rule of law and protection of private property" has allowed those with "a healthy family life and education" to break out of poverty. But her change is mainly an "only in Jesus" story, because her family life and early education were not healthy. Christ had to transform her.
Now, will she be able to transform the politics of the 37th District, which includes Compton, Carson, and the inland portion of Long Beach? The incumbent, Laura Richardson, co-wrote the bill to legalize same-sex marriage in California and has been a stalwart Democratic vote in Washington. She has defaulted six times on home loans, according to the Los Angeles Times.
For two decades no Republican has won more than 25 percent of the vote in California's 37th, and in 2006 and 2008 Republicans didn't even run a candidate. But by her own admission Parker has "a big mouth" and Richardson has big problems. If the GOP invests some big money in this year's race, it could be competitive.
Will Republicans compete in or concede poor districts? Will the Massachusetts miracle of January be the exception or the rule in November? California 37 will be a test.
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