The ‘Other’ Howard

While he’s put $200,000 behind Proposition 90, Howard Ahmanson, Jr., says that he’s never even spoken to Howard Rich

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While New Yorker Howard Rich has emerged as the chief financier of anti-takings ballot initiatives in the West, the California effort also has received substantial support from Howard Fieldstead Ahmanson, Jr., a wealthy Christian fundamentalist who lives in Orange County.

According to records filed with the California Secretary of State, Ahmanson’s Fieldstead & Company gave $200,000 on April 6 to the Protect Our Homes Coalition, the committee pushing the passage of Proposition 90, which would restrict the use of eminent domain and require state and local governments to compensate owners of property devalued by regulation.

Ahmanson, 56, is the son of the late Howard Ahmanson, Sr., the founder of Home Savings of America, which was the nation’s largest thrift before its acquisition in 1998 by Washington Mutual.

In e-mailed responses to questions posed by the Center for Public Integrity, Ahmanson explained why he supports Proposition 90.

“I was there when they tried to run the [Orange County] Rescue Mission out of Santa Ana in the late 1970s,” he wrote. “Ever since then, I have had a passion for churches ministering to the poor (the poor can be defined as ‘blight’ inherently and therefore removed) and for the property rights of people without access to the levers of power.”

Ahmanson went on to say: “Oregon, of all places, instituted a regulatory compensation law [in 2004] and the world didn’t come to an end there. I’m not happy that regulatory compensation is bundled into the same proposition [in California] as eminent-domain reform, but I still don’t think it would be a bad thing.”

Asked by the Center if he’s ever had any contact with Howard Rich, Ahmanson replied, “I have never met him or spoken to him.”

Ahmanson, whose personal fortune reportedly exceeds $500 million, has supported a number of far-right organizations over the years. Among them:

  • The Chalcedon Foundation of Vallecito, California, a theocratic Christian Reconstructionist organization whose founder, Rousas John Rushdoony, advocated death by stoning for homosexuals. Asked by the Center if he shares these beliefs, Ahmanson wrote in his e-mail, “I see no relevance of this question to the issue of Proposition 90, but, for the record, I do not advocate, and I never have advocated, the stoning or execution of homosexuals.”
  • The Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that, among other things, opposes the acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
  • The Claremont Institute of Claremont, California, which argues that “regulations intrude into every corner of our lives” and promotes “a limited and accountable government.”

Ahmanson, who generally shuns media attention, has, on occasion, offered his views on government in articles and interviews. In a 1997 op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, for example, he wrote: “Today, oversized government smothers us with oppressive compassion. It undermines the private sector and weakens virtue.” And in an article inReligion & Liberty magazine the same year, he argued, “Property rights are not somehow inferior to other human rights.”

Ahmanson’s contribution to the Protect Our Homes Coalition (through Fieldstead & Company, which bears his middle name) isn’t his first foray into the California initiative process. In 2005, Fieldstead gave $115,000 for advertising in support of Proposition 73, an unsuccessful ballot initiative that would have required a waiting period and parental notification for abortions performed on minors. And in 2000, Fieldstead gave $100,000 in support of Proposition 22, a successful anti-gay marriage initiative.

Marvin Olasky, a journalism professor at the University of Texas and the editor of World Magazine, a Christian newsweekly, told the Center in an e-mail that Ahmanson is “very smart, very thoughtful about applying the Bible to current concerns, and very committed to helping those the Bible calls ‘the least among us,’ including poor individuals and unborn children.”

In another e-mail, Olasky wrote: “I don’t know Howard’s thinking about Proposition 90, but I can speculate in this way: He believes that inner-city rescue missions/homeless shelters do lifesaving work with homeless individuals; those are among the organizations threatened by [the] use of eminent domain. I suspect Howard knows, as the Founders knew, that it’s hard to maintain liberty without respecting private property.”

Ahmanson’s activities on behalf of the Christian Reconstructionism movement have caught the attention of watchdog groups. The Reconstructionists, including the Chalcedon Foundation, favor a “Christian state” that would have limited powers but enforce “biblical law.” They see this Christian state as historically inevitable and deny any interest in achieving it through politics.

Chip Berlet, a senior analyst with Political Research Associates, an organization in Somerville, Massachusetts, that describes itself as a progressive think tank, says that Ahmanson began bankrolling the Christian Reconstructionism movement decades ago. “He was a player early on,” Berlet says. “It’s hard to find someone who’s been in it that long.”

Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C., says, “There’s always been a bit of a nexus between the social conservatives of the religious right,” like Ahmanson, and “the extreme, anti-government libertarian wing of the right.”

For environmentalists in California, the Ahmanson name is perhaps most closely associated with a major land deal that preserved nearly 3,000 acres of open space in Ventura County, just north of Los Angeles, in 2003. Owned by Home Savings of America, the Ahmanson Ranch was marked for massive development in 1989. The plan was to build more than 3,000 homes, two schools, two hotels, two golf courses, and 400,000 square feet of commercial and industrial space on the rugged, 5,400-acre tract, which had been largely untouched and sustained a variety of endangered and threatened species. After years of negotiation and the passage of a state bond measure in 2002, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state agency, bought the 3,000 acres — which is now part of the Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve — for $150 million.

Had Proposition 90 been in effect during the negotiations, Home Savings and its successor, Washington Mutual, “would have been much more confident in their long-term desire to develop the property,” says Bruce Smith, who chairs the Ventura County Planning Division.

“The so-called Ahmanson ranch property was owned by H.F. Ahmanson Company, the public company that was founded by my father,” Ahmanson wrote in his e-mail to the Center. “I was never an officer of H.F. Ahmanson Company, and I was never involved in plans to develop this property or in the decision to sell it to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. This project, and the controversy that surrounded it, have not influenced my views on the governmental taking of private property.”