Lightning Rod

By staff May 1, 2003

For years conservatives have complained that the media has a raging liberal bias, with left-leaning reporters and columnists bringing their slant to the news. Whether that's true or not, many Sarasota conservatives have been happier with their hometown paper lately, since metro columnist Rod Thomson began preaching the gospel of limited government, fiscal sobriety and family values every Monday and Wednesday on the front page of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune's local section.

Although Thomson had been covering government and local news for seven years for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, it was only when his column began appearing once a week in 1999-it was upped to twice a week last winter-that conservative readers recognized a kindred spirit burned within the fit, 43-year-old journalist with graying hair and aviator glasses. Even Tramm Hudson, the head of the Sarasota Republican Party, who prides himself on sniffing out people's party affiliations and had read Thomson's news stories for years, admits he was surprised. "The first time I figured it out was when he wrote his first column," he says. And the discovery, he says, was invigorating. "Rod Thomson is a breath of fresh air, coming from the Herald-Tribune."

Bill Couch, senior vice president of the Sarasota County Chamber of Commerce, agrees. "I'm a fan of his," he says. "In a relatively liberal media environment, we value his conservative voice on government and community issues."

And in column after column, Thomson does indeed express the classic conservative message. In measured, no-frills prose, he rails against government intrusion, liberals and lax morals. He writes columns trouncing affirmative action, higher taxes, anti-discrimination programs, public funding for the arts and light sentences for convicted criminals. He likes President Bush and Sarasota developers and does not like spend-and-tax politicians (either Democratic or Republican), educators who keep asking for more money, no-growth advocates, environmentalists, peace activists and pro-choice advocates.

Those stances, of course enrage local liberals, who, when you mention his name, are likely to roll their eyes and exclaim, "Oh, my God, did you read what he wrote today?"

Among the columns that vexed such readers: a denunciation of the Herald-Tribune's decision to run a photo of two lesbians kissing on the front of the local section. It should not have been shown, Thomson wrote, because it was "offensive to a large number of readers" and he went on to compare it to running a photo of a mangled body in a car accident. He also received angry letters after he told peace protesters their reasoning had no "intellectual legitimacy"; confessed in a column that he had stockpiled food in anticipation of the Y2K disaster; declared that local government shouldn't be funding arts venues like Van Wezel; and opined that although "I'm no scientist," he couldn't accept the results of two different scientific studies of global warming because he suspected they were politically motivated.

Both liberals and conservatives think they've figured Thomson out, but in fact, Thomson is more contradictory-and more unorthodox-than his columns. He's the first to declare, "I don't fit into a box." The more you learn about him, the more you realize that far from being the usual conservative Republican, he's something much more interesting.

If few readers knew about Thomson's conservative politics before he began writing his column, most still don't know how deeply religious he is. A born-again, evangelical Christian, Thomson says his religion permeates every aspect of his life. "I am a Christian first and foremost," he declares. "My faith is the most important thing, followed by being a husband and father."

It's a point of professional pride to Thomson that throughout his career as a reporter-first as an award-winning journalist for the Daily News in Winona, Minn., and Quad City Times in Davenport, Iowa, and then at the Herald-Tribune, he kept his opinions out of his stories. And at times, the disconnect between his assignments and his own beliefs was significant. For example, he was hired to cover public education at the Herald-Tribune, yet because he and his wife, Kim, believe that religion should inform every aspect of education, they teach their eight children at home. After that, he covered government affairs, although he's critical of government's hydra-headed intrusion into our lives. Even his friendly nemesis, the Herald-Tribune's more liberal metro columnist Tom Lyons, credits Thomson for "even-handed" reporting. Readers would sometimes call to accuse him of being liberal, says Lyons, and "he had to sit there and take it."

His colleagues, however, were well aware of his views, and other reporters often clashed with him. Thomson says newsrooms often chase conservatives-especially Christian conservatives-out. But rather than intimidating him, he says, the pressure "honed what I believed," intensifying his disapproval of the "You're OK, I'm OK" approach to life that refuses to "put a value judgment on things you do." Still, he adds, "I never made any secrets of my beliefs, and that made me lonely."

In 1999, Thomson decided to leave his full-time job at the Herald-Tribune to become the day-to-day administrator of Hand To The Plow Ministries, a mission that digs wells for clean drinking water in Haiti. He usually heads to Haiti once or twice a year to help dig these wells and preach the gospel to Haitians.

Thomson works out of his home, a two-story white house with a front porch on a five-acre ranchette in Myakka (a home, some detractors have pointed out, that is exactly the type of five-acre residence that Thomson writes against in his columns on the county's 2050 village plan). A playground set and a "Cozy Coop" car for toddlers sit in the yard. Thomson says he and his wife didn't start out with the idea of having eight children but after they hit No. 4, they prayed and said, "Let God decide." Most of his children, aged two to 19, politely line up like the Von Trapp kids in the tidy living room to be introduced to a visitor and then quietly continue their day-although, when there are no visitors, the place is much noisier and messier, he confesses.

Thomson's office is off the living room and has two windows, one of which overlooks the backyard where he can occasionally watch his children play. His computer sits in a corner; Thomson says he gets a stream of e-mails from readers and answers every one. A crucifix hangs on one wall; and on the desk rests a leather-bound Bible, which he frequently thumps to make a point, especially when quoting Scripture.

When he decided to leave the newspaper, Thomson approached managing editor Janet Weaver about writing a column. "I knew the ministries wouldn't support my family," he says. Weaver, he says, saw the need for "diversity of thought." The Herald-Tribune, Thomson declares, is "full of left of center and the coverage reflects that a lot." Sarasota, on the other hand, "is right of center," he says. "We are a conservative community with a fairly liberal newspaper."

"I would deny that very, very strongly," Weaver says. "We do a good job of covering the entire political spectrum and social strata." She says she hired Thomson to do the column because of his "Institutional knowledge" of the community and interest in government, and because he would balance the more liberal Lyons.

Thomson would probably love to continue that argument with Weaver; but then, he says, he loves engaging people in debate. That is the role of the columnist, after all. And even liberals have to admit that Thomson doesn't play politics. He voted for last year's school tax referendum, disapproves of the death penalty and, a month after 9/11, warned about sacrificing civil liberties for peace of mind. "Overreaction causing paranoia and ever-shrinking freedoms may make a bed none of us wants to sleep in," he wrote.

For Thomson, life is about adhering to values rather than any one party line. And they're values that most people, from left to right, admire. Even those who are uncomfortable with his unabashed declaration that his first job is to "save" non-believers are unlikely to find fault with someone who lives by his faith and takes a pay cut to do good works in one of the world's poorest countries. And for the most part, Thomson has been careful not to preach to his readers. He hasn't urged subscribers to renounce birth control, for example, or to convert to Christianity-though he occasionally gives people glimpses of his faith, as when he lambasted Sarasota County for refusing to fund a homeless facility run by the Christian-based Salvation Army. Apparently, he wrote sarcastically, talking about Jesus Christ is "more dangerous than homeless people sleeping on the streets."

But usually he uses his twice-weekly pulpit to deliver the political gospel according to Rod Thomson. That's given a voice to local conservatives and won their affection and respect. And there's another reason Thomson should appeal to Sarasota's Republican establishment. For the last few years, President Bush and his supporters have been enthusiastically pointing to a new American paradigm-the compassionate conservative, whose faith-based philanthropy will replace government's inappropriate involvement in many human and social services. While liberals often question how much compassion-or sincerity-motivates many conservative politicians, Thomson seems like the real thing. He's a faith-based conservative come to life-articulate, reasonable, devout and sincere. Without a shred of the liberal's angst and moral ambivalence, he's also uncorrupted by the conservative's wealth and self-interest. And that makes him, as well as his column, something new-and newsworthy-right now, and not only on the local scene.

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