Answered Prayers: Ron Packard’s 18 Years in Congress
by Maurine Jensen Proctor
Ron Packard’s years in Congress have been under girded with the question, “What can I do to help preserve and protect good principle?”
Boxes are being packed and congressional staff are looking for new jobs at Ron Packard’s office in Washington D.C.’s Sam Rayburn building. The marbled halls echo with goodbyes as the House prepares for a changing of the guard.
After 18 years as a member of the House of Representatives, Ron is at the peak of his career. He has chaired powerful committees-like Energy and Water; he has been chairman of three different appropriation committees; he would have been a shoo-in to win again in California’s 48th district, but he’s ready to spend some time with his family.
“I am leaving at a time when every other member would want to stay. I’ve got everything I could want in a political career, but the nature of this job almost requires a marriage. It’s like being married to the House of Representatives,” he quips, “and I want to go back and be a father, grandfather, and husband again.”
Coming to Congress in the first place was not in the life plan of this dentist from San Diego County, but he was drawn to these halls by a series of events so unusual that his first race brought him the attention of national media.
He was a happy school board member and went on to be a happy mayor of Carlsbad, California. He relished public service. He said, “We have communities that give us so much, and we in turn need to give back something. On two different occasions, the paramedics in the city of Carlsbad saved the life of my daughter. We are always gleaning from the schools, the fire department. To me there was a joy in working in local government where you are close to the people and can see to their needs. The further you get from local government, the more it is politics rather than service.
In fact, one of Ron’s passions is to urge Latter-day Saints to become more involved in public service. “Sometimes we think we are too busy to serve with our church obligations, family and professions, but who has been better trained to lead? With our high principles, we can make a difference in our communities. We can make our neighborhoods a better place to live and raise our families.”
A Visit to the Temple
Though others had begun to talk to him about the Congressional seat being vacated in his district 18 years ago, he and wife, Jean, were looking forward to the time they could serve a mission. He had been a mayor of one of the best-run cities in California. He was well-known in the area, and now this opportunity presented itself. What should he do?
A General Authority was visiting the area and gave him some time and counsel. “We can get thousands of people who can go on missions, but we can count on two hands those who are in a position to run for high political office. You go to the temple and pray about it, and you’ll get an answer.”
The Packards went to the Los Angeles temple fasting and praying. “Jean and I both came out with a firm conviction that we had been given an answer. We knew what we needed to do, which was different than what we had wanted.” Ron said. ” It was that we were going to run for the office. But the most unusual part of the impression which we had each received that day in the temple was the conviction that if we would run, we’d win.”
This was an attractive Congressional seat in an area so Republican that winning the primary was tantamount to winning the election. Ron was the first to file to run, but as the days passed 17 others filed as well. They were notable competition-five mayors, a state assembly person, President Nixon’s niece. It was going to be a donnybrook of an election.
With 18 running for the office, it was tough to get voter attention. At forums, there was barely enough time to introduce himself and say what he believed. Two or three of the people in the race spent a great deal of their own money on the campaign.
“We worked hard,” Ron said, “and as the primary approached, we were right near the top, but from the polls it was obvious that one young man whom we had never seen at any of the public meetings was going to be a major factor. He had spent big money on the election, creating 31 multi-colored slick, expensive mail pieces. I received five in one day.”
The media probed into the background of this high-flying candidate and published an article about him two days before the election. He had been convicted twice for spousal abuse; he had been convicted for child abuse. He was an alcoholic and a playboy who bragged during the campaign that he had only worked a few days of his life. His campaign tactics were dirty. His wealthy father was helping to finance the campaign, hoping to send him to Congress to help rehabilitate him.
This damaging information came out so late, however, that most voters were unaware, and when election Tuesday came, the race was neck and neck between Ron and the other candidate. Finally, Ron Packard was declared the winner by about 480 votes.
“That confirmed what we had learned in the temple,” Ron said.
A day later, everything was reversed when two bags of uncounted absentee ballots were found in the other candidate’s home town. It looked fishy, but when those ballots were counted, the election was reversed and he had won by 92 votes.
“That was devastating to me,” said Ron, “not because I had lost the election, but because I wondered what I had done to have nullified the confirmation. I was really perplexed and I retired to my room and poured out my heart. Had I gotten the wrong message? Was it really inspiration? Was I given direction or was I just coming off of my own mental attitude? I really pled with the Lord to find out what I had done wrong. It was a heartache to me.”
A few days passed, and the other 16 who had run for the seat came to Ron and said, “We cannot have this man with such a sordid background as our candidate for Congress.” They wanted Ron to run.
“I can’t do it,” Ron said. “I ran in the primary, and the law doesn’t allow me to run in the general.” They answered that he could run, he just couldn’t have his name on the ballot.
Ron told them it was impossible. “You can’t win a Congressional race without your name on the ballot. You might be able to do that for the school board or city council because you could canvas every house in the neighborhood-but not Congress.”
They said they’d help him. Nobody, not even Ron, had had a sizable majority in the race. Ron had had 16% of the voters, and the others had numbers slightly less, but together their numbers could represent a great many.
Ron made a trip to Washington to talk with the Republican Congressmen from California, and he got nods of support from each. Back home in California again, though, one by one their offices called or wrote and said they could not support him. The rules of the party said they had to support the Republican nominee. Then he got a letter from President Reagan, whom he loved and supported, with the same message. Reagan could not support anyone but the Republican nominee.
This thing can’t be done, Ron believed. In the history of Congress, there had not been a winning write-in campaign where both parties already had a nominee on the ballot. Again, he went fasting and praying to the temple, and again received the answer that he should run as a write-in. That presented enormous challenges. A write-in campaign would not attract money, but worst of all, in San Diego County the ballots were designed without a place to add a write-in. The ballots were computer punch cards in a gray folder with no lines to add in a candidate not on the ballot.
Ron raised enough money to run a poll and the results were intriguing. It showed that he could win the race, if the voters understood how to write him in. He checked with the elections officials and found that voters could write him on the gray folder if they worded it exactly, “43rd Congressional District- Ron Packard.” That was a lot to ask in a ballot booth.
Still, propelled by his spiritual impression, Ron organized a campaign. His platform was that he stood for integrity and moral principle, and his message to the voters was single. It was simply instructions on how to write him in.
A pencil became the symbol of his candidacy. At public meetings, he brought a life-sized pencil as a prop. His only campaign piece on a scant budget was sending a golf pencil, printed with the exact words necessary to write on the ballot, to every voter in his district. He chose as campaign manager a man who had served as his brother’s executive secretary in the stake presidency. He was meticulously organized, and using the model of home teaching, sent 6,000 volunteers out two by two to canvas the district for Ron. Some were Church members, most were not. His dental patients came out by thousands.
The campaign took on momentum, and the spotlight of national news media, turned upon it. This was one of the races the big newspapers chose to watch because it was so different, against all odds. The newspapers in his district became his greatest ally, printing several times in stories exact instructions for writing him in. They ran sample ballots on the front page with his name written in on the gray folder as a sample.
“I couldn’t have purchased the kind of attention the newspapers gave me for free,” said Ron.
With so much going for him, it still didn’t look like he was going to make it. Fatigued and depleted after a grueling day of campaigning, it was 11:00 one night when he turned to his wife and said, “I just don’t think we’re going to make it. I don’t want us to go through a devastating loss. It might be time to throw in the towel.” Tears came to her eyes and she bristled up. “I have never known you to quit on something that’s right just because it is hard.” Power filled her words and impacted him. That was the moment Ron changed his mind, deciding to move forward without hesitation or fear. He would not look back. From that time on, the campaign swung toward him with increased fervor.
It was against the law to have campaign materials less than 100 feet from the voting booths, but Ron’s volunteers took measuring tapes, pulled out 110 feet and set up tables with signs that said they were available for last minute instructions for write-ins. “I know how to do it,” many said, but when pressed, were uncertain, and the problem was that even the slightest mistake would invalidate the ballot. Volunteers passed out more pencils. The Packard campaign had received permission for voters to take them into the booth if they brought them out again.
The night election results were coming in, Ron watched himself falling behind. A reporter called him mid-evening to say, “Ron, it doesn’t look like it is going to work. I just called the registrar and you are going to lose by about 10,000 votes.” Ron made his own call to the registrar saying, “I understand you’ve counted the ballots.” He answered, “We’ve counted all the electronic ballots. We have another 20,000 write-ins to count.” Ron grinned and called the reporter back, “I think I’m going to win this race by 10,000 votes.”
The next day the local newspapers and the major press across the country announced that Ron Packard lost. Three days later, when all the votes were counted, the decision was reversed. Ron Packard had won the Congressional seat on a write-in ballot by 10,000 votes.
“I learned,” he said, “that when you pray to the Lord and you get some kind of an answer and confirmation, you better believe it. The confirmation I received had been right; it is just that it came about in a totally different way than I anticipated.” And it demanded more courage, more faith, more sheer undaunted hanging on than Ron ever dreamed could be asked.
As Ron Packard packs to leave Congress, it is a time of reflection. Why was serving in Congress so important for him? He says, “I really believe we are heading in the wrong direction in our society, and people need to be here in government who will strive to stand for principle and religious values. There are not enough of us here to do that, and fewer of us are coming to Congress. I believe my role-and that of other fine leaders who are Christian-is to control the damage so that our society does not deteriorate so quickly. Without this kind of voice, our society would go headlong in the wrong the direction.
“We’ve heard the prophecy the Constitution would hang by a thread and would be saved by the elders of Israel. I don’t think that’s going to happen in some miraculous way. I think it happens as good Latter-day Saints come and serve and know the system. Our people need to be acquainted with how to govern, then some time when a crisis comes, it is just natural that we play our part.
“I’m a great believer in the gospel of Jesus Christ. I believe deeply in the scriptures and the prophecies of the last days, so I don’t think that any group of government officials is going to be able to stem the tide of wickedness. We are headed in dangerous directions. Sometimes you take five steps backward and only one forward, but I often think on important issues, ‘How would the Savior vote, if He had my vote?’ I pray over this. There are times when you can literally influence national and world policy.
“Some time back the very liberal city council of Washington D.C. passed an ordinance that would allow same-sex marriages. That, obviously, is contrary to everything I believe. I sat on the committee that appropriates half the money of the city’s budget. I simply went to the chairman and told him that we ought to withhold our money from their budget until they rescinded the ordinance. They huffed and they puffed, but they did rescind the ordinance.”
Ron Packard’s years in Congress have been under girded with the question, “What can I do to help preserve and protect good principle?” He says, for example, “Five times in the last four years, we have passed a bill banning partial birth abortion, an absolutely horrible procedure that can’t do anything but offend God, and each time it has been vetoed. When you are standing for something important, and things go against you, you just have to keep trying.”
His first campaign prepared him well to fight against difficult odds.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.