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Counterculture clash

Publisher-activist Jim Holman is a black sheep in the left-wing alternative-weekly fold

Counterculture clash

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.

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.

In 1971, his military service complete, he moved to Chicago, where he worked at the inception of the Chicago Reader, an alternative weekly that is today among the nation's top 10. In 1972, he moved to San Diego to study philosophy at the University of California. That year, he and a friend, Alex Farnsley, founded San Diego's Reader, working out of Mr. Holman's Mission Beach apartment.

In 1981, Mr. Holman married his wife Claudia, who stayed home to raise a family that grew to include seven kids. Through working and studying abroad with his family, Mr. Holman learned four foreign languages (German, French, Spanish, and Italian), forgot two (Vietnamese and Japanese), and now homeschools his children in Greek and Latin.

It was seeing his unborn children on sonograms in combination with a visit from a local pro-life organization that first opened Mr. Holman's eyes to the abortion holocaust unfolding around him. In 1989, a group of pro-life women asked to buy a full-page ad in the Reader publicizing "the Weisberg incident," after a storage box containing the bodies of 17,000 aborted babies was found in Woodland Hills, Calif. The grisly photos from the incident-many of late-term babies, mutilated but largely intact-are infamous.

"The photos awoke me to the horror," Mr. Holman said. He published them for four straight weeks, sparking an open staff rebellion that surprised him: "One writer said he didn't want his stories on any pages facing the ad. I found it strange, this disconnect. 'Why aren't they outraged?' I wondered. It's not as though we were a prissy paper."

The incident galvanized Mr. Holman to action. That same year, he participated in a clinic "rescue," a peaceful sit-in. In 1990, he went to jail for two weeks after trespassing on the property of California abortion kingpin Edward Allred.

"It wasn't an unpleasant experience," he says now, clearly enjoying the memory. When black gang members who ran the 51-bed cell learned that Mr. Holman was fighting abortion, which kills more blacks than whites, they protected him, even brought him extra blankets. Since he spoke fluent Spanish, he also got on well with the Latino inmates, who by and large despised abortion.

In the 1990s, Mr. Holman launched four lay Catholic weeklies, in San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Tijuana, Mexico, where he had long worked and supported faith-based programs for the poor. The papers highlight the positive in the Catholic Church but criticize what Mr. Holman sees as its weak opposition to abortion and "any moral issue that requires backbone."

Mr. Holman and fellow pro-life activists are hoping to better organize Catholics and Protestants in their next run at parental notification in California. In November, Parents' Right to Know submitted to the Secretary of State the paperwork for the new proposition. Signature gathering should begin later this month and include a four-Sunday February signature drive in churches up and down the state.

"Our gerrymandered legislature in California gags discussion of social conservative issues, so initiatives are the proper, and only realistic, political answer in California," Mr. Holman said. This time, when it comes to changing abortion law in the state, "we hope to do everything better."

Lynn Vincent

Lynn Vincent

Lynn is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine and the best-selling author of 10 non-fiction books.