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Not long after the unfortunately named Judge Michael McWeeny threw him in the clink for landscaping bogeys at his Reston, Va., driving range, John Thoburn became big news. A guy going to jail for not having the right number of bushes in his place of business makes for good copy and soundbites.
“He is a political prisoner,” says his father, Robert Thoburn, repeating his son’s jailhouse mantra.
A lot of folks have bought into that portrayal.
“Every planning and zoning code in America must be repealed, just as we would hitch a tractor to the tail of a rotting whale and haul it away from the beach where our children swim,” wrote Vin Suprynowicz, assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “Don’t just free John Thoburn; vindicate him.”
Maybe John Thoburn really is a victim of government run amok. But it’s also true that there’s a lot more to the tale than one man’s struggle against evil regulators, which seems to be all that the national and international press are gleaning. Publicity and the type of petty martyrdom that the younger Thoburn has recently achieved, it turns out, are the holy grails he and others in his family have pursued for decades.
The Thoburns’ track record could lead one to believe that John Thoburn is right where he’s always wanted to be: at the center of attention, holding the moral high ground. It’s the Thoburn way.
He’s been rousing rabble since the late ’70s. In 1979, he ran as a Republican for the state senate seat occupied by Adelard L. Brault, a Democrat and then the majority leader. Thoburn, just 22 at the time, had no chance at a legitimate win, but he wasn’t going to go down quietlyor ethically. On the Sunday before the election, his campaign targeted Catholic voters, distributing fliers insinuating that Brault was pro-choice.
The Fair Campaign Practices Commission, a since-disbanded watchdog group founded by county supervisors, investigated Thoburn and cited the campaign for its dubious tactics. “Ade was a devout Roman Catholic, and he’d never voted for anything pro-choice,” recalls Leslie Byrne, a longtime Fairfax County politician and current state lawmaker, who headed the commission. “[Thoburn] knew that. His material had no basis in fact.”
Thoburn got trounced.
John’s younger brother Lloyd Thoburn, who managed the questionable campaign against Brault, got into the act himself in 1987. He ran in the Republican primary against Nancy Falck, a county supervisor who had opposed the Thoburns’ desire to get a commercial zoning designation for the family’s property where the driving range now resides. He, too, was accused of playing some dirty pool. On the Sunday before the election, Dranesville District voters received fliers stating that Falck was “anti-church” and that her backyard pool had been built by “developers.”
“The implication of those fliers was that my pool was built as a favor to me by developers, that I was in the pocket of the developers,” Falck says. “That still rankles me.”
Just as soon as Falck trounced Lloyd Thoburn in the primary, Robert Thoburn entered the race as an independent. Not to win, but in hopes of taking enough conservative votes away from Falck to get her out of office. He succeeded: The Democratic challenger, with Thoburn’s help, won Falck’s seat with just about 40 percent of the vote.
“It was a vindictive move by the father, just because I wouldn’t zone his property as commercial,” says Falck.
Robert Thoburn defends the family’s political methods. “We’ve run some hard campaigns,” he says, with a chuckle. “But everything we said about everybody was true.”
The patriarch of the Thoburn familyhe now has eight children and 35 grandchildrenhas always been politically active. He won a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates in 1978 but was voted out after just one term. He has run for Congress twice, unsuccessfully. He says he made his money through for-profit, Christian-themed schools. He founded the Fairfax Christian School in his home in 1961 and has been fighting with county zoning officials for most of its existence. The school, which has moved around the county, has been shut down at various times for such things as having 200 students in a facility that had a permit to house only 49 and for failing to meet fire codes. The Thoburns sued Fairfax County in federal court in 1989, saying that the zoning board’s refusal to let them operate a school on residentially zoned land showed a “pattern of unlawful discrimination against evangelical Christians.” The case was dismissed by a judge for a lack of evidence before it got to a jury.
More recently, the school got some national attention during the bungled presidential vote count in Florida when David Thoburn, a teacher and another younger sibling of John Thoburn, claimed that his entire fourth-grade class at Fairfax Christian School had successfully figured out how to vote for Al Gore on Palm Beach County’s “butterfly” ballot. (This was the ballot that about 30,000 voters botched.)
“If even fourth-graders can do the ballot just fine, I would think the adults could,” David Thoburn was quoted as saying in some wire stories.
Jonathan Thoburn, yet another sibling, now operates the Loudoun Christian School. He got national attention in 1990 by appealing his arrest outside an abortion clinic in Atlanta, part of an Operation Rescue field trip, all the way to the Supreme Court.
And Robert Thoburn has made a name for himself by attacking the way governments run public schools. His 1986 book, The Children Trap, advised Christians to help abolish the public school system by getting elected to school boards and then mucking things up. “Our goal is not to make the schools better,” the book says. “The goal is to hamper them, so they cannot grow.”
Thoburn now distances himself from those words: “I’m the author, but that was the editor’s words, not mine. The editor wrote Chapter 11 of The Children Trap, all of it, and that’s where all the language about doing away with schools is, the words that are used against me. I know now that I shouldn’t have let that happen.”
The book’s editor was Gary North, a longtime associate of Robert Thoburn’s best known for his appearances on Art Bell’s radio show and prognostications of Y2K armageddon.
In any case, says Robert Thoburn, neither that book nor anything else in his family’s past is what put his son in jail.
“The story’s not about me or what’s happened before,” he says. “It’s about land use. It’s about standing up to power. We’re nice people. We don’t like this kind of attention.”
Not everybody is so sure. “What’s going on now with John Thoburn is part of his history, and it’s part of his family’s history, too,” says Byrne. “This is a story that needs context. This is a family that’s historically bent on flouting the zoning rules and pushing people around. So there’s a lot more to this than this poor innocent golf driving range owner being slapped in jail. That isn’t 100 percent of the story. I know that. A lot of people know that.” Dave McKenna