Anti-Abortion Activist Randall Terry Runs for Gated Community Board

Randall Terry, former head of Operation Rescue

Folio Weekly | February 23, 2005
When Randall Terry and his family moved to South Ponte Vedra Beach in 2003, the former head of the pro-life guerilla organization Operation Rescue seemed intent on keeping a low profile. The onetime "Oprah" guest was reduced to making appearances at local churches and selling compact discs of his religious music. He’d suffered blows in his emotional and financial life, as well. By the time he moved to the gated community of Turtle Shores, he’d divorced his first wife, declared bankruptcy, remarried and was looking to start over.

But two years later, Terry is back in the spotlight. He first emerged as a key player in the high profile Tampa, Fla. right-to-die case, leading the charge to keep a feeding tube in Terri Schiavo. Closer to home, he has created a tempest in his own neighborhood, running for a seat on the Turtle Shores homeowners association board. Though the board typically deals with nothing more controversial than speed bumps and stucco exteriors, his candidacy has proved a flashpoint, polarizing neighborhood residents and causing some to worry about political fallout from the world outside the gate.

Residents of this oceanside community were decidedly reticent to discuss Terry’s candidacy or his prospects in the March 7 election. Most residents and board members asked about the race responded with "No comment." Those who did talk wouldn’t comment on the record.

But the current of unhappiness that Terry’s bid has generated is strong. Residents opposed to his candidacy note his confrontational approach to political activism, which includes staging human blockades of abortion clinics and arranging for a fellow activist to thrust a bottled fetus at former President Bill Clinton. Though his current agenda appears to include nothing more controversial than building a fenced playground in his backyard, the prospect of Terry on the board has made some residents get nasty. An anonymous flyer distributed throughout the neighborhood included inflammatory quotations from his anti-abortion crusade that made it sound as though he’d hunted his opponents. A subsequent e-mail was circulated with a link to a Website of Terry’s writings. Some residents even mounted a behind-the-scenes challenge of his right to run. Since Terry is not the owner of the house he lives in — it’s owned by a trust established for him by fellow activists after he declared bankruptcy — opponents claim he’s ineligible for a seat on the homeowners board.

However, at last week’s meeting, board members decided not to block Terry’s candidacy. After the board’s attorney noted he would have to examine Terry’s financial records in order to understand the details of the trust, board members questioned whether such selective attention would be fair. One resident observed that stringent application of board bylaws could conceivably exclude any resident whose name does not appear on their deeds.

The board’s decision not to challenge Terry’s eligibility also had something to do with an opinion from Terry’s attorney, which may have struck some board members as a legal threat. But there appears to be little stomach for turning Terry’s race into a community conflagration. For now, the residents of Turtle Shores seem more interested in getting along with their neighbors than airing dirty laundry.

Though Terry did not return calls for comment about his candidacy (his PR rep said he was too busy with the Schiavo case), his decision to run opens a new chapter in his life in Northeast Florida. Initially criticized by his followers for his cushy new digs (homes in Turtle Shores range from $300,000 to $700,000), Terry defended his move in a letter posted on his Website.

Living in a gated community was necessary, he explained, because it would keep "abortionists" and "militant homosexuals" away from his family. In fact, the gate to Turtle Shores encloses only the development’s northern entrance (the southern access remains ungated), and there’s no evidence that Terry’s neighbor-hood is free of these perceived enemies.

But among his neighbors, Terry’s reputation is one of a mild-mannered family man — a self-described "avid sportsman" who can be seen playing bare-chested on the facility’s tennis courts or studying a book under the oceanfront gazebo. Even residents who oppose Terry’s candidacy acknowledge that for those who only know him as a neighbor, he may not seem such an unreasonable choice. "He’s pretty savvy," says one. "He’s got a chance of winning."

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