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10.21.10

The Messiah from Nevada

Sharron Angle's neighbors tell Rebecca Dana how she went—despite her husband's resistance—from Bible-thumping Sunday school teacher to taking on the Senate majority leader.

Sharron Angle's neighbors tell Rebecca Dana how she went—despite her husband's resistance—from Bible-thumping Sunday school teacher to taking on the Senate majority leader. Plus, the Election Oracle reports Angle has a 60 percent chance of winning.

Sharron Angle was beaming Wednesday night at a gathering of the Fernley Republican Women’s association, enjoying her first of a dozen standing ovations. She stood on stage in an auditorium at a public high school about an hour outside of Reno, wearing a “Sharron Angle for Senate” T-shirt tucked into a pair of high-waisted black trousers, her hair in its usual bob. Painted on the wall high above her head was the school's motto “High Standards in Educating the Future.”

She spoke for about 10 minutes, referencing her conception in nearby Lovelock, the 12-room motel her family operated in Reno when she was a child, her time as a waitress at a Bob’s Big Boy, and “the fog of taxation and regulation in Washington, D.C.” Then she brought up a different question.

“A lot of people say, ‘Why do you smile so much, Sharron?’,” she said.

All politicians smile, most excessively. But for a candidate who's bucked tradition in every sense, Sharron Angle is extreme even in this regard. It's true: she smiles constantly.

Angle, the big mama of “Mama Grizzlies,” is running for the glory of the Tea Party and its ultimate goal: unseating Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, possibly the longest-serving, least-liked politician in his state’s history. She opposes taxes, regulation, Obamacare, illegal aliens, cap and trade, Social Security, abortion even in the case of rape, and the Department of Education. In a debate last week, she ordered Reid to “Man up!”—a phrase she has repeated in many speeches since, always to raucous applause.

But Angle, a gaffe-prone 61-year-old grandmother, who made headlines this week when she told a group of Hispanic students that “some of you look a little more Asian to me,” is hardly a career politician. Which is what brings people around here to her fixed, wide, swallow-you-up smile.

“I just remember her always grinning from ear-to-ear,” said BettyAnn Keener, an old church pal of Angle’s from the 1980s, when Sharron and her husband Ted lived in Winnemucca, a small gambling town of about 10,000 in the northwestern part of the state. Sharron and BettyAnn’s husbands were deacons together at the First Baptist Church, and they often gathered for Bible study and dinners at each other’s homes.

Back then—as now—Sharron Angle was a crusader, Keener said, and her greatest joy came from her faith. Deceptively soft-spoken, with the breathy pedagogical voice of the Sunday school teacher she long was, Angle was a force in her community well before she decided to run for office, fighting from a position of strict, Christian faith. She launched a door-to-door campaign in Winnemucca in 1976 to get sexually suggestive magazines covered up by brown paper in all local stores, leading eventually to an order to that effect from the district attorney. In 1977, she traveled to Carson City with other parents to lobby for changes to homeschooling laws so she could educate her son, whom she says failed out of public kindergarten, in a small Christian school she started herself.

“The Bible to her was verbatim,” Mike Norton said. “She was friendly to me until I refused to sign one of her petitions. Then her husband verbally attacked me, and that was the end of it.”

Angle has expressed frustration that reporters and her opponent have discussed her faith, telling the Reno Gazette-Journal, “Harry Reid, he’s LDS (the Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) and they have not talked about his religion yet. But it is kind of interesting how it has become part of the campaign.” But those who knew Angle in the decades before she sought public office struggled to describe her in any other way.

“Sharron is a true Christian,” Keener said, “a born-again Christian. She loved the Lord, and she wasn’t afraid to share her faith because she was just glowing with joy.”

The two of them once drove through a blinding snowstorm to spend a few days at a Christian women’s retreat in Idaho. They spent the whole trip talking about faith and family, never veering off-topic to politics or gossip. Angle was a pious woman, Keener said, not one for earthly indulgences. “I remember we stopped off for dinner at the Red Lion, and Sharron ordered hot water with lemon. She just loved hot water with lemon!”

Hot water, lemon, and the Lord.

“I was a rebellious teenager when Sharron was here,” said Andrea Davidson, another Winnemucca resident, while her three sons roughhoused in the Playland at the town’s one and only McDonald’s. “She was one of my Sunday school teachers. She helped me on my way to know the Lord.” They worked in the church nursery together and both families participated in 4H.

Angle taught Davidson at the Community Bible Church, one of at least four churches she attended or worked at during her years in the small town. Sharron and Ted, an employee at the Bureau of Land Management, spent 25 years in rural Nevada, living also in Ely, and Tonopah (where Sharron started a family-oriented fitness gym and won three weight-lifting championships. But by all accounts, wherever they went, the center of their life was the church.

In an earlier interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal (Angle no longer speaks much to the press and did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story), the candidate explained her transition to politics with a Biblical story. In 1977, she discovered a tumor, one which could have left her paralyzed. Doctors gave her grim chances, but an operation was successful, and Angle recovered. During her recovery, a friend told Angle that she had a dream involving Deborah from the Old Testament, and thus a future Senate candidate was born.

“Deborah was really the first woman politician,” Angle told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

On a recent trip back to town, she attended services at the Winnemucca Christian Fellowship, at one point offering to pray for the husband of local insurance agent Jennifer Waldie, who described it as “a very sincere prayer, from someone who has clearly prayed a lot before.”

“We are church people!,” said Glenda Haley, who worked for Angle at the Word of Light school during its second year, and who attended weekly church services with Angle on Sunday mornings and Sunday and Wednesday nights. “She is truly a Christian, that’s what drives her.”

Haley said Sharron’s move into activism rankled Ted a bit at the beginning. “He really wanted to settle her down a bit,” she said, describing Ted as “a lover, just the sweetest guy,” but also a tad traditional during those earlier years. But Sharron was committed, and so he “changed.” She remembered her old boss as being “one of those organized, on-top-of-it people” and “a straight arrow.”

Not all in town characterized it quite that way.

“I would say she has a narrow beam,” said Mike Norton, a long-time resident of Winnemucca. Norton and his wife attended Word of Light with the Angles, and his son was a student of hers at Sonoma Heights elementary, a private school where she worked for several years as a substitute teacher. “The Bible to her was verbatim,” Norton said. “She was friendly to me until I refused to sign one of her petitions. Then her husband verbally attacked me, and that was the end of it.”

Norton, breathing through an oxygen tank at his regular table at downtown Winnemucca’s Delizioso Espresso bar, went to the polls last weekend, when early voting began in Nevada. Republicans have far outnumbered Democrats in early voting so far, a bad omen for Reid. In Reno’s Washoe County, as of Wednesday, the split was 47 to 40. Norton, who professes a strong personal dislike for Angle, said he voted for her anyway. “I love Sarah Palin,” he said. “And I can’t stand Harry Reid.”

Angle has never much cared if people joined her causes. During her days in the Nevada state legislature, where she was one of 42 lawmakers, people spoke of bills passing “41-to-Angle.”

One of her predecessors in the assembly, Jane Ham, the woman who led the homeschooling reform effort, put it mildly: “Sharron is not the type who is going around joining clubs.”

Winnemucca Mayor Di An Putnam recalled chatting with Sharron and her husband at the annual “Peraldo Party” Christmas celebration, named for the local businessman who paid for it. “Back then I didn’t think of her as the next senator,” she said. She recently attended a meet-and-greet with the candidate at Ormachea’s restaurant in Winnemucca. She found Angle to be “very quiet, very soft-spoken, all smiles.”

Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone, and Slate, among other publications.

Samuel P. Jacobs contributed to this report.