(Note from Mr. Media: It’s funny how a writer’s past never gets too far away. I had actually forgotten about this 1989 profile I wrote for Tampa Bay Life magazine. Back then, David Caton was the Florida director of the American Family Association. He and his moral compass disappeared for many years, only to resurface in late 2011 as executive director of the Florida Family Association, which successfully pressured Lowe’s from withdrawing its advertising from the TLC reality series, “All-American Muslim.” This story provides deep background on Caton; for an update on his recent activities, try this December 21, 2011, column by Sue Carlton of the St. Petersburg Times. With the Republican National Convention coming to Tampa in 2012, it’s probably no accident that Caton has chosen to noisily resurface now.)
Not everyone who goes through a religious reawakening becomes a crusader against the ills of society. Most, in fact, are content to live out their lives of quiet desperation with just a little more self-satisfaction and confidence than the rest of us.
David Caton developed that very inner strength and security, but once saved, decided he was intended to achieve more.
“I’ve got a burden,” says the 33-year-old Tampa native of his years as an abuser of pornographic materials, alcohol and drugs. “God took away my desire to make money and gave me a desire to help other people.”
Who he’s helping depends upon your line of business and approach to personal freedoms. To owners of convenience and video stores, adult magazines and topless and bottomless dance clubs in Florida, David Caton is a thoroughly dangerous man. He’s a no-nonsense, bottom-line accountant on a mission from God.
Since 1984, Caton has been waging economic warfare statewide against businesses he determines to be purveyors of obscenity, filth and pornography. As Florida director of the Tupelo, Mississippi-based American Family Association (known until January 1988 as the National Federation for Decency) he starts each campaign with simple letters and phone calls asking executives to cease and desist from selling Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler or from renting movies that AFA deems offensive. If his targets are uncooperative, Caton wages bitter war.
The general manager of a Tampa-based convenience store chain says Caton called him a “Ted Bundy, Jr.,” referring to the executed rapist/murderer who claimed he was driven to crime by pornography. While Caton denies the name-calling, he has led picketers at another chain where several signs read “Ted Bundy Loved Farm Stores.”
Many businessmen refuse to discuss Caton on the record for fear of new reprisals. “I don’t want the guy getting all over us again,” says one.
DAVID CATON excerpt: “I’ve got a burden. God took away my desire to make money and gave me a desire to help other people.”
Elected officials across Florida know Caton as a man who has attempted to “educate” them – his word – on a variety of subjects ranging from adult entertainment ordinances, school prayer, sex education, gay rights and abortion.
Joe Redner, owner of four topless bars throughout Tampa Bay and a frequent target of the AFA, has a few adjectives of his own to describe David Caton. “Just off the top of my head: self-righteous, sanctimonious, ill-informed … ” says Redner. “He doesn’t solve problems, he causes problems. He’s the type of person who would advocate picketing you, but if you picket him, he’d protest. He’s a hypocrite. But as long as it keeps him in the press, he’s not going to quit.”
Newspaper editors know Caton as a prolific letter writer on an ever-expanding number of issues. His public service announcements appear on religious radio stations statewide. He’s also a popular right-wing subject on talk radio for hosts and callers.
Caton has personally been involved with picketing at least 40 times – 30 convenience stores and 10 abortion clinics. Twice he’s been arrested for trespassing at abortion clinics as part of the militant pro-life group Operation Rescue, once in Polk County and once in Hillsborough at the Tampa Women’s Health Center.
“I’ve protested at abortion clinics before but I never went on the property and tried to block entrance before,” he says. “It was a very strange feeling as the number of bodies blocking the entrance are removed by the police, you realize the number of girls waiting in the parking lot are going to go in and kill their babies. It becomes extremely emotional.”
Caton has a degree in accounting from the University of South Florida and could pass for your typical yuppie/nerd any day of the week. He’s boyishly handsome, charming, outgoing and an effective speaker in both group and one-on-one situations. And unlike the hellfire and brimstone moralists of yore who may have blushed at a Playboy centerfold, Caton – an ordained evangelist – came to his calling after years of sin.
Those days are behind him now. Caton has had his fun. Now he wants to make sure no one else ever has that kind of temptation again.
* * *
It’s David Caton’s world and welcome to it:
On nude dancing: “It’s not just dancing. … These women are not making $70,000 a year just dancing.”
On the recently defeated proposal to include homosexuals in a Hillsborough County anti-discrimination ordinance: “I think it’s incredibly disturbing for a governmental body to say a sexual practice is protected. It’s giving a stamp of approval to a sexual perversion that is destroying society. We’re not just fighting to prevent gays from reaching public acceptance. Their agenda goes far beyond not wanting to be discriminated against. This is their first step to having the sodomy prohibition repealed.” (Sodomy is a misdemeanor in Florida.)
On pop singer Madonna: “Just look at her name.”
On local radio: “I’ve heard reports of Y95 (WYNF) asking people to call in and describe their best sexual situations. They describe everything from lesbians to orgies. As time permits, we’re going to get into monitoring this.”
On movies: “Every Sunday we get the newspaper and I look through every movie shown in the Bay area. I look for the amount of sex and violence content that will be shown.”
* * *
David Caton say he was five years old the first time he saw a dirty magazine.
A 13-year-old boy down the street kept a locked box of men’s magazines in a wooded area. The teen shared his treasures with an adolescent Caton and another young boy was hooked on the pleasures of exposed female flesh. “As time went on,” recalls Caton, “that interest in me started to grow and I looked for magazines like that when I went into stores, in other people’s homes. I found them everywhere.”
Caton subscribed to Playboy and Penthouse. He’d pick up Genesis and Hustler at the newsstand. He bought and rented hardcore sex videos and occasionally dropped in on topless dance clubs and XXX-rated theaters for a thrill. He liked to drink and got hooked on tranquilizers.
The walk on the wild side came to a halt when Caton was 28. A two-year relationship fell apart due to his workaholic tendencies. Overworking, in turn, led him to a serious stapf infection that dragged on for six months and cost him 35 pounds. During this period, in October 1984, one of Caton’s three brothers got married. Both the brother and bride were born-again Christians.
“I saw the joy that was in their lives and I said, what is it these people have that I don’t?,” he recalls. “I said, I want that. That week, God just totally delivered me. I stopped smoking, stopped drinking. I had to get into God’s Word to get me through the sexual side of it because that’s a little different. You have an inborn desire for sex. You don’t have an inborn desire to do drugs.”
The wedding was on a Saturday; Caton, who was raised Methodist but hadn’t been to church since he was four, went back the next day and turned his life around.
* * *
Caton was born at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. His father, an air flight trainer, left the military shortly after the birth of David, his fourth son. Caton attended Hillsborough High and zipped through USF in three years, moving into a series of accounting jobs.
After he found personal salvation in 1984, Caton met his wife Rachael. They have a two-year-old son and celebrated their fourth wedding anniversary in November.
Much he tries to keep his family out of the glare of the public spotlight (he insisted his wife and parents not be interviewed for this story), sometimes it backfires. There was, for instance, an alleged series of verbal attacks by former WFLA radio talk show host Bob Lassiter.
Lassiter often told listeners that he had become a target of the AFA’s ire, with members complaining to WFLA about his language, behavior and biblical references. Lassiter fancies himself as quite well versed on The Bible and frequently used scripture to refute religious callers he felt were off the mark.
According to Caton, Lassiter gave out the national AFA’s toll-free 800 phone number, urging listeners to turn the tables on the group and register their own protest. To hear Allen Wildmon, brother of AFA founder Donald Wildmon, the tactic worked. But he thinks Lassiter went to far in encouraging his listeners to tie up the phone line. “People should have a right to express their opinions,” says Wildmon, “but in instances they’ve gone too far in exercising this right.”
Things got even more personal when Caton alleges Lassiter gave out his work phone number over the air, flooding his then-employer’s switchboard for three hours in an effort to get Caton fired.
“Then,” says Caton of the final straw, “Bob Lassiter made the critical mistake of talking about my wife’s anatomy over the air. You just don’t do that. My wife had nothing to do with it.”
JOE REDNER excerpt: “Self-righteous, sanctimonious, ill-informed… He doesn’t solve problems, he causes problems. He’s the type of person who would advocate picketing you, but if you picket him, he’d protest. He’s a hypocrite. But as long as it keeps him in the press, he’s not going to quit.”
According to a suit filed by Rachael Caton in the civil division of the Hillsborough County Circuit Court, Lassiter spoke “untrue and slanderous words about her on October 19, 1987” and “did maliciously respond over the air to a caller’s question about the size of Plaintiff’s breasts, that Plaintiff probably didn’t have any breasts.”
“Bob Lassiter can say anything he wants to about David Caton and get away with it because I’m a public figure by virtue of the fact I thrust myself on the public,” says Caton. “He had a thing about me. But he made a mistake talking about my wife, who is not a public figure.”
Lassiter, who left WFLA for WLS in Chicago last summer, declines comment on Caton or the suit until it is settled.
One more side effect of the negative publicity Caton has attracted have been occasional threats on his life, family and property. He was first interviewed for this story at a Village Inn restaurant because he is very selective about who is invited to his office.
“One day I got eight death threats,” according to Caton. “A guy started saying what he was going to do to my children, then said he was going to blow me up. We now have a tracer tap on our phone line. I’ve learned a lot about looking over my shoulder. I don’t live in fear, but I look around before leaving the house, I look in the car’s rear-view mirror a lot.”
“David is fearless, in the sense that he’s not easily intimidated,” says Rev. Frederick J. Buckley, co-chairman of the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg’s Decency Commission. ” A lot of people try to picture the AFA as some kind of fanatical fringe group. I think it’s a matter of conviction.”
* * *
About the American Family Association:
Several years ago, a United Methodist minister in Tupelo, Mississippi sat down to watch television with his children. No matter what channel he turned to there was something being broadcast that offended his Christian sensibilities.
Over the years, Donald Wildmon has gone from one voice in the wilderness to leader of the National Federation for Decency – the name was changed in 1988 to the less-noxious American Family Association. AFA has 550 community chapters coast-to-coast and has singled out advertisers who have sponsored what it describes as obscene, adulterous, immoral and profane TV shows. Organization members receive wallet cards that list the name of offending advertisers and their products. They urge them to boycott products and write letters of complaint to offending manufacturers. Current targets include Mennen and Clorox.
The old National Federation of Decency made its greatest leap into the public conscience when its letter-writing, picketing and boycotts of 7-Eleven stores nationwide a few years ago caused the nation’s leading convenience store chain to discontinue sales of Playboy, Penthouse and other adult magazines in all corporately owned stores.
One way to sum up the group’s modus operandi is to say they believe free speech is a matter of consumer funding.
“We’ve always said they have a right to publish, stores have a right to sell, individuals have a right to read, and we have the right to spend our dollars with stores we choose,” says Allen Wildmon, national public relations director of AFA.
Not that the magazines have not gone quietly into the night, railing loudly in editorials against the tactics of the AFA. “They claim inflated numbers and inflated results of their tactics,” says Robyn Radomski, vice president of corporate communications and public affairs for Playboy Enterprises in Chicago. “It’s usually a matter of a retailer bending to pressure then realizing this small minority cannot control a large group of people. Some stores drop us then we get them back a month or two later when the pressure cools off.”
Told Caton is a former Playboy subscriber, Radomski laughs.
“And it turned him into a mass-murderer, right?” she asks.
Sarcasm aside, success with 7-Eleven infused AFA with cockiness and has emboldened it to chastise smaller chains distributing the magazines. Little Champ, Farm Stores, Handy Food Stores, Tom Thumb and Circle K have all been targets of the AFA in Florida.
“It’s a free country, let them do what they want,” says Steve Johnson, president of the 90 Tom Thumb Food Stores in Florida. “(David Caton) has his beliefs; I have mine. I do what I feel is best for this company. The magazines are a service that we offer to our customers. The people that picket the stores are not your usual customers.”
“We try to be customer-responsive as opposed to being special interest-responsive,” says Rick McAllister, senior vice president and chief operating officer of Sunshine-JR. Stores, which has 170 stores in Florida. “If enough of our customers said we don’t like Ajax, we’d stop selling it. We do sell adult magazines. They are behind the counter, covered. We aren’t doing anything illegal or against the law; and there is a certain demand for the product. My personal feeling is that convenience stores do not cause deviant behavior.”
* * *
American Family Association of Florida, Inc. is a non-profit corporation with one employee, David Caton. It operates out of a small office in Tampa’s La Place Shopping Center, a few doors over from The Loft Theatre and less than a mile from the XXX-rated Todd Theater. The room is sparsely decorated with two copies of the same painting of Jesus Christ; a poster with the legend “Pornography Destroys” pictures a pretty but sad little girl in a Sunday dress holding a single red rose.
There are 34 AFA chapters in the state and many more thousands of Florida AFA members without local affiliation; 5,000 in all from the Tampa Bay area on Caton’s 20,000-person mailing list. Anyone can get on the list; there are no annual dues. Some AFA members making offerings, however, averaging about $20. Others contribute time on the telephone or writing letters.
* * *
Wherever he goes, David Caton carries with him a briefcase full of photocopied pornography to literally illustrate his points.
“You don’t mind looking at cartoons, do you?” he asks, pulling out a summary of Dr. Judith Reisman’s controversial, federally-sponsored report to former Attorney General Ed Meese, “Images of Children, Crime and Violence in Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler Magazines.” It is a neatly organized yet dubious graphic assemblage of photographs and cartoons culled from Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler. Caton tends to fixate in references to a Hustler magazine character named Chester the Molester.
Most people, it is noted, are not Chester the Molester and might be offended to be described as child molesters for reading Playboy or even Hustler.
“You’re looking at it from the perspective of a user,” retorts Caton. “Would not a cocaine user want to have his cocaine legalized? A person that is involved or captive to the interests of the materials he is consuming can’t very well make an objective decision about whether it’s harmful to him or not.”
* * *
The economic methodology employed by the American Family Association to pressure businesses is ruthlessly effective.
AFA chooses it targets based on number of outlets, visibility and offensiveness. One store selling Hustler is more likely to be picketed than three selling Playboy. Farm Stores sells Hustler; Circle K does not, so AFA aims its resources at Farm Stores for now.
Letters go out to AFA members and churches, asking them to stop doing business with particular stores and to begin writing letters of complaint to company executives. In the meantime, Caton writes a letter asking the magazines by removed, citing their affect on children and society. He encloses a copy of the Reisman report for reference and asks the company to discontinue adult magazine sales.
“If they are willing to talk about it, if they want more materials, it’ll just be me and them,” says Caton, and he’ll call off the dogs. After that, however, “if they take a very cold, hard-nosed, close-the-door attitude, I’ll follow up with a second letter and say we’re calling for a boycott and we’re informing people to boycott your stores. We’ll give all the officers of the company a certified letter that we’re going to picket on ‘X’ date. We picket from approximately 6:45 to 9 in the morning. We even give them copies of the press releases and everything we do so they know right up front. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t believe in surprises.”
Responses to an American Family Association campaign of economic intimidation and harassment can vary. Executives at 7-Eleven knuckled under. So did Rite Aid Stores and Suwannee Swifty Stores. And 30 Florida Holiday Inns have discontinued in-room adult movie channels.
Others are less enthusiastic.
“Julian Jackson (of Li’l Champ) cussed me out over the phone and hung up,” admits Caton. “He said, ‘You’re not going to tell me what to do.'”
ALLEN WILDMON excerpt: “We’ve always said they have a right to publish, stores have a right to sell, individuals have a right to read, and we have the right to spend our dollars with stores we choose.”
According to Caton, the confrontation has become more of an issue of ego and money than First Amendment rights. “If you have a store chain as large as Circle K, that’s big money. If you have 100 magazines sold every month per store, Circle K – with 5,000 stores – is making $500,000 a month net off of these magazines.
“I met with the general manager for (a) chain. I showed him the cartoons with Chester the Molester. He looked over at the pictures of his children on his credenza next to his desk. His face was awed. He goes – ‘I’ve got children!’ Then it suddenly clicked back into his mind. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘we have a right to sell these. We keep ’em behind the counter.’ Immediately switched gears when he went from family to businessman. He went from the moral issue of its corrupting to society to we need this to make a profit. This is the third time they have put the magazines back in the stores. They’ve put them in, took them out, put in, took out, put in.”
Caton is now planning to begin a video store sting in Florida. Armed with a three-page list of film titles judged obscene by state judges, he and his minions will be visiting stores anonymously, looking for offending titles.
“They won’t even know I’ve been in their store until afterwards,” says Caton. “We’re checking to make sure they’re in compliance with Florida obscenity statutes. We’re looking for adult videos displayed within the reach and sight of minors; titles of videos we know have been ruled obscene and are therefore illegal; video stores that fail to properly rate or provide no rating on videos.”
Ray Schneider owns the Blockbuster Video franchises in the Tampa Bay area. Although his stores do not carry adult videos as a rule and refused to offer Last Temptation of Christ, he is uncomfortable about self-appointed moralists telling him or his competitors what products they can or cannot offer.
“If they’re there to implement what’s legally obscene, that’s great. If they’re there to create new standards, I have a problem with that,” says Schneider.
* * *
As a non-profit corporation, AFA of Florida has strict limitations on its political lobbying activity, hence David Caton’s emphasis on the educational aspects of what he does.
“We’re educating county commissions across the state on what ordinances are available to control and restrict (adult entertainment),” he explains. “I say, ‘This is what’s happening in the adult industry, this ordinance can be used. If you vote for it, that’s up to you.’ By law, we’re educational. We try to stick within that parameter. We are allowed such a minute percentage of lobbying time that we have to be very careful of what we do.”
Chris Hoyer is the chief assistant state attorney in Tampa. He and other attorneys in his office are quite familiar with Caton.
“He’s a very good advocate for his organization,” credits Hoyer. “He’s very sincere, very article. He calls and writes a lot. I’ve met with him, heard their concerns. He points out approaches other communities have taken. To the extent we could advance some of his concerns, we have. In some cases we’ve disagreed. I respect his opinion.”
Hoyer says Caton has been involved in pressing prosecutions against houses of ill-fame and topless dance club owner Joe Redner. “(Caton) is pretty up-to-date on the law,” according to Hoyer. “Obviously, he puts his own coloring on the law, but that’s natural.”
At Hillsborough County Commission meetings, Commissioner Jan Platt says Caton appears articulate and well-documented. She says he has made a habit of sending letters, literature, copies of out-of-town adult ordinances and at least one book to members of the commission.
“He’s a very serious-minded young man,” she says. “You may agree and you may disagree but that doesn’t detract from the fact he’s very articulate. I respect that he’s done his homework. We need more people in the community who do that.”
* * *
What concerns many business people and individuals about David Caton and the American Family Association is not that there is a group opposed to certain movies, television shows or magazines. No, what worries them is that if a minority of the population can succeed in dictating right and wrong on these issues, what’s next?
Will Mothers Against Drunk Driving take a cue from the American Family Association and put similar economic pressures on convenience stores and supermarkets to restrict or eliminate liquor sales? Surely there are at least as many people to be whipped into a frenzy about drunk driving as pornography.
Will everyone who has ever lost a loved one to lung cancer rise up against the merchants of cigarettes? That could cause a tidal wave of bad publicity capable of eclipsing the tobacco industry forever.
But rising up against drunk driving or cigarette smoking may never reach the epic proportions or the anti-pornography torrents because those factions don’t have something as simple and elegantly indefensible as child molestation and child pornography. You can argue about smoker’s rights and social drinking from here till tomorrow, but who can find redeeming value in attacks against children? And that’s what a David Caton gears all his arguments to: look what this is doing to the children. From that emotional, gut-wrenching point of view he can render all other comment harsh and cold-blooded.
Steve Johnson, president of Tom Thumb Food Stores, is one of many businessmen resisting such simplicity. He is not convinced that the communities where his stores are believe that the men who buy Penthouse are anymore likely to commit heinous acts than the kids buying comic books or women buying Cosmopolitan.
“It goes back to this being a free country,” says Johnson. “Everyone has a choice. If they don’t want to buy the magazines, they don’t have to. If they start taking those rights away, where do we go from there?”