The Magazine

A Decade of Reed

From the June 27, 2005 issue: One Republican's long, lucrative march through the institutions.

Jun 27, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 39 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Money is like water down the side of the mountain. It will find a way to get around the trees.

--Ralph Reed

IT WAS JUNE 4, a Saturday, a little after 9 A.M., at the Golden Corral restaurant in Lawrenceville, Georgia, about 20 miles north of downtown Atlanta, and Phyllys Ransom--red hair, white skin, blue eyes; a walking, talking American flag--was explaining why she supports Ralph Reed.

"Integrity is something people talk a lot about, but so few people have," Phyllys said.

A few feet behind Phyllys--"Make sure you spell my name right: P-h-y-l-l-y-s"--Reed shook hands with his supporters.

"I just think Ralph is authentic," Phyllys said. "And when you're authentic, you're comfortable. You see it in his comfort level. You see it in his--this is a word I like to use--congruence."

Reed was the executive director of the Christian Coalition from 1989 until 1997, when he resigned and moved to Duluth, a Georgia town not far from Lawrenceville, where he has since made a lucrative living as a public affairs and public relations specialist. Which living, however, has not kept Reed from answering the siren song of electoral politics. On February 17 he announced his candidacy for lieutenant governor of Georgia. The Republican primary--he already has one opponent, state senator Casey Cagle--is a year away, on July 18, 2006. If Reed wins, and then wins the general election that fall, he will be the first Republican lieutenant governor in the history of Georgia.

And so far, it seems, things are going Ralph Reed's way. He has a vast fundraising network, assembled over 20 years in national Republican politics as a strategist, field organizer, and gadfly. Plus, a lot of Georgia Republicans love him--he served as chairman of the state party from 2001 to 2003. During his tenure Georgia voters elected a new Republican senator, Saxby Chambliss, and the first Republican governor since Reconstruction, Sonny Perdue. Once his stint as party chairman was over, Reed spent a year working on the campaign of someone Georgia Republicans love even more, President George W. Bush. Then, too, and most important--certainly they think so--the local political reporters, along with their Washington brethren, have pronounced Reed the "frontrunner" over a year before any actual voters will cast any actual votes. The race is all but over, you'd think.

Except you'd be wrong. And not because of anything within Reed's control, come to think of it. Iwatched him spend half an hour speaking to members of the Gwinnett County Republican party, and he knows how to work a crowd. He set specific goals ("We're going to assemble a grassroots army of 25,000 volunteers"); he shared his knowledge of policy ("We need to develop magnet technical high schools in every county of Georgia"); he waxed idealistic ("If we will not be afraid of our own philosophical shadow, if we will be who we really are, people will flock to us"); and he pushed all the right emotional buttons ("I know this is going to come as a surprise to some of you in this room, but the media is not for us").

He has stage presence. Reed's speech contains no malapropisms, and his rhetoric is polished. Also, he must have taken Stage Movement 101 at the George Dubya School of Public Speaking, because he has all the physicality that the president brings to the stump, and he uses it to his advantage. His shoulders are thrust back, his head juts forward, his finger point is practiced, his hand-chop steady like a knife. It makes for a riveting performance. Every now and then, someone who is decidedly not a member of the Gwinnett County Republicans--a busboy in an apron, a glassy-eyed college student in Abercrombie & Fitch-wear--would walk over from the dessert trough to watch Reed, captivated by the show.

Once the speech was over, once the audience gave him a standing ovation, Reed started mingling with the crowd.

As he milled about the restaurant, I fell into conversation with Phyllys, who is on Reed's campaign steering committee. Of Reed's opponent, state senator Cagle, Phyllys said, "Casey's a nice man. He's a good Republican," but he doesn't have "what it takes." Phyllys is disappointed in the tone of the campaign so far. "There's so much subterfuge," she said. "Ralph's been attacked. You know that. But when you're up to something big, guess what?"

She held her hands in the air.

"You're going to be attacked."

PHYLLYS IS RIGHT, OF COURSE. Reed is under attack. And the reason Reed is under attack--and the reason he isn't giving any on-the-record interviews to reporters--is that, for once, his political timing is off. He launched his first campaign for public office in Georgia just as the investigation into his longtime friend and business associate Jack Abramoff was slouching toward completion in Washington.