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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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Scratch that: the investigations. At first only the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs--John McCain, chairman--was examining Abramoff and Scanlon's dealings with the tribes. The Indian Affairs Committee held hearings on the matter last September and November--another is scheduled for June 22--and then it was off to the races. The Senate Finance Committee opened an investigation into Abramoff and Scanlon's various nonprofits, which took "donations" from the Indian tribes and arranged luxurious junkets for congressmen who legislate on Indian gaming. On top of all this, the executive branch has assembled a task force to investigate Abramoff, drawing from the Interior Department, the IRS, the National Indian Gaming Commission, and the Justice Department. According to the New York Times the FBI has assigned over 30 agents to the case. Not to mention, of course, the swarm of Washington journalists who have buzzed, like moths to a flame, over each and every detail of the story.

And who can blame them? It's some story. Abramoff's connections with the Washington GOP establishment ran so deep, his lucre spread among so many conservative political action committees and nonprofits, that the Indian gaming scandal has become, in a few short months, a sort of epic poem, a Homeric tragedy about the moral collapse of the storied Republican Revolution of 1994. Those connected to Abramoff--Michael Scanlon, once a spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, another former DeLay staffer named Ed Buckham, antitax activist Grover Norquist, and others--have become symbols as well: symbols of how onetime anti-Washington political insurgents traded in their idealism for gobs of corporate cash.

Democrats have lapped all this up, as you might imagine--and they have tried to exploit it, too, for possible electoral gain in next year's midterm elections. Not a day goes by, it seems, without an email from the Democratic National Committee or some "good-government" group devoted to the scandal. Over a year out from the election, in fact, Democrats give every indication that they plan to run a national anticorruption campaign against the Republican Congress, not unlike the ones Republicans ran in the days of House Democratic bosses Jim Wright and Dan Rostenkowski. They will charge that since taking power a decade ago the Republican majority has failed to cut the size of government or change "the way Washington works"; that the Republican Congress has ceded lawmaking to special interests and corporate lobbies; that the GOP has been more interested in graft than in governing.

It's Reed's misfortune that he happens to have worked with Abramoff on several Indian gambling campaigns. And yet it's also striking that the $4.2 million his firm collected from Abramoff and Scanlon over four years may damage his national political ambitions. Because when you look at Reed's private-sector career as a whole, such a sum seems hardly worth getting worked up over. It's pocket change.

In 1994 Ralph Reed's talent at political organizing helped to bring about the first Republican congressional majority in over 40 years. But in 2006 Reed and his friends' talent at profiting from that majority status may help to bring about a Republican meltdown.

How's that for a turnabout?

REED TURNS 44 THIS FRIDAY, June 24. He was born six weeks premature in 1961, in Portsmouth, Virginia, and to this day his frame is slight, his face preternaturally boyish. Although Reed has spent most of his adult life in Georgia, he did not move there until 1976, when his family settled in the small town of Toccoa, in the northeastern part of the state. Reed was in high school at the time. Georgia was the fifth state, and Toccoa the seventh town, he had called home. He entered the University of Georgia in 1979 and was quickly drawn to campus politics. He rose through the ranks of campus Republicans, and spent the summer between his sophomore and junior years in Washington, as an intern on Capitol Hill and at the national headquarters of the College Republicans.

The national chairman of College Republicans in 1981 was a young Brandeis graduate, Jack Abramoff. The executive director was a young Harvard graduate, Grover Norquist. Sharing the same convictions, and the same idea of student politics as street theater, Reed, Abramoff, and Norquist became fast friends. Paul Erickson, who worked at College Republicans alongside the trio, later told reporter Nina Easton that "Ralph was Grover's clone." Reed enjoyed the atmosphere so much, in fact, he stayed on at the national headquarters through the fall semester.

In 1983 he succeeded Norquist as executive director. Also in 1983--and of considerably more interest to his future biographers--Reed had a religious conversion. One Saturday night that September, he was at Bullfeathers, a bar on Capitol Hill, drinking and carousing, when he decided, "This isn't as fun as it used to be." He left the bar, walked to the nearest phone booth, opened the phone book, and found a listing for Evangel Assembly of God church, a Pentecostal congregation in Camp Springs, Maryland. He went to services the next morning. Abramoff later told the Los Angeles Times: "There were some real hard political hacks who were probably skeptical when Ralph went through this . . . .I thought it would be positive in his life, as it has been."

Reed quit drinking and smoking, but he did not quit politics. Under Abramoff and Norquist, the College Republicans became more conservative and more activist. They also attracted more publicity. Reed helped to arrange the group's spectacular protests. In September 1983, after Soviet military jets shot down Korean airliner KAL 007, Reed led a march of young conservatives through downtown Washington--"his tie knot loosened, his fists pumping, his face twisted in anger," according to Easton. Reed's photo was published in U.S. News and World Report. In 1984, as president of Students for America, a nationwide group for religious conservative college students, Reed helped to organize public celebrations of the first anniversary of the invasion of Grenada. In 1985 Reed set up a "mock Sandinista prison camp" on the west lawn of the Capitol building. "Everyone who's going on the abduction, come over here!" the Washington Post quoted him shouting.

What the trio at College Republicans was doing, in retrospect, was turning a backwater organization into a bastion of "movement conservatism"--a sort of School of the Americas for future conservative shock troops. This is not a glib analogy. There was always a paramilitary flavor to the three friends' politics, Norquist's in particular. They had read the works of New Left authors such as Saul Alinsky. They courted anti-Communist guerrillas--and "former" Maoists--such as Angola's Jonas Savimbi. They were self-consciously working toward a conservative revolution in America--albeit one that would be achieved at the polls.

Reed loved political organizing. He loved political theater. But in the fall of 1985 he gave it all up to pursue a doctorate in history at Emory University. His dissertation, finished in 1991, weighs in at 515 pages and is entitled "Fortresses of Faith: Design and Experience at Southern Evangelical Colleges, 1830-1900." As the title indicates, Reed's study examined the history of religious higher education in the South. Besides the fact that it was written at all, the dissertation is notable for the way in which Reed chastises the institutions of higher learning he writes about for their racism.

And yet Reed never pretended he was about to take up a career in academia. That he wrote the dissertation and completed his Ph.D. is evidence, in all probability, of an unquenchable ambition, a desire to prove himself in a liberal academic setting. (To this day, when people refer to him as "Dr. Reed," he doesn't seem to mind.) He continued to participate in Republican politics throughout graduate school. In January 1989, at a Students for America dinner in Washington, D.C., Reed met Christian broadcasting magnate Pat Robertson, who had just run a failed presidential campaign the year before.

Robertson's campaign wasn't a total failure, actually--he came in second to Bob Dole in the 1988 Iowa caucuses, scaring the bejeezus out of the Republican establishment--and he wanted to start an organization devoted to bringing social conservatives into Republican politics. After dinner Robertson asked Reed if he wanted to run the group. At first Reed demurred; he returned to Georgia and his schoolwork, but soon found he couldn't support a wife and child on a doctoral candidate's income. In September he accepted Robertson's offer and moved to southeastern Virginia, home of Robertson's television evangelism empire.

The Christian Coalition was incorporated as a nonpartisan, tax-exempt nonprofit. But its political allegiance was always clear. In October 1990 the National Republican Senatorial Committee gave the Coalition $64,000 in what Reed would later call "seed money." The seeds sprouted and grew like crazy. Within a few years under Reed's leadership the Coalition became, as Nina Easton describes in her book Gang of Five, "a $12 million-plus lobbying machine" that boasted "250,000 dues-paying members" and "1.6 million potential allies."

Read press accounts from the Coalition's early history, and you find that, when he spoke to the press, Reed would use the same language he had used a decade earlier at College Republicans. In 1991, in a quote that has been hung around his neck ever since, he bragged to Norfolk's Virginian-Pilot: "I want to be invisible. I do guerrilla warfare. I paint my face and travel at night. You don't know it's over until you're in a body bag." In 1992 he told the Los Angeles Times: "It's like guerrilla warfare. If you reveal your location, all it does is allow your opponent to improve his artillery bearings. It's better to move quietly, with stealth, under cover of night."

Grisly stuff. But such stuff stands out, a decade later, because it runs against the grain of Reed's actual accomplishment. Namely, he did bring social and religious conservatives into the mainstream of the Republican party, and thus, in turn, into the mainstream of American politics. And he accomplished this, interestingly enough, by draining the Christian Coalition of much of its explicitly Christian, or even religious, content. Just look at the 1993 article Reed wrote for Policy Review entitled "Casting a Wider Net." In Reed's essay the Religious Right becomes the "pro-family" movement, for example--which movement, it seemed then to Reed, was "policy thin" and "value-laden." He wrote: "If the pro-family movement is not to suffer the same fate" as earlier conservative reform efforts, "the cluster of pro-family issues must now be expanded to attract a majority of voters."

He expanded this message in his book After the Revolution, first published in 1994 under the title Politically Incorrect:

What we have in mind is not a Christian agenda or even a Republican agenda. It is not a special interest agenda of any kind. It is a pro-family agenda which restores autonomy to the two-parent family and provides sensible protections for this most basic and most essential unit of society.

And again:

The American people need to know that we do not desire to exclude our political foes, only to gain our own place at the table. They cannot hear too often that our objective is not to dominate, but to participate, and that our vision of society includes protecting their right to speak and be heard as much as making our voices heard. We are not trying to elect Billy Graham to the presidency.

Looking back, the Christian Coalition seems a uniquely nineties institution. Reed, like other politicians of that decade, appropriated the language of civil rights to describe Christians--in other words, the vast majority of Americans--as "victims." Conservative Christians became, in Reedspeak, "people of faith" and "religious folk." Attacks on "people of faith" were "grounded not in fact" but "in fear and bigotry." "People of faith" had become caricatures, mere stereotypes in the popular culture; they had become, Reed wrote, the new "Amos and Andy."

Under Reed the Christian Coalition also embraced the multicultural politics that typified the 1990s. His "pro-family" movement embraced all denominations, all religions, all Americans. In 1995 he started the Catholic Alliance to recruit conservative Catholic voters. In 1995 he addressed the annual convention of the Anti-Defamation League and told the audience that Christians had not always been the best friends of the Jews. In 1996, in his book Active Faith, he suggested that social conservatives ought to seek compromise on the abortion issue. (Needless to say, controversy ensued.) In 1997 he started the Samaritan Project to reach out to black churches. He gave money to help to repair southern black churches destroyed by arsonists.

This wasn't the fire-and-brimstone politics of Jerry Falwell's defunct Moral Majority. This wasn't even the fire-and-brimstone politics of the Christian Coalition's founder, Pat Robertson. This was a hugely successful electoral strategy, however. In 1994 Reed told the Washington Post he had assembled a "data bank" of 1.3 million supporters. A year later he told Time magazine that the Coalition had 1.6 million "active supporters" and a $25 million budget. A year after that, Reed said the Coalition had 1.7 million names in its "data bank." Reed used the collection of tools he had learned organizing students in the 1980s to build a home in the Republican party for religious conservatives. The party, and American politics, were changed irrevocably.

Though the Coalition's membership reached its high point in 1996, the group's political apogee came, of course, in 1994, with the election of the Republican congressional majority. Reed began the year organizing a $1.4 million campaign to stop the Clinton health care plan; a year later, on May 15, 1995, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine. The cover line read: "The Right Hand of God." Reed was 33.

After the election in 1994, you may remember, Republicans promised a sea change in American life. They promised to "drain the swamp" in Washington, to rid politics of "special interests," to create, in the words of Rep. Jim Nussle, a "new order." Reed had a different interpretation of the election. "The 1994 election signaled our political arrival," he would later tell political reporters Dan Balz and Ronald Brownstein. "Now we have to institutionalize. [Our goal] is not to reach the voters and turn them out. We've already done that. Now we want to make ourselves permanent. . . . It's what the social historians call professionalization."

It made perfect sense, then, that in 1997 Reed would resign from the Christian Coalition and open up Century Strategies consulting. It was time, at long last, to "institutionalize." It was time, in other words, for what the social observers in Washington call "cashing in."

ACCORDING TO ITS WEBSITE, www.censtrat.com, Century Strategies is "a full-service firm providing Strategic Business Development Assistance, Organizational Development, Direct Mail and Voter Contact Services, Fundraising Management, Research and Analysis, Creative Media Planning, Public and Media Relations, and List Management and Procurement." The firm has two offices--one in Atlanta and another in Washington--it has 10 employees, and it has, according to a spokeswoman, "around" two dozen clients. As "one of the nation's leading public affairs and public relations firms," i.e., not a lobbying firm, Century Strategies does not have to disclose its clients or its fees. But the names of some of those clients have surfaced over the years.

There's Enron, for example. The energy trading company was one of Century Strategies' first clients, in fact--it signed its first contract with Reed, for $114,000 plus expenses over 12 months, in September 1997. Century Strategies helped Enron push an energy deregulation plan through the Pennsylvania state legislature. Enron chose not to renew the contract in 1998. A few years later, on October 6, 2000, Enron signed another contract with Reed, this one for $75,000 plus expenses for six months.

In October 2000 Reed wrote a memo to Enron executives that gives us some clues to what a firm like his does. The memo first surfaced in the Washington Post in 2002. "In public policy it matters less who has the best arguments and more who gets heard--and by whom," Reed wrote. He promised his firm would make calls, collect voter lists, and place op-eds in influential newspapers--the sort of work any top-shelf lobbying firm performs on a daily basis. "I will assume personal responsibility for the overall vision and strategy of the project. I have long-term friendships with many members of Congress." Enron must have been pleased with Reed's work, because when the October 2000 contract expired, it signed Century Strategies to another, indefinite contract for $30,000 plus expenses per month. This arrangement lasted just a few months, however. Then Enron went bankrupt.

Enron wasn't Reed's only client, and Reed wasn't Enron's only lobbyist--er, "public affairs specialist." One of the unwritten rules of K Street--the row of office buildings in downtown Washington where lobbyists tend to roost--is that hiring only one firm isn't enough to pass your agenda. You have to employ several firms, donate to as many pols as possible, spread your largesse around to as many people as you can--provided they are the right people, of course. And since 1994 the right people have been . . . well, the Right people: Republicans. So Enron employed registered lobbyists, it donated to nonprofits allied with politicians and political causes, it gave money to political action committees, and it contracted firms such as Century Strategies to gin up "grassroots support" for utility deregulation. In its brief but dizzying existence Enron was an exemplar of the ways in which corporations pay lobbyists and legislators to manipulate public life for private gain.

The private gain in question does not have to be financial, of course. And it doesn't even have to be a corporation doing the paying. A few months after he started to work with Enron, Reed visited San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he gave a speech on Puerto Rican statehood. Reed was for it. "Let's let Puerto Ricans freely express their status preference," Reed told the audience at the local Chamber of Commerce on February 9, 1998, "and if they choose, let's welcome them as the 51st state." Puerto Rican statehood would benefit Republicans: "We must demonstrate that our party is the natural home for millions of Americans of Hispanic heritage and the true representative of their ideals and values." A referendum would be to the benefit of self-government: "I think it is right to allow the people of Puerto Rico a voice and a vote on their future."

Reed's timing was auspicious. On March 5, 1998, a few weeks after he became an advocate of Puerto Rican statehood, the House passed--by a single vote--HR 856, the Puerto Rico Self-Determination Act, which established a timetable and referendum process by which Puerto Rico could become a state. According to the Associated Press, two days before the vote Reed issued a "report" that said "winning the Hispanic vote would be critical to maintaining congressional majorities," and that further said supporting Puerto Rican statehood would be key to winning the Hispanic vote.

At first blush the Puerto Rico bill, cosponsored by then-speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and then-majority whip Tom DeLay, came out of nowhere. But in fact it was the result of months of intense lobbying, of which Reed's advocacy was only a part. According to Roll Call, lobbying firms employed by pro-statehood interests had been paid over $2.3 million in the first half of 1997. One such firm was Preston Gates, and one such lobbyist was Jack Abramoff, who registered as a representative for the Future of Puerto Rico, Inc., in November 1997.

Because of the loophole in disclosure law, one can only infer that Century Strategies had taken on a pro-statehood interest as a client. It would make sense, given Reed's outspoken support for HR 856. And it would make sense, further, given that Reed's old friends Jack Abramoff and Grover Norquist shared his outspoken support. Norquist, like Reed, is no lobbyist; he is, instead, president of Americans for Tax Reform, a nonprofit group. But ATR, as it's called, does not restrict its activism to tax issues. On March 2, 1998, Peter Ferrara, general counsel for ATR, published an op-ed in the Washington Times in support of HR 856, which, he wrote, "simply requires us to face the Puerto Rico commonwealth anomaly and resolve it." Also, "it would free U.S. taxpayers from a growing $12 billion per year subsidy bill." (It's worth noting here that support for Puerto Rican statehood has been a longstanding GOP position.)

The Puerto Rico bill passed the House, but it ended up dying in the Senate--besides which, Puerto Rican voters rejected statehood in a December 1998 referendum anyway, making the whole exercise moot. But a host of lobbyists grew fat off the bill nonetheless.

More significant, however, the bill exposed a growing rift between Reed and other social conservatives, who were often at odds with Century Strategies' corporate clients. Phyllis Schlafly, for example, opposed Puerto Rican statehood, and cheered the bill's death in the Senate: "It looks as if it's a lot easier for big political money to buy Congress than it is to win the hearts of grassroots voters," she wrote in a January 1999 column.

The rift grew wider in 1999, when Reed took the Channel One television network as a client. Located in Los Angeles, Channel One is a for-profit television station that supplies schools with free audiovisual equipment, provided those schools broadcast the network's 12-minute news broadcast, which includes two minutes of commercials. Each day, about 8 million students in 12,000 secondary schools watch the broadcast. And it's a captive audience. Channel One promises its advertisers, who typically pay $200,000 for a 30-second spot, that students are not allowed to leave their seats--even to go to the bathroom--when the ads are onscreen.

Over the years Channel One drew criticism from lefty anticorporate types, who thought the network was a scam by profit-hungry advertisers to reach gullible, splurge-happy kids. But it also drew criticism from social conservatives, who complained that the network exposed impressionable young people to sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. Kids are forced to watch advertising for junk food and Nike sneakers, went the thinking on the left. And kids are forced to watch interviews with Joycelyn Elders, and listen to music clips from Marilyn Manson, went the thinking on the right. Eyeing an opportunity for political triangulation, in April 1998 Alabama's Richard Shelby, who sat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee, called for hearings into the network.

But the hearings were delayed, primarily because Channel One launched a lavish and lucrative lobbying campaign to protect its interests. The progressive journalist Ruth Conniff estimates that by the time the actual hearings on Channel One occurred on May 20, 1999, the network had spent over $1 million in lobbying fees. In 1998, for example, Channel One paid its lobbying firm, Preston Gates, $120,000. In the first half of 1999, Channel One paid Preston Gates $820,000. In 2000 Channel One paid Preston Gates $380,000. The network's contact at the firm was Abramoff. Grover Norquist got into the mix, too, writing a Washington Times op-ed on January 30, 1999: "An independent news media outlet not controlled by liberals has seeped into the public schools," he wrote. "The liberals are trying to stop it."

But liberals were not the only people concerned about Channel One. So were social conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly and James Dobson. Schlafly even appeared before Shelby's committee alongside Ralph Nader. In the end, however, the Senate hearings never amounted to much. Channel One still broadcasts. It still shows advertisements for junk food, and it still plays clips of Britney Spears. And all indications are that it still pays Century Strategies consulting fees. As recently as September 2002 Reed was making calls on behalf of Channel One to members of the Texas State Board of Education. How much those calls cost Channel One isn't known. Reed won't disclose it.

It's pretty easy to imagine, however, that Reed's clients, and the fees those clients pay him, will become a campaign issue as he runs for lieutenant governor. And it's pretty easy to imagine, further, that Reed's opponents will press him to release his client list, and to provide a forthright account of how his consulting business has shaped his thinking on public policy issues.

Policy issues such as China, for one. Social conservatives have a long and noble history of opposing Communist China's persecution of religious minorities. And Ralph Reed is a part of that history. Back in 1997, Reed went on the record with several reporters to share with them his concerns about granting China Most Favored Nation trading status. "This can't just be about profits and losses and dollars and cents," he said. "It has to be about matters of the heart and matters of the soul and America being a moral leader in the world." According to a Knight Ridder dispatch from May 15, 1997, Reed was "particularly concerned" about China's one-child, forced abortion policy and its "intolerance of Christianity."

Nowadays it's hard to get Reed to go on the record, which is a shame. Because it would be nice to have the opportunity to ask him about reporting done by National Journal's Peter Stone. Stone recently reported in Mother Jones that in 2000, Boeing and the Business Roundtable hired Reed and Century Strategies to press for normalizing trade relations with China. According to Stone, Reed "helped write ads aimed at conservatives arguing that a closer economic relationship with China could improve human rights." In fact, a public relations executive, Brian Lunde, told Stone that Reed was "instrumental" in pushing through "permanent normal trade relations"with China in the spring of 2000. "Reed was horrible on China,"one Republican foreign policy analyst told me last week. So:Between 1997 and 2000 something caused Ralph Reed to change his mind on China.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Reed's candidacy collapses whatever distinction remained between private interest and public office.

IT'S NEVER A GOOD SIGN when your local paper runs articles every other day connecting you to a scandal hundreds of miles away in Washington, D.C. And it's never a good sign when a prominent member of your own party goes out of his way to call you an "albatross" and "too divisive," as former Georgia House minority leader Bob Irvin did in the pages of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week. Reed's "M.O.," Irvin wrote,

is to tell evangelical Christians that his cause of the moment, for which he has been hired, is their religious duty, and therefore they need to write regulators, turn up at meetings, or whatever. As an evangelical myself, I resent Christianity being used simply to help Reed's business.

Battle lines are being drawn, in other words. The same week that Irvin--who is, it should be noted, a longtime rival of Reed's--asked him to pull out of the race, a Democratic Alabama state representative, Randy Hinshaw, asked his state attorney general to open an investigation into an Abramoff-related anti-gambling campaign in which Reed played a part. At the same time, however, last Friday television personality Sean Hannity and former "Democratic"senator Zell Miller planned to fly to Georgia and endorse Reed in front of hundreds of supporters. The fight for Georgia lieutenant governor, when you think about it, increasingly recalls the 2000 Republican presidential primary fight, with an establishment candidate facing a pro-reform insurgent.

You see this insurgent mentality in the attacks the Cagle campaign has launched against Reed.You see, in miniature, the shape of the attacks Democrats will probably launch against Republicans in 2006. "Although Ralph Reed wants the public to believe he has no ties to the gambling industry," one of Cagle's flacks wrote in a recent press release, "his campaign continues to receive financial support from lobbyists representing everything from Indian casinos to horse racing tracks."

One day last week, I came across a passage from Reed's 1994 book, Politically Incorrect, that has rolled around in my head ever since. In the passage Reed talks about his disgust upon reaching the nation's capital:

My experience in Washington was disillusioning. The lofty ideals that I brought to the nation's capital were shaken by the reality of life in Congress, where votes were sold to the highest bidder and politicians shook down special interests for campaign contributions in what journalist Brooks Jackson has called "honest graft." I saw powerful people up close, became acquainted with their foibles, and witnessed the seamy underside of politics. I learned quickly that the pursuit of power is an empty and unsatisfying exercise without a moral compass to guide one's journey.

Has Washington changed since then? Or has Ralph Reed?

Matthew Continetti is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.