Risky Business

No longer preaching to the choir, Ralph Reed has his eyes on a larger prize
By Keith Dunnavant
Atlanta Magazine
1998

On a dreary winter afternoon on the steps of the Georgia state capitol, Ralph Reed ignores the thunder rumbling in the distance. The baby-faced former executive director of the Christian Coalition stabs the cold air with his right hand as his defiant voice echoes through the public address system.

"We must stop abortion and stop it now!" Reed roars, looking out into the faces of several thousand pro-life supporters, huddled under rain-soaked umbrellas on the 25th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision. "Not only will we stand in the rain...we will stand and fight until once again a baby is safe in its mother's womb."

The keynote speaker smiles broadly as the crowd cheers and claps, filling the lawn and the adjoining streets with the unmistakable sound of surging political power.

More than any other figure on the political landscape, the 36-year-old Reed, educated at the University of Georgia and Emory University, has linked his fortunes to the anti-abortion movement and other causes championed by religious conservatives. Fusing religion and politics like no man since the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he burst from obscurity to national fame during his eight years with the Christian Coalition, building the controversial organization into one of the most influential and feared interest groups associated with the Republican Party. Vilified by the left, admired by the right, Reed meticulously assembled a grass-roots movement that swept school boards and state houses and helped the GOP seize control of Congress for the first time in a generation.

But when he resigned from the Christian Coalition last year to form Century Strategies, an Atlanta-based political consulting firm, heads turned throughout Washington. In the nation's capitol, surrendering power without the shove of scandal or constitutional mandate is anathema to the culture, like balanced budgets and lie detector tests. Why would a man walk away from such a lofty position? The answer was like a Zen riddle: He gave up all that power so he could gain even more.

"The Coalition was very limiting. It was like a box," he says inside a modest first-floor office near Gwinnett Place Mall. "I didn't want my identity to be tied up in one position. I wanted to be able to speak to and from a broader audience."

By walking away from the Christian Coalition, Reed hopes to recast himself on the political stage, to extricate himself from the negative connotations of what his opponents call "the radical right" while proving his strategic skills can succeed in a different context. Some political operatives see the gambit as a prelude to a campaign of his own in the not-too-distant future, perhaps for the governor's mansion, the House of Representatives, or the U.S. Senate.

But the move is fraught with risk, because his opponents will try to use his past against him, to put him back in the box. Unlike his days as the leader of a movement of one mind and one voice, he will be forced to live in a world of choices and compromises, leading to a defining question even the wunderkind cannot answer until it inevitably confronts him: Will Ralph Reed still be Ralph Reed when he's forced to choose between his religious convictions and his political ambitions?

Even as a child, Reed was driven to lead. "He always felt like he knew better than the other children," says his mother, Marcy Reed. Born six weeks premature to the wife of a Navy physician, Ralph was a precocious, opinionated boy who seemed wise beyond his years. Well-read from an early age, Reed (known as Buddy within the family) sometimes devoured six books in a single week, especially volumes on history. His mother frequently quizzed him to make sure he understood what he was reading.

He could be logical and articulate but also willful and argumentative. His paternal grandmother called him "the old man."

"He got in trouble like all kids, but it was very difficult to punish him [because] he was so stubborn," he mother says.

When Marcy sent him to his room one day to punish him for misbehaving, nine-year-old Ralph decided to show her. Rather than sulking, he used the time to write a science fiction story about two creatures who traveled from the moon to the earth in a tin can. She didn't know whether to feel proud or utterly powerless.

Even before the Reeds moved from Miami to the small northeastern Georgia town of Toccoa in 1976, when Ralph was entering the ninth grade, he was fascinated by politics, which he attributes to his father, Ralph Sr., and his grandmother, Eleanor. A devoted, life-long Republican who cast her first ballot for Herbert Hoover, Eleanor profoundly affected his intellectual development. Whenever she visited, Ralph would spend hour upon hour engaging her in political discussions, planting a seed that first blossomed when he sought and won the presidency of his class at Stephens County High School.

Reed struck a contrarian pose from the start. As a University of Georgia freshman in 1980, he stepped into the well of the state house to speak in favor of raising the drinking age to 21, facing a student gallery of students who greeted his remarks with pin-dropping silence.

"That taught me that you have to do what you know is the right thing, even if it isn't terribly popular," Reed says. "And I thought, as a purely empirical matter, putting one's desires for alcohol aside, if you raised the drinking age...fewer people would be killed."

Unlike many of his colleagues in UGA's College Republicans chapter, Reed took the game very seriously, demonstrating a sometimes puzzling devotion to the cause. One rainy, frigid morning in 1980, he and fellow student Bill Crane were standing on the bridge next to Sanford Stadium, handing out leaflets promoting Ronald Reagan for president and Mack Mattingly for Senate. Soon the ground was littered with their pamphlets.

Crane, who knew his friend suffered from an arthritic condition exacerbated by cold weather, eventually suggested they call it a day. "He looks at me and says, 'Bill, these are the kinds of things that make a difference. If we only reach 5 or 10 voters, those votes could make the difference in the election.' He was totally serious, and we stayed," says Crane, now director of communications for the Michael Bowers for governor campaign.

Known as the token conservative on The Red and Black, UGA's student newspaper, Reed authored caustic columns on subjects ranging from supply-side economics to affirmative action. "Ralph was always the most conservative one in our group," Crane says. He enjoyed tweaking the liberals on campus, being a provocateur, but after his editors discovered that he had copied part of a column by Richard Grenier in Commentary magazine without attribution, he was fired for plagiarism. "That taught me...if you stand for a set of values, you have to conduct yourself in a way that is beyond reproach," Reed says.

In contrast to his clean-cut latter day image, the undergraduate political operative was no choirboy. The young man who once spoke out against college-age drinking eventually partied as hard as he campaigned, gaining the reputation as a hard-drinking ladies man. "I was not a wild man per se," he says, "but I went through a rebellious, sewing-my-wild-oats period."

Reed, who had grown up in a Methodist home, never thought much about religion until he graduated from Georgia with a bachelor's degree in history. While working as a political staffer in Washington in 1983, he suddenly "felt the need to return to the church" and became a committed Christian, which profoundly altered his life in ways he could not yet imagine. As a gut-punching young political operative, he never expected religion to play a significant role in his life and then, like a bolt of lightning, it became the context for everything. By the time he returned to Georgia to pursue a doctor in history at Emory, Reed planned to make a career as a college professor.

But a chance encounter with Christian broadcaster and one-time Republican presidential candidate Pat Robertson lured Reed back into the political arena. During a GOP dinner around the time of George Bush's inauguration in 1989, Reed introduced himself to Robertson, who started talking about his plans to launch a new conservative organization. Ten months later, the 27-year-old Reed was introduced to a totally unimpressed Washington press corps as the head of the Christian Coalition, which had no office, no members and no clout.

Tapping into the large number of disaffected Christian conservatives who felt increasingly marginalized by the political system and mocked by the culture, Reed achieved stunning success while pushing the hot-button social issues of abortion, school prayer and education. Almost overnight, the Christian Coalition became a force to be respected and feared in the nation's capital and beyond. Proving his worth as a grassroots organizer, Reed fanned out around the country and sold the coalition like a crusade, convincing members to act as political missionaries for the cause. By the time he left, it boasted 1.9 million true believers. After Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994 - a long-standing Christian Coalition goal - Newsweek and other national media outlets gave Reed ample credit. More telling, both supporters and opponents say, is the influence religious conservatives have begun to assert at the state and local level, from statehouses to school boards, achievements directly related to Reed's leadership.

Two years ago, the principal of an elementary school in suburban Maryland looked out into the sea of parents at a PTA meeting and was stunned to see the head of the Christian Coalition sitting in the front row - not realizing that Ralph Reed also happened to be six-year-old Brittany Reed's father. Later, the principal confided to the Reeds, "I was scared to death wondering why the Coalition was coming after me!"

Even opponents grudgingly recognize his accomplishments. "He's a brilliant strategist who's responsible for building one of the most effective political organizations in the country," says Matt Freeman, senior vice president of People for the American Way, a liberal interest group founded by television producer Norman Lear.

Freeman and other adversaries credit Reed's calm, modulated approach to the issues and his frequent call for tolerance and civility for giving the Christian Coalition a more benign face. In what some opponents liked to a good cop/bad cop approach, Robertson could stridently preach about homosexuals and abortion doctors while Reed sought common ground. In his second book, Active Faith, published in 1996, Reed predicted "irrelevance and obscurity" for the movement unless it "shuns the harsh language on critical issues...and learn[s] to speak of our opponents with charity."

For all his moderate language and his attempt to reach out to African-Americans, Jews and other minorities, Reed became a lightning rod as the Christian Coalition blurred the lines between religion and politics. Liberal interest groups began to use his own success against him, warning their members about the dangers of the fast-growing "radical right," often using his name to great effect in their direct mail campaigns. Carole Shields, president of People for the American Way, called Reed's moderate language and attempts at inclusiveness "a brazen act of chutzpah" that "reeks of pure political calculation."

Reed took the attacks as a validation. "I went to [the Christian Coalition] because I believed that people of faith had been a marginal force in politics," he said. "They were not treated with the same level of deference or respect as feminists or labor unions or the business lobby. So we built it to where religious conservatives [are] arguably more influential than a lot of those groups who suddenly see us as a threat."

Several days before New Year's, JoAnne Reed looks exhausted but wears the thankful smile of a new mother. Six weeks after giving birth to the their fourth child, Nicole, she walks into her husband's office with the baby slumbering in her arms and the rest of their growing family in tow.

"I got a CD player for Christmas," eight-year-old Brittany announces to a visiting reporter.

"Skates," beams seven-year-old Ralph III.

"Golf clubs," mumbles five-year-old Christopher.

Golf clubs?

Their father, relaxing in a nearby chair, explains, "Yeah, he's the next Tiger Woods!"

"But I thought Ralphie was the next Tiger Woods!" says Brittany, the sting of eight-year-old sarcasm ringing in her voice.

The father laughs and shakes his head.

"Whichever one winds up with the lowest handicap by the time they're ten...Then their dad can make a quarter-mil a year wearing a Titleist hat!"

The blue-eyed Navy brat, who stands 5-foot-8, has succeeded primarily on the strength of his intellect and a certain effortless charm. Even those who disagree with him on the issues tend to say they like him personally. In the course of one conversation, he can ruminate at length about baseball and the civil rights movement, quote from Alexis de Tocqueville, John Lennon and Jesus Christ, and wonder aloud why the Bealtes never got back together and why the Republicans are still searching for a leader to replace Ronald Reagan.

Politics has shaped Reeds life in numerous ways, but none more profoundly than introducing him to his wife. She was 16 and he was 23 when fate brought them together at a rally for U.S. Senator Jesse Helms during the conservative firebrand's 1984 re-election campaign. He was a political operative down from Washington. She was a high school student, immediately smitten. Friendship led to infatuation, then love. They started dating after she turned 18 - he took her out for the first time the night of her high school graduation - and they married the following year. In addition to the usual reasons, they were attracted to each other because they shared a strong faith and the powerful tug of conservative politics.

JoAnne was seven months pregnant with Nicole when Ralph opened his suburban Atlanta office and started working toward his ambitious goal of building "the most effective and respected consulting operation in American politics." When word hit the streets that conservatism's most accomplished strategist since the late Lee Atwater was available to plot and spin for hire, potential clients started phoning, faxing, clamoring for his services. Even before he had a secretary or a letterhead, he had a stack of phone messages and a killer buzz. "The winner of the first battle for 2000," remarked Coalition president Donald Hodel, "will be the candidate who gets Ralph Reed's services."

"I cannot imagine anybody who would not be grateful for an opportunity to share his wisdom," Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Missouri) told The New York Times.

Benefiting from a seller's market heading into a pivotal election year, Reed was able to cherry-pick his first group of candidates, which includes U.S. Senators Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), Congressman Jay Dickey (R-Ky.), congressional challengers Jay Williams from Kentucky and Mike Fair from South Carolina, and Leo Daughtry, the majority leader of the North Carolina state house, who is exploring a run for governor in 2000.

Downplaying the notion that candidates who seek his help must pass a litmus test on the key conservative issues, Reed concedes, "If someone wants us to be effective on their behalf, we have to have a set of shared values." But in the next breath, the pragmatist parrots a line he once heard Governor Zell Miller use: "The only candidate you're ever going to agree with on everything is yourself."

In addition to his own slate of candidates, Reed's Century Strategies partner, Tim Phillips, will represent Fulton County Commission Chairman Mitch Skandalakis in his bid for lieutenant governor, creating an apparent conflict between Reed's job and his religious convictions. Skandalakis is pro-choice and has been attacked by his opponents for courting gay voters. While Phillips will handle the day-to-day operations of the campaign, Reed says he will be involved "from a strategic standpoint."

"Reed taking Skandalakis shows he's definitely trying to break away from being an operative of the Christian Coalition," says long-time Republican consultant Jim Lovejoy, who is managing Chuck Clay's campaign for lieutenant governor. "He's representing a guy who's philosophically opposed to him on some pretty key issues."

It may be several years before Reed's impact on politics in the state can be judged, but he arrives at a pivotal point in the history of the Georgia GOP. Although Republicans have seized a majority of the seats in the congressional delegation over the last two election cycles, the party remains a minority in the state house and has been unable to mount a credible threat to the popular Zell Miller. "Zell has succeeded because he's co-opted Republican ideas every step of the way," says Tom Purdue, long considered the state's most influential Republican consultant. The lottery. Boot camp. Welfare reform. Tax cuts. It is a list GOP operatives know all too well. "When the Georgia Republican Party gets anywhere, they find that Zell Miller has already been there and planted his flag." Republican leaders believe Miller's exit amid their growing strength presents a rare opportunity over the next few years - and that a skilled strategist like Reed could have a significant impact on the GOP's battle for electoral parity.

Although Century Strategies will be involved in races throughout the nation, Reed's arrival means unwelcome competition for Lovejoy and Purdue, who have dominated Republican campaigns in Georgia for years. While conceding the possibility that they may wind up fighting over local candidates, all insist the presence of three big-name GOP consultants underscores just how far the party has progressed from the days when it was a marginal force in the solidly Democratic South.

Even as his brand name lends automatic credibility to many of the candidates he represents, particularly in a state like Georgia that is home to a large evangelical population, Reed may discover that being a darling of religious conservatives can also be a political liability. Opposing campaigns will attempt to make an issue of his past, tapping into the high negatives associated with the Christian Coalition.

"Once he hooks up with a candidate," says Steve Anthony, executive director of the Georgia Democratic Party, "that person is automatically going to be pigeon-holed as a candidate of the far-right."

While the characterizations of him as a zealot of the radical fringe disturb Reed, he acknowledges the challenge he faces in speaking to a broader audience. Rather than de-emphasizing the issues that brought him to the forefront, he says he wants to work with candidates who agree with him on the majority of the pillars of modern conservatism: fiscal responsibility, lower taxes, welfare reform, and reducing the size and scope of government - as well as the array of pro-family issues about which he cares deeply.

"I want to be able to be authentic in my faith and in no way back-peddle or diminish the importance of my faith," he says. "But I want to be able to talk to the entire electorate and not simply be in an echo-chamber of those who agree with me."

No longer preaching exclusively to the choir, Reed has traded the security of a cause driven by a set of guiding principles for the chance to influence a larger debate on a wide range of issues, but the price of admission to the new neighborhood must be paid in compromises. A religious leader can talk about right and wrong. A politician must cut deals. At the Christian Coalition, Reed could rail against the evils of abortion. As a consultant, he must choose between helping a candidate who agrees with him on a broad swath of issues except abortion - or remaining on the sidelines and having no impact on the process.

Nowhere is the inner struggle between Reed's deeply held religious beliefs and his political pragmatism more apparent than in his own home. Ralph and JoAnne Reed share a deep faith and a conservative political philosophy, but while the wife stands on principle, the husband recognizes the need to play the political game. "I'm even more anti-abortion than Ralph is," JoAnne says. "I really don't condone it in any case."

The same man who stands before the pro-life crowd and condemns abortion not only for its own sake but for "cheapening the value of all life" admits he must separate his personal abhorrence for the practice under any circumstances from his desire to "move the ball politically," which inevitably requires deal-making and gradual steps. "My goal is to save as many lives as possible," he says. "The perfect is not the enemy of the good." But there is a fine line between compromising and selling out in the eyes of many pro-life advocates, and even as he tries to broaden his base, Reed runs the risk of squandering the political capital he has accumulated by allowing abortion to become less of a cause and more of a political issue.

But Reed has his eyes on a larger prize.

While he bristles at the comparisons to the brilliant but abrasive Lee Atwater, who masterminded George Bush's 1988 election campaign, many Republicans believe Reed has the right stuff to fill the strategic void that has plagued the party since Atwater's death from cancer in 1991. Some insist that Bill Clinton never would have been elected if Atwater had survived to run Bush's re-election bid, so great was his ability to frame a campaign. Now his memory haunts the party of Reagan and Gingrich as surely as Clinton mocks it by churning Republican issues into Democratic gains, and while Reed says he expects to be involved in running a presidential campaign in 2000, he would like to fill Atwater's shoes without tracing his footsteps.

"I really don't aspire to be what Lee was," Reed says. "He was a great operative, no doubt about it. He was not the greatest person."

A large segment of the American electorate believes religion has no legitimate place in politics. No matter how eloquent his intellectual argument may be, Reed will never be able to dampen the fear he stirs in the people who equate his movement with an attempt to impose his moral believes on the entire country, to destroy the separation of church and state.

"I find it objectionable that the Christian Coalition claims to speak for God," says Matt Freeman of People for the American Way.

But Reed considers himself as merely one in a long line of Americans of profound faith who have attempted to use their constitutional rights to affect the political process. A life-long admirer of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Reed sees a parallel between the way evangelical black churches cultivated the fight for civil rights in the 1950s and '60s and the pro-life movement of the last decade, which grew out of white evangelical churches and provided the major impetus for the founding of the Christian Coalition. Both began as moral arguments seeking to enact political change.

"One of the most important things King's life demonstrates is that you can be a person of extremely devout religious faith and also be deeply involved in the political process," Reed says.

Reasonable people disagree on where the line should fall, but Reed and his allies feel perfectly justified in running candidates for office based partially on their moral views and exerting the power of their collective strength in Washington and elsewhere. Millions of Americans, including many of strong religious faith, believe such a close marriage sets a dangerous precedent, and no amount of dialogue can dissuade them from believing that Reed and the Coalition represent a growing menace.

"We're a democracy and certainly people of faith should have the right to be involved in the political process," says Abraham Foxman, national director of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League. "But the temptation, when you start organizing political organizations around religious groups, is to impose that religion on others, and that's where we differ with the Christian Coalition."

Even within the Republican Party, the conflicts between so-called economic conservatives (voters who care most about fiscal issues, such as taxes) and social conservatives (voters who care most about moral issues, such as abortion) have created deep fissures. Many Republicans who believe that religion has no place in politics look down on the right-to-life crowd, and yet their party is increasingly reliant on the activist religious conservative movement, whose members tend to identify with the ideals of the GOP.

"Clearly, there are tensions," Reed says, "just as there are tensions in the Democratic Party between labor unions and the new Democrats. But I think [the tensions] are signs of strength, not weakness. You only have tensions in a party that is building and growing and moving towards majority status."

Just a King's non-violent revolution for civil rights struggled not to be identified with more radical factions a generation ago, the mainstream pro-life movement must distinguish itself from anti-abortion zealots who have resorted to terrorism, such as the recent clinic bombings in Atlanta and Birmingham that resulted in deaths. Reed and others like him have repeatedly condemned such acts of violence and taken great pains to prove that those perpetrating violence have not sprang from their ranks, but in the blur of blood and mangled bodies, the distinctions no doubt are lost on a large segment of the American public.

Because the clinic bombers also say they speak for God.

In his new career as a consultant, Reed vows to encourage his candidates to speak openly about their faith, which has always been a risky political strategy.

"When Reagan was elected, conservatism arrived," he says. "Now I think religious conservatives are about to have their moment. There's going to be someone of devout faith who steps forward to unite the country in the next few years. I really believe that."

Less than two years before the New Hampshire primaries launch the process all over again, the GOP continues to search for a galvanizing leader, a Reagan for the new age. Reed says he urged his friend Bill Bennett to run for president in 1996. "He's the only one I would have left the Christian Coalition for," he says. Bennett, the former drug czar under Reagan and Housing and Urban Development Secretary under Bush, is still considering a long-shot bid for the White House in 2000, but Reed believes magazine publisher Steve Forbes may be the man who can unite the party after two terms of Bill Clinton.

This year's elections loom as a series of tests for Reed's ambition to run a national campaign. Just as Democratic strategists James Carvelle and Paul Begalla earned their spurs by managing legislative and congressional campaigns before piloting Clinton to the White House in 1992, Reed needs to demonstrate that he can frame winning bids. "If he's successful running campaigns right out of the box, he's going to be hot as a firecracker," says one long-time political observer. "But he'll lose some of his luster if he doesn't win."

After all these years of sleeping with a political operative, JoAnne Reed has grown accustomed to The Big Question.

"No, I wouldn't have a problem with Ralph running for office," she says. "I would just prefer that he didn't do it right now..."

Seated nearby, Reed shifts into sound-bite mode and interrupts her in mid-sentence, laughing. "Now is the time for you to say, 'I think he would make an outstanding leader!"

Some Republican leaders would like to see Reed challenge Democratic Senator Max Cleland in 2002 or perhaps seek a congressional seat or the governor's mansion. "I get the impression that Ralph is thinking a lot bigger than the state of Georgia," says Rusty Paul, chairman of the state Republican Party. "I think he would like to be a player on the national stage: in the cabinet, White House chief of state or even..."

Then he stops, filling the air with the sort of pregnant pause that reflects the sense of grand possibility that Reed seems to inspire in some people.

"Even president."

His ability to communicate a message and his demonstrated skills in building a grass-roots political machine would make Reed a formidable candidate for any office, Republican leaders say. But even those who would be likely to support a Reed bid concede that he would face a difficult challenge in negotiating the transition from consultant to candidate, which few have accomplished, and in building a base on top of his expected strength with religious conservatives while making himself a large target.

At this point in his life, with a new business to build and four children to raise, Reed insists he has no plans to run for office in the immediate future. But he concedes that he might run someday if he felt called to do so, just as he believed that founding the Christian Coalition was "what God wanted me to do."

"Before I became a committed Christian, I used to sit around and worry a lot about my future," he says. "I would worry about where I was going to end up, whether I would be successful in life. But I don't think that way anymore."

Copyright 1998 by Keith Dunnavant

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