Ralph Reed is going to own this room. Granted, it's only a standard-issue campus auditorium at Emory University, half-filled at best for the annual Georgia College Republicans convention. But to the former boy wonder of evangelical politics, it looks like heavenly shelter on this drizzly February morning. The Christian Coalition co-founder's first campaign for public office — lieutenant governor of Georgia, a position Reed and his fans envision as a stepping stone to bigger things — has turned into a waking nightmare.
Every week brings a new revelation about the millions in dirty money Reed earned by duping his fellow evangelicals into putting their political muscle behind "Casino Jack" Abramoff's gambling clients. Reed's huge leads in both popularity polls and fundraising have almost disappeared. Instead of making his triumphant debut as a politician, the man Time magazine called "The Right Hand of God" is fast becoming the new poster boy for Christian-right corruption.
But here, Reed expects a hero's welcome. As an undergraduate dynamo at the University of Georgia in the late 1970s and early '80s, Reed turned the Georgia CRs into a political machine that helped elect the state's first Republican U.S. senator since Reconstruction. "Tricky Ralph," as he was known on campus, went on to make a similar splash with the national CRs, teaming with the equally tricky pair of Abramoff, who was national CR chairman in the early 1980s, and Grover Norquist, whose Americans for Tax Reform is also caught up in the scandal.
Those associations go unmentioned in the introductory roll call of achievements that Reed listens to, beaming, before he bounds up to the podium, spreading wide his Howdy Doody grin. "It's great to be back home," he chirps, fondly recalling how in 1980 he ran a mock campus election in which Ronald Reagan surprisingly beat President Jimmy Carter, Georgia's native son — and timed the results perfectly for maximum impact. "Right before Ronald Reagan walked out on stage for his one and only debate against President Carter," he says, "they distributed a news release announcing Reagan's victory in Georgia!"
This is vintage Reed, the incorrigibly boastful, smooth-talking operator who long dazzled — and blinded — evangelical Christians, big-money Republicans and mainstream journalists. Now 44, he still looks like a million bucks, his elfin face perma-tanned to a brick red, his pencil-thin body subtly bulked out by a well-tailored suit. Only one thing is missing: applause. Maybe some CRs know the real history of that 1980 mock election from Nina Easton's book Gang of Five, in which Reed's first big political triumph is revealed to have been rigged — his first notable act of mass deception. Maybe they're just waiting for Reed to finally offer a satisfying explanation of his star turn in the Abramoff scandal. But his mea culpa smacks more of false piety than genuine gut-spilling.
"I was approached in 1999 by a friend that I met in the College Republicans," says Reed. "He said, 'There's an effort to bring five new casino-style operations to Alabama. Would you be willing to help us stop them?' And I said, 'Yes, I would. I'm opposed to casino gambling expansion, but I can only do it if I won't be paid with revenues from other casinos.'" Before the kids get a chance to chew on that, Reed quickly offers a Nixonian apology before sliding into spin mode. "If I had known then what I know now, I would have turned that work down. But I will tell you that the work that I did either prevented from opening, or closed, eight gambling casinos, and we will never know how many marriages and lives were saved by the work that I did."
The Georgia CRs finally give Reed a polite hand for his creative stab at self-redemption. A few awkward minutes later, Reed is climbing the steps toward the exit, wearing an iron-willed smile while making an elaborate show of "gripping and grinning," even though only a few hands reach out to him. It's one more sign of his mounting desperation to project the air of a winner — a desperation that led to embarrassment in January, when Reed's campaign offered $20 and a free hotel stay to supporters who would attend the Georgia Christian Coalition's annual convention and cheer for the man who invented the coalition.
When he announced his candidacy last spring, Reed figured that his biggest challenge would be winning over moderate, "party regular" Republicans who worried he might be too far right to win a general election. But the Abramoff scandal has forced him to fight for votes he should have been able to take for granted — especially those of Christian conservatives. Reed's struggle to hold on to their loyalty has given this lieutenant governor's race a rare national significance. Judgment day in Georgia, July 18, when Republicans cast their primary votes, is shaping up as a crucial test of how Christian conservatives will respond to their leaders' entanglement in the ugliest corruption scandal since Teapot Dome. In the words of Georgia native Ed Kilgore, vice president for policy at the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), Reed has become "the Abramoff mine canary."
It's easy to see why. As executive director of the Christian Coalition from its founding in 1989 until his departure in 1997, Reed got — and took — the lion's share of credit for transforming the politically unsophisticated evangelical right into a disciplined Republican Party machine. "Ralph Reed symbolizes the rise of the Christian right to political power," says Frederick Clarkson, author of "Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy." "He became the story of the movement — the face and voice for those millions of conservative Christians in the mainstream press. Now he's becoming a symbol of what's gone awry."
Last June Georgia's former GOP House minority leader Bob Irvin blasted Reed in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution op-ed. "His M.O. is to tell evangelical Christians that his cause of the moment, for which he has been hired, is their religious duty," Irvin fumed. "As an evangelical myself, I resent Christianity being used simply to help Reed's business."
Irvin's dart went straight to the heart of the matter. While grassroots organizing has been the key to lifting evangelicals to power in the GOP, the movement's political model has mostly mirrored the traditional hierarchy of churches, with trusted leaders setting the tone and issuing marching orders to their foot soldiers. What if the generals — the Reeds and James Dobsons — are proven to care more about power and money than stamping out abortion or homosexuality? The damage to evangelical politics would clearly be immense. So would the damage to the Republican Party, which cannot carry a national election without the full enthusiasm and participation of the evangelical troops.
"Think what will happen on Election Day when 2 to 3 percent of the previously most passionate Republicans stay home," Joseph Farah, editor and publisher of the right-wing WorldNetDaily, warned in January. "Think of what it will mean when 20 to 30 percent of the grassroots activists Republicans have counted on to work for them don't show up."
Other evangelical leaders and allies are taking their hits in L'Affaire Abramoff — former House majority leader Tom DeLay, in particular, along with antigay crusader Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition and right-wing Rabbi Daniel Lapin of Toward Tradition, both of whom allegedly took money from Abramoff client eLottery to help defeat a federal ban on Internet gambling. But Reed's involvement runs the deepest and broadest by far. And the particulars of his cloak-and-dagger activities strike the evangelical political movement straight in the gut.
From 1999 to 2002 Reed's Georgia-based consulting firm, Century Strategies, set up "anti-gambling" coalitions in Alabama, Louisiana and Texas to oppose proposed new casinos (and in one case to shut down an existing one). Reed convinced dozens of influential pastors in those states, along with some of the biggest national names on the evangelical right — Dobson, Phyllis Schlafly, Gary Bauer, Donald Wildmon, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson — to mobilize their flocks in a series of successful anti-casino campaigns. The front groups Reed established, with upright names like Citizens Against Legalized Gambling, organized religious rallies, sent out mass mailings decrying the evils of wagering and flooded legislators and state officials with thousands of calls from concerned Christians.