Thursday, April 20, 2006
The Abramoff Effect
Ties to Lobbyist May Hobble Ralph Reed's Bid for Georgia Office
CUMMINGSApril 20, 2006;
HAMILTON, Ga. -- Ralph Reed, White House confidant and an architect of the Religious Right movement, was favored to win the nomination in the Georgia lieutenant governor's race when the 2006 campaign season began. But his work with Jack Abramoff, the former lobbyist who has admitted to trying to bribe lawmakers, is becoming a drag on Mr. Reed's first bid for public office. Several surveys show Mr. Reed still holding a narrow lead, but with high unfavorable ratings and many voters undecided. While the Abramoff scandal has affected other campaigns, such as the re-election bid of Montana Republican Sen. Conrad Burns, the Georgia race appears the most competitive. So Mr. Reed's dilemma raises the question: Will Mr. Reed, a star of the national Republican Party, become the first campaign casualty of the Abramoff scandal when he squares off with state Sen. Casey Cagle in the July 18 primary? Mr. Reed hasn't been charged with wrongdoing and his campaign manager says he is cooperating with Washington investigators. But he is having trouble squaring his opposition to gambling with his work for Mr. Abramoff's Indian casino clients. On the campaign trail his answer to queries about the matter has been: "If I had known then what I know now, I would not have done that work." Sadie Fields, head of the Christian Coalition chapter in Georgia, considers Mr. Reed a friend and champion of the religious conservative cause in politics. "He's apologized," she says, and the chapter is closed for her. But other Republicans once close to Mr. Reed aren't satisfied with his explanation of his role in Mr. Abramoff's work. Maurice Atkinson, a Christian Coalition activist, quit the Reed campaign after the scandal became public and signed up with Mr. Cagle. "Nobody likes to be a hypocrite and nobody likes to follow a hypocrite," he says. Erosion of support from religious activists could signal trouble for Mr. Reed as he heads into the primary's home stretch. The pastor of his church has teamed up with Richard Lee, senior pastor of the First Redeemer Church, a large Southern Baptist church in Atlanta's Republican suburbs, to organize a get-to-know-you session with hundreds of other pastors. Asked if the Abramoff scandal is likely to come up, Mr. Lee said: "I would think so." Mr. Reed first worked alongside Mr. Abramoff in 1981 when they were active in the College Republicans National Committee. Mr. Reed went on to make his political mark in the 1990s by orchestrating the rise of the Christian Coalition political action group, as executive director to founder and evangelist Pat Robertson. In 1997, he returned home to Georgia to open a lobbying firm, Century Strategies, and emails show he turned to his old friend to juice up earnings. "I need to start humping in some corporate accounts!" he wrote in 1998 to Mr. Abramoff. Between 2001 and 2003, Mr. Reed collected more than $4 million in fees from Abramoff clients with gambling interests, including Indian tribes. Mr. Reed's specialty was ginning up opposition from religious leaders to tribes trying to elbow into Abramoff clients' turf. Payments to Mr. Reed's firm were funneled through organizations such as tax-exempt or charitable groups aligned with Mr. Abramoff, which obscured their source. After Mr. Reed complained about a tardy payment in 2001, Mr. Abramoff emailed this explanation: "The originating entity had to transfer to a separate account before they transferred it to the entity which is going to transfer it to you." Mr. Reed's work -- and his emails -- came to light last year during hearings by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, and became a campaign issue. The Abramoff affair even shadowed the campaign kick-off, headlined by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. In 2002, when the two men's lobbying firms had been on opposite sides of a Louisiana gambling fight between Indian tribes, Mr. Abramoff had bragged in an email to a colleague that Mr. Reed would get James Dobson, head of the conservative advocacy group Focus on the Family, to attack Mr. Barbour. "Let me know when Dobson hits him. I want to savor it," Mr. Abramoff wrote in a separate email to Mr. Reed. Mr. Dobson ultimately didn't criticize Mr. Barbour. Mr. Reed declined to comment publicly on the matter. Gov. Barbour's office didn't return telephone messages. Ed Rogers, a partner in Barbour, Griffiths & Rogers, Gov. Barbour's former firm, calls the email from Mr. Abramoff "petty and deceitful" but doesn't blame Mr. Reed. "Ralph Reed and Haley Barbour have been friends for a long time," Mr. Rogers says. "Ralph gets the benefit of the doubt." Although the Reed campaign says it has weathered the worst of the Abramoff news, the candidate's position remains precarious. The Senate Finance Committee is considering holding hearings on Mr. Abramoff's use of shell groups to pay entities such as Mr. Reed's lobbying firm. New revelations -- or even rehashing of events -- could be fuel for his political opponents. Mr. Reed is counting on a big turnout by his loyalists to mute any effect of the Abramoff scandal. He is applying the skills he used to build the Christian Coalition and, as Georgia's Republican Party chairman, to create a turnout operation that in 2002 elected the state's first Republican governor since Reconstruction.
But his opponent, Mr. Cagle, isn't dismissing the Abramoff matter, which helps him emphasize differences between the two Georgia natives: the balding Mr. Cagle's down-home style, soft twang and local ties compared with Mr. Reed's matinee looks and national alliances -- former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in May will be top draw for a fund-raiser. "I am not going to be a lightening rod," Mr. Cagle says. Mr. Reed "is defined" by his ties to the Christian Coalition and Mr. Abramoff and "that puts him in a very narrow box that is difficult to get out of," Mr. Cagle says.
A majority of elected officials in the Georgia Legislature and hundreds of county commissioners and sheriffs have endorsed Mr. Cagle. Here in Hamilton, state Rep. Vance Smith Jr., the governor's House floor leader, held a reception for him. "I don't know Ralph that well. I've met him," Mr. Smith says. "But Casey has been on the front lines."