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BAD Advice.

Consultant Ralph Reed's Poisonous Politicking Fails At The Polls

In his days as TV preacher Pat Robertson's point-man at the Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed often cast religious conservatives as victims. Liberals and moderates, he complained, too often treated them as "objects of fear." No group of people should be so stigmatized, argued Reed, for such intimidation grievously hurt the political process.

For Reed, who last year left the Christian Coalition to found his own Georgia-based GOP consulting firm, Century Strategies, 1998 marked a crucial test. Not only would it show whether he could effectively translate to candidates' races the messages he so readily deployed on behalf of arch-conservative causes, from abortion to school vouchers. But his debut as a partisan Svengali would also reveal whether Reed's lip service to the sanctity of the political process -- already undercut by the partly tax-exempt Coalition's overt electioneering -- would have any substance at all.

The results of the November election and the tactics of Reed's clients indicate failures on both counts.

Several observers have noted the poor performance of the novice consultant's candidates. USA Today declared Reed one of its election-day "losers" for his lack of successes. But few have pointed out the dubious actions in which Reed's advisees engaged. Losses in nearly all of Reed's races, including those of his two most visible congressional patrons, followed race-baiting and gay-bashing campaigns featuring advertisements condemned for harshness and dishonesty.

In Indiana, Reed advised Indianapolis jeweler Gary Hofmeister in his bid to oust incumbent Rep. Julia Carson. Carson, an African-American, had won the 10th district slot in 1996, a symbolic triumph in a city that once marked the pinnacle of Klan power in the North. Hofmeister's effort to unseat her included ads that morphed her image into that of jail cells and hypodermic needles.

The messages prompted comparisons to the use of the infamous "Willie Horton" ads during the 1988 presidential race between George Bush and Michael Dukakis, ads that drew the scorn of many observers. Hofmeister's landslide loss defied earlier predictions of a close outcome.

In Kentucky, Reed aided State Senator Gex (pronounced Jay) Williams in the contest for an open U.S. House seat long held by the GOP. Once the heir apparent to win the district's slot in Congress, Williams stumbled amid ethics charges stemming from his state legislative tenure and allegations of male chauvinism.

A Williams letter to home-schooling parents in the state urged participation by families' kids in his campaign, which would be in touch with "the father of the home" to coordinate involvement in the weeks leading up to the election. Several mothers who received the letter called the assumption that men will call the shots an insult. Outflanked by Ken Lucas, a conservative Democrat, Williams lost.

Both candidates' losses followed the defeat of another Reed client and presumed shoo-in, Mike Fair, in South Carolina, who came up short in a GOP congressional primary runoff in June.

In Georgia, Reed handled the lieutenant governor campaign of Mitch Skandalakis, a conservative member of the Fulton County Commission. The candidate appealed to racism by bashing the black mayor of Atlanta. "Bill Campbell is an incompetent boob," railed Skandalakis in a campaign ad, warning that he was "gonna kick" the city in the proverbial posterior.

According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Skandalakis also trotted out the canard that his Democratic opponent Mark Taylor backed "special rights" for gays and was so beholden to their support that he would operate "an escort service" for the "homosexual lobby." Skandalakis lost 56 percent to 39 percent.

In the campaign for state labor commissioner, Reed steered the bid of John Frank Collins, a conservative Republican who faced Michael Thurmond, a Democrat and an African-American. Collins also reportedly invoked race to rally voters against his foe, but the tactic failed. Collins lost 53-47 percent, but has thrown his hat into the ring in the race to occupy Newt Gingrich's Georgia House seat.

In neighboring Alabama, Reed helped the failed reelection bid of GOP governor Fob James. James had invoked black Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington in playing the race card in his Republican primary victory over Winton Blount.

Reed also faced disappointing results in the lower-profile races he handled. In contests for the Georgia legislature, Sandra Harrington lost a race for the state House of Representatives after running ads that likened the chamber's speaker to Adolf Hitler. Two other candidates reportedly relying on Reed's services -- Tom Davis and Sam Mederios -- lost, too, as did Christian Coalition ally Ron Crews, a minister and anti-abortion crusader who was upset in his reelection try. However, Tommie Williams, accused by a primary foe of spreading false rumors that she had an abortion, won a spot in the state Senate, providing a rare point of light on election night for Reed.

The nasty three-way GOP primary by which Reed's candidate advanced to the November vote also included charges of wrongdoing against Williams from his other opponent, Willou Smith. Smith's husband Bill, according to the Florida Times-Union, said of the Williams campaign that "they will cut your throat in the name of the Lord, and that means anything goes."

Reed and his fledgling company Century Strategies may recover from the losses of their first campaign cycle. But in his attempt to bridge appeals to religious piety with hardball politics, Reed made objects of fear of African-Americans and gays, violating his own professed code for taking part in politics. In doing so, he may have dealt an enduring blow to the credibility of his firm.

Stints advising GOP presidential hopefuls John Ashcroft, Steve Forbes and George W. Bush may eventually resurrect Reed's business, but if his candidates' appeals to a moral agenda are ever to pass the laugh test, he'll have to stop making victims of others and rethink his tactics.

Hans Johnson, a Washington writer and columnist, is co-author of the New Members of Congress Almanac (1997-99).
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Author:Johnson, Hans
Publication:Church & State
Date:Dec 1, 1998
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