Basking in the bright lights of a dozen television cameras and a standing-room-only crowd of reporters in the Mansfield Room of the U.S. Capitol in June, TV preacher Pat Robertson proudly announced his selection to head the Christian Coalition.
Said a beaming Robertson, "God has shown us his faithfulness in the form of a double blessing. For in Ralph's replacement we have two outstanding leaders of enormous talent, extensive grassroots and management experience and exceptional integrity."
In a move that reemphasized the Coalition's partisan character and its national political clout, Robertson came to Washington, D.C., June 11 to name Donald Hodel and Randy Tate, two Republican activists, to replace Ralph Reed at the helm of the TV evangelist's political machine.
Hodel, 62, is a Colorado resident, best known for stints in the Reagan administration as head of the energy and interior departments. Tate, 31, is a former one-term member of Congress from Washington state. Both men are evangelical Christians with strong ties to the Religious Right.
According to Robertson, Hodel will serve as the Coalition's president, while Tare will occupy the position of executive director. Giving up the presidential slot but not control of the group, Robertson will become chairman of the Coalition's board of directors.
Continuing his "doubling" theme, Robertson told reporters Hodel and Tate's assignment will be to double the number of Coalition activists, to train twice as many political candidates and to double the number of initiatives in Congress and the state legislatures.
Robertson's new team pleased both the Republican Party establishment and many leaders of the Religious Right. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott arranged for the room in the Capitol to announce the selection and met with Robertson and his new lieutenants privately. House Speaker Newt Gingrich praised the pair effusively and said they would do a good job of replacing Reed.
"Today's announcement is like a baseball team that just lost Cal Ripken announcing that it picked up Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds to take his place," gushed Gingrich in a press statement. He added that the two are "politically astute, media savvy and experienced in the management of large organizations."
But the choices also pleased Religious Right hardliners. Phyllis Schlafly of the Eagle Forum told The Washington Times, Tate is "an excellent choice, a staunch conservative on everything." Added Gingrich ally Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, "Tate brings together economic, social and foreign policy conservatives. He is good on guns and taxes."
Republican pollster Frank Luntz told The New York Times, "Nobody will top Ralph Reed, but Randy will come as close as anybody could."
Hodel struck a similar chord. He is well liked and respected by party regulars, especially Reagan-era conservatives, but also has a strong relationship with Religious Right powerhouse James Dobson of Focus on the Family. Hodel serves on FOF's board and recently filled in temporarily as an FOF executive vice president.
Critics of the Christian Coalition, however, were less enamored by the pair. They said the new leadership simply reaffirms the partisan character of the organization. Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn attended the Robertson news conference and noted its Republican bent in a subsequent press statement.
"The selection of Hodel and Tate proves conclusively that the Christian Coalition is nothing more than a GOP political unit," observed Lynn. "Robertson wants to win maximum influence in the Republican Party in order to advance his extremist agenda."
Lynn noted that Hodel even told reporters at the news conference that he sees his new job as an opportunity "to keep alive the flame of Ronald Reagan's legacy."
Tate, on the other hand, is a "Ralph Reed clone," said Lynn. "He's young, he's a religious political extremist and he's a hardball partisan operative who will work closely with the Republican leadership in Congress."
Concluded Lynn, "We can expect more of the same from the Christian Coalition -- more extremism, more gutter politics and more partisanship from a tax-exempt supposedly non-partisan group."
Critics pointed to an incident from Tate's past to support the hardball politics charge. During a race for the Washington state legislature in 1988, supporters of Tate, then 22, distributed literature tying his Democratic opponent Frank "Buster" Brouillet to child abuse. "Buster," the flier asked, "are you trying to keep your record secret? Buster hasn't talked much about sexual abuse of kids. Do you wonder why?"
Democrats said the stunt was clearly designed to suggest Brouillet was a child abuser. Tate denied knowledge of the flier, but insisted anyway that it referred not to Brouillet's personal conduct, but to his reluctance to release the names of teachers alleged to be child abusers when he served as state superintendent of public instruction.
The smear tactic apparently worked; Tate won the election. That same year he also served as alternate delegate to the Republican National Convention, committed to Robertson, the "Christian" candidate for the GOP presidential nod.
Although elected with strong support from religious conservatives, Tate's legislative career has been marked by pragmatism. Tate, a Baptist, voted for abortion restrictions and other Religious Right "moral" initiatives, but he didn't emphasize them.
Instead, he spent his three terms in the legislature moving up in the party leadership and fighting for lower taxes, tort reform and anti-crime legislation, all issues more palatable to voters in a swing district. (He even introduced a bill to out-law lip-syncing during the Milli Vanilli recording scandal.)
In his one term in the U.S. House, Tate achieved a 100 percent mark on the Christian Coalition "congressional scorecard." But he is best known for work on issues somewhat outside the Religious Right realm. He sponsored a bill that would have barred pensions for members of Congress convicted of felonies. He also backed a constitutional amendment banning flag burning, supported making English the official language, worked for repeal of the assault weapons ban and fought for a crackdown on illegal immigrants.
Tate's congressional career was brief; he lost a close reelection battle despite a $1.5-million war chest collected mostly from PACs. During his brief tenure in Congress, Tare made his way into the good graces of Speaker Gingrich, who named him to an advisory panel for the 1994 transition team. Tate later was chosen a House GOP whip. This "team player" status reportedly led Gingrich allies Norquist and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay to push Tate's candidacy with Robertson and Reed.
Although Tate had reportedly never met Robertson until his job interview, Hodel's personal and political ties with the religious broadcaster go back quite a way. The two became acquainted in 1987 when Hodel, then interior secretary, hosted a Washington briefing on environmental issues that Robertson attended. During his presidential bid, the TV preacher said Hodel was the kind of man he would name as White House chief of staff.
Throughout much of his career, Hodel, an Oregon native and Harvard graduate, has been known for a pro-business, anti-environmentalism stance. In the 1970s he headed the Bonneville Power Administration and pushed for a $25 billion nuclear power plant construction project in Washington state. The project collapsed, however, with only one of the five proposed plants completed.
Hodel soon went to Washington, D.C., to serve in the Reagan administration under then-Secretary of the Interior James Watt. After filling two Reagan cabinets posts himself, Hodel moved to Colorado and went into private business, while continuing to work in Republican politics, especially fund-raising.
Hodel also became known in evangelical circles after his teenage son became addicted to drugs and committed suicide. Hodel and his wife Barbara hit the Christian speakers circuit to talk about the role of their faith in dealing with the tragedy.
Hodel and Robertson may also have become closer through their involvement in the Council for National Policy (CNP), a net-working organization for wealthy business executives, right-wing politicians and Religious Right leaders. Robertson has served as president of the secretive body, while Hodel has chaired its environment committee. Former Attorney General and CNP activist Ed Meese reportedly recommended Hodel to Robertson for the Coalition leadership post.
Hodel and Tate are inheriting from Reed the reins of an organization with many problems. A Federal Election Commission lawsuit under way against the Coalition charges that the group illegally assisted Republican candidates for public office. In addition, federal tax authorities still have not awarded the Coalition the tax-exempt status it seeks (and currently is operating under).
Some observers also question whether the new leaders can increase, let alone "double," the group's stagnant membership. Although many news reports in June inaccurately repeated the Coalition's claim of a 1.8 million "members and supporters," the number is actually much fewer.
Official postal records filed last year showed that as of Oct. 1, 1996, only 341,051 individuals had contributed $15 or more to the group and were receiving its flagship publication, The Christian American. That's down slightly from the 353,703 reported in September 1994.
Although Reed was hailed by the press as an organizing genius, his efforts to spark membership growth among evangelicals -- and his campaign to reach out to Roman Catholics and African Americans -- were failing badly. Observers speculate these are among the reasons Reed decided to leave his CC post and start his own more lucrative political consulting firm.
While troubled, the Christian Coalition is unlikely to fade from the scene. Hodel and Tate are both known for their fund-raising abilities, and they can always count on support from Coalition Chairman Robertson, whose financial empire continues to skyrocket.
On the same day the Coalition appointments were made public, Robertson announced a $1.9 billion deal to sell International Family Entertainment, Inc. (IFE) to media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
Murdoch's Fox Kids Worldwide Inc. will now control Robertson's IFE and its lucrative Family Channel, a cable channel that reaches an estimated 67 million American homes. Under the deal, Robertson's "700 Club," his top fund-raising and propaganda vehicle, will continue to be carried on the channel for at least five years, and he will continue to serve as its co-chairman. (Robertson's son Tim will also remain as president and CEO.)
Robertson's accord with Murdoch is ironic, given Murdoch's reputation as a purveyor of sleazy television programming. According to The New York Times, Robertson singled out Fox's "Married With Children" a decade ago, calling for an advertising boycott of the series. Robertson said God had "little obligation at the present time to spare America because we are polluting it with our television programming."
In press announcements, Robertson claimed the megabucks deal will help his various ministries. He said $136.1 million will go to fund the Christian Broadcasting Network's WorldReach evangelism program. His Regent University will earn $147.5 million for its endowment.
Robertson spun off the for-profit IFE from CBN, a tax-exempt nonprofit ministry built up with donations from Robertson's viewers and supporters.
In other news from the Robertson empire:
* The Associated Press reported in June that the Christian Coalition rented a mailing list of 36,000 supporters to Republican Senate candidate Oliver North in 1994 for $5,131. The Coalition has always claimed it neither endorses nor supports candidates. A Christian Coalition spokesman acknowledged the North deal, but said the group would have made the list available to any candidate who wanted it.
North's GOP opponent James Miller disagreed. He told the AP, "I solicited their support ... but was told, `We have nothing against you, but we'll be supporting Ollie.'"
* Although his political stock in Washington continues to rise, Pat Robertson still expresses some extreme views on television and gets away with it. On his April 28 "700 Club" broadcast, he launched a diatribe against President Bill Clinton's "National Summit on Volunteerism." The event drew bipartisan support from Colin Powell and every living former president, but Robertson compared it to Nazi Germany. Charging it could lead to forced volunteerism, the TV preacher drew parallels with the Hitler Youth movement and said soon "all the frauleins will be lining up to salute their Fuhrer."
* Ralph Reed has made a name for himself with some Americans, but not most. The Associated Press reported in May that only 9 percent of those surveyed by the Pew Research Center could identify the former Christian Coalition executive director. By contrast, eight out ten could identify Dennis Rodman and Tiger Woods, and 62 percent knew Ellen Degeneres.
* Representatives from several public policy organizations in Louisiana, including the YWCA, are angry over a state-funded drug training workshop in April that featured Ralph Reed and other Religious Right leaders. Gail Glapion, executive director of the Louisiana YWCA, and seven others signed a joint letter to the New Orleans Times-Picayune protesting Reed's involvement in a three-day seminar in Alexandria, La., that was funded by Gov. Mike Foster's office. All state organizations receiving funds from the Drug Free Schools and Communities Program had to send representatives to the training. (Foster, a Republican, is a Coalition ally.)
"Mr. Reed's agenda is clearly a political one and not appropriate for non-political, non-profit training financed by tax dollars," read the letter.
* The Christian Coalition has announced that its annual "Road to Victory" Conference will not be in Washington this year. Instead, the organization will hold three regional meetings in Atlanta, St. Louis and Long Beach, Calif., this fall.
* Some Christian Coalition state chapters are taking on issues that fall outside the usual definition of "pro-family." In New Mexico, for example, the Coalition had focused on opposing gay rights and legal abortion but this year broadened its agenda to support a measure allowing the carrying of concealed firearms.
* The former chairman of the Christian Coalition in Nebraska has called on the group to disconnect itself from the Republican Party. Alan Jacobsen, an unsuccessful 1994 GOP gubernatorial candidate, said it's wrong for Nebraska Christian Coalition Executive Director Doug Patton to sit on the state GOP's central committee, reported the Lincoln Journal Star.
"If the Coalition is going to use the word Christian, it needs to be above party politics," Jacobsen said. "It needs to be above reproach. It need to appeal to Christians in a non-partisan way. Otherwise, call it the Republican Christian Coalition or the pro-family coalition or the religious coalition. The Nebraska Christian Coalition does not speak now on behalf of all Christians. And it's not fair to cast all Christians in that light."
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|Author:||Conn, Joseph L.|
|Publication:||Church & State|
|Date:||Jul 1, 1997|
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