Christian Coalition falls on lean days

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The Christian Coalition, once one of the most powerful forces of the religious right, is running a much leaner operation these days.

The group — once based in Washington — now has its headquarters in Charleston, S.C., where it is coping with a vastly reduced budget of $1.3 million, down from the $26 million it enjoyed a decade ago.

It employs a part-time political consultant based in Columbia, S.C., and a Washington lobbyist who works from a home office in Frederick, Md.

“The Christian Coalition is — how shall I put it? — it’s moribund,” said Richard Cizik, director of public policy for the National Association of Evangelicals.

“Access doesn’t always translate to influence, but there was a day when the name ‘Christian Coalition’ connoted access,” he said. “It may still have some of that access, but it does not have the influence.”

Founded in 1989 by the Rev. Pat Robertson, the Christian Coalition is widely credited with engineering the “Republican revolution” in 1994. The group’s “Road to Victory” conferences — biennial religio-political gatherings in Washington — were considered a must for up-and-coming Christian conservatives. Four thousand people attended the conference in 1996.

While attendance at last year’s conference decreased to 1,000, it still drew such big names as House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, Colorado Republican, and Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican. Another “Road to Victory” is planned for 2006.

Former President Bill Clinton’s eight years in office caused the group to mushroom, said Drew McKissick, the group’s political director.

“But once you got past 2000, you had a much more conservative president in the White House who was not antagonistic toward Christians,” he said. “We had to refocus our agenda as we no longer had a liberal bogeyman in the White House. Instead of being in opposition to, you’re trying to work on the positive side of the agenda.”

The group has been fighting off creditors and coping with the lack of a charismatic spokesman, such as former Executive Director Ralph Reed or Mr. Robertson. Mr. Reed departed in 1997 to start a political consulting firm and Mr. Robertson stepped down in 2001. He was replaced by Roberta Combs, director of the group’s South Carolina affiliate.

“In its heyday, the Christian Coalition was important, but not as powerful as some in the press made it out to be,” said author and Republican consultant Craig Shirley. “The demise of the Christian Coalition may be more about generating fewer press releases now than it did when Ralph was there.”

But the group — with a mailing list that includes 2 million names — can still rouse the troops, and the 30 million voter guides it distributes before national elections inform the electorate on where politicians stand on key issues.

Washington lobbyist Jim Backlin said the organization is playing key roles in legislation such as the Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act and the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act.

“Our people would like to see Roe vs. Wade overturned but meanwhile we will work on what they call the small bills, chipping away at abortion in this country,” Mr. Backlin said.

But the group’s financial problems may hinder it from fighting such battles.

An Oct. 8 article by the Virginian-Pilot described the Christian Coalition’s “trail of unpaid bills from Texas to Virginia,” as well as a small army of creditors that have filed at least a dozen claims against the group.

Among them is a lawsuit filed in June by mailing company Pitney Bowes for more than $13,600 in unpaid postage. The case has since been settled out of court.

In 2002, Focus Direct, a San Antonio direct mail firm, sued the group over a fundraising problem. Mrs. Combs said the claim was settled for $200,000.

Christian Coalition’s former law firm, Huff, Poole & Mahoney of Virginia Beach, asked a judge last year to garnish the group’s assets for $75,530 in unpaid bills. Since then, the law firm has secured a partial payment of more than $21,000, the Virginian-Pilot reported.

Mrs. Combs described the law firm’s complaint as “a disputed bill.”

Mr. Robertson released a statement Monday saying he has “no involvement in or knowledge of the coalition’s current operations, so it would be unfair of me to comment on press reports about their finances. Nevertheless, during the period of my involvement, the impact of the coalition was profound and will be felt for many years to come.”

Mrs. Combs’ daughter, Michele , the group’s communications director, said all lawsuits against the organization have been settled and the coalition remains a “very viable organization doing a lot of good things out there.”

However, its 2001 tax return said that although the organization took in $4.42 million in revenues that year, its expenditures were $4.45 million. Added to a pre-existing deficit, the group ended the year $983,695 in the hole. Mrs. Combs’ salary was listed as $120,000.

In 2001, the group also was fighting a racial discrimination lawsuit brought by 10 black employees in the Washington office. That claim was settled with an out-of-court payment of about $300,000 to the employees.

When Mrs. Combs took over as the group’s president in 2002, she also hired her daughter’s husband, Tracy Ammons, as a lobbyist. But when the marriage between Michele Combs and Mr. Ammons dissolved in 2003, he sued the group for $123,500 in unpaid compensation.

He and his lawyer, Jonathon Moseley, filed more than 80 pleadings and motions in Arlington Circuit Court, for which Circuit Judge Joanne Alper slapped Mr. Ammons with $83,000 in sanctions for frivolous pleadings. Mr. Moseley said the matter is now under arbitration.

“Roberta Combs is one of those people who routinely doesn’t pay people,” Mr. Moseley said. “She has a habit of forcing everyone to sue her.”

Michele Combs said the Christian Coalition has “thousands of supporters around the country who support us and we’re doing really, really well. We are moving on. We will survive.”

Ralph Z. Hallow contributed to this report.

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