- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2001

The Christian Coalition rocked by financial debt, lawsuits and the loss of experienced political leaders has become but a pale imitation of its once powerful self.
That's the verdict of Republican strategists and former coalition officers.
One of the group's most effective leaders, Ralph Reed, resigned as executive director in 1997, followed by a "mass exodus" of leadership in 1999. The coalition entered last year's campaign $2 million in debt.
The 12-year-old coalition, which helped organize Christian conservatives as a political force to be reckoned with, recently was hit with a discrimination suit by black employees of its Washington headquarters.
"I get no sense that Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition is any more than marginally effective," Ken Hill, former Christian Coalition chief operating officer, says in an interview. "My personal take is that time has passed them by, organizationally."
Marshall Wittman, who was the top Jewish official in the Christian Coalition until he left before last year's campaign cycle, says he would be "shocked if there was not a significant falloff in the Christian Coalition's grass-roots organizing and 'get out the vote' ability.
"The state organizations seemed to be a shell of what they once were."
A White House official who worked in the Bush campaign says privately, "I can't quantify it, but my impression was that, organizationally, the Christian Coalition isn't as big as in the past… . No question, it had a greater presence in '96."
Mr. Hill, who was the highest ranking Catholic in the coalition's senior management, says "there was no there there" to the coalition's grass-roots presence when he did advance work for Vice President Richard B. Cheney's campaign last year.
Not even coalition founder Pat Robertson's personal wealth can save the organization, Mr. Hill says.
"We [were] millions of dollars in debt and a check for one or two million from some major donor or candidate wouldn't have helped in the long run," Mr. Hill says. "We had a $25 million annual budget but were pulling in only $19 million" in contributions.
That financial picture grew still more clouded in recent weeks. Ten black employees of the coalition's Washington office filed a discrimination lawsuit Feb. 23, seeking damages; two former coalition employees, also black, have since joined that suit. Last week, a white coalition employee filed a $39 million suit claiming he was fired for refusing to spy on the black workers.
Roberta Combs, the coalition's new executive vice president, doesn't dispute that the organization has experienced bad times. "When you have a change of leadership you always have a slump, but I feel we have recovered and are doing well," she says.
Mrs. Combs is a trusted lieutenant to Mr. Robertson, the religious broadcaster who founded the coalition after his unsuccessful 1988 bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Mrs. Combs headed the South Carolina chapter until she was promoted by Mr. Robertson to lead the national organization in 1999.
In its heyday, the coalition claimed chapters in 50 states. But its Web site no longer lists contacts in 12 states, including such major battlegrounds as Michigan and Pennsylvania.
If the coalition remains moribund, say sympathetic critics, Republicans must hope that some other group comes along to fill the vacuum especially in the 2002 midterm election, when turnout will be crucial.
"Republicans are desperately looking for a way to turn out religious conservatives in 2002," says Charles Cunningham, former national field director for the coalition, who quit before last year's election.
"In the last election, there was absolutely no sign of the Christian Coalition outside the occasional press release from headquarters or appearance by Pat Robertson on a national TV show," one former official says. "There was no organized voter-education effort whatsoever."
The ex-official says the coalition's weakness "was particularly evident during the primary process."
In last fall's general election, however, Mrs. Combs contends the coalition distributed no fewer than 70 million voter guides.
"We had our mail room in Chesapeake trying to get them out as fast as we could. We had phones ringing off the hook with orders for guides," she says. "We put out Spanish [language] voter guides three weeks before the election. We did a million get-out-the-vote phone calls."
Those efforts did not translate to grass-roots strength, says Mr. Hill, who says "state Christian Coalition affiliates … weren't really a consideration" when he was organizing campaign rallies for Mr. Cheney last fall.
But Ralph Reed, who was in on the coalition's founding and more recently was a Bush campaign adviser, insists that "social conservatives were a very energized base" last year and that he saw "evidence that coalition literature was being distributed."
Dean Rice, the coalition's new national field director, insists: "We are by far the most effective conservative grass-roots political organization, all the way down to the precinct level."
In key states, however, some Republicans say there was no sign of coalition impact last year and worry what that portends for the future.
"I never even heard that phrase 'Christian Coalition' mentioned in Michigan in the election last year," says Sharon A. Wise, a Republican National Committee member from Michigan.
"The Christian Coalition is not as strong in Michigan as in other states, but we have Citizens for Traditional Values and the Michigan Family Forum [which are] both very active," says state Rep. Joanne Voorhees, Michigan Republican.
Mrs. Voorhees and her husband became precinct delegates for Mr. Robertson's presidential campaign in 1987. But competition from other pro-life, pro-family grass-roots organizations, she says, drained money from the Christian Coalition "until it fell by the wayside in Michigan."
Some coalition chapters, meanwhile, have remained strong despite the national organization's problems.
In Georgia, Sadie Fields heads one of the most active state affiliates.
"We got out well over a million federal voter guides," she says. "I did 60 to 80 other races, for state House and Senate seats, where we had strong pro-life conservative contenders."
Mrs. Fields says the drop in Christian conservative turnout stems partly from disillusionment with the Republican Congress that the coalition helped elect in 1994.
"I do hear disappointment since '94 with those who were elected, disappointment that more has not been done, that they didn't hold their ground firmer on tax issues and the homosexual agenda too many compromises, too much giving away on our issues," Mrs. Fields says.
Many coalition insiders say the wheels began to come off when Mr. Reed left in 1997 to found his own campaign consulting firm. Mr. Reed, a confidant of Mr. Robertson's, built the coalition into a respected political force as its first executive director.
In early 1999, Mr. Robertson surprised the coalition's leadership by publicly calling on the Republican-controlled Senate to give up on trying to convict President Clinton on the articles of impeachment passed by the House.
A former coalition official says the "mass exodus" in early 1999 of top people former Reagan Cabinet official Don Hodel, former Rep. Randy Tate, Mr. Cunningham and others took the organization's "knowledge base and resources" with it.
The former official says the organization now is "more about turning out bodies for staged events that [Mr. Robertson] attends than hard work and grass-roots campaigning."
Republican strategists say the ineffectiveness of the Christian Coalition in the last election may bode ill for the next one.
"We probably could have won the popular vote and not have had a tie in Florida if Bush had taken two of the three percentage-point falloff in Christian conservative voters," Bush campaign pollster Fred Steeper says.
"We left 6 million social conservatives votes on the table last November," Republican pollster Ed Goeas says.
Mr. Steeper says it's possible that religious conservatives as a group are "discouraged" by what they see as an electoral process that "doesn't reward their efforts."
Mrs. Fields agrees. "Because of lack of follow-through from the '94 elections, you have people who are disillusioned, not energized."
George Archibald contributed to this report.


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