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Politics, Faith and Race Intersect at Fund-Raiser

President Bush's close friendship with a black Houston minister is seen by some insiders as the inspiration for his 'faith-based initiative.'

September 12, 2003|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell will boast a guest at his church fund-raiser in Houston tonight that perhaps no other United Methodist minister could summon: George W. Bush.

The president has known Caldwell since his days as governor of Texas, and the two have formed a close alliance that both men claim is not political. Caldwell, after all, has acknowledged that he has generally voted Democratic.

But it's an alliance that has certainly helped both men in their endeavors, political or otherwise.

Caldwell is an African American minister whose church, with more than 13,000 members, is the largest United Methodist congregation in the country. He is renowned for his work to revitalize the disadvantaged community around his church and promote homeownership among blacks.

He and Bush have a personal relationship and sometimes pray together. They have also served each other in important public ceremonial roles.

As governor of Texas, Bush spoke at the opening of Caldwell's centerpiece project, the Power Center -- a 104,000-square-foot building that provides 276 jobs and houses community and government services for 11,000 families in Houston's troubled 5th Ward.

In return, Caldwell -- one of the president's few close allies in the African American community -- introduced Bush at the 2000 Republican convention and gave the benediction at the president's inauguration. He also endorsed Bush's decision to use force against Iraq.

Getting Bush as the headliner for his event is a coup: Caldwell says he believes the lamb chop and beef tenderloin dinner will be the first time that a sitting president has attended a fund-raiser for a local community development corporation.

Several dinner sponsors are close Bush associates, including the head of the president's fund-raising team in Houston. Organizers hope the 800 guests will raise $1 million from tickets that cost $250 a person and up to $50,000 for a table.

Caldwell is careful not to exaggerate his influence with the president. But he says he believes that Bush's contact with the Power Center, and the community development corporation behind it, convinced him of the power of faith-based organizations.

"I'm told it was at that moment that he realized the impact that a community development organization can have on a community, and that cemented his views on the subject," Caldwell said Thursday in a telephone interview.

In his remarks tonight, Bush is expected to praise the center as a model of the kind of project he hopes to promote through his "faith-based initiative" -- a key piece of his "compassionate conservative" agenda that has nearly petered out in Congress because of opposition on both sides of the aisle.

"The president knows that faith is a very powerful tool for changing lives and he wants to make sure that we are ... reaching out to help programs that reach people in need," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

A stripped-down version of Bush's original bill has been passed in the Senate and is pending in the House of Representatives. Even if that is approved, differences between the two chambers must be ironed out before legislation can be sent to the White House.

Bush often promotes the initiative in appearances with black church groups. One reason, African American leaders grumble, is that such events are one way Bush tries to make inroads into the black community while bypassing elected African American leaders, who are largely Democrats, and traditional organizations, such as the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, that generally promote Democrats.

The Congressional Black Caucus says its members have asked for a meeting with Bush since he was elected and contends the White House has rebuffed them.

But, McClellan said, "the president meets with African American leaders all the time," adding that Bush addressed the National Urban League convention this summer.

Some local elected leaders in Houston are miffed that they were not invited to the Power Center dinner. Usually when Bush visits cities and towns across the nation, he invites local officials from both parties to appear with him -- members of Congress, mayors and even state senators.

But for this event, many local elected officials were skipped or invited as paying guests. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, a Democrat and the only African American among Houston's seven representatives in Congress, received a ticket as a donation from someone who had been invited. Democratic Rep. Chris Bell, in whose district the Power Center is located, was not invited.

Caldwell said the dinner is a fund-raiser, not a political event: "We weren't looking for glitz and glamour. We were looking for bucks, to be honest."

But with the political season in full swing, very little that Bush does is not infused with politics. And many do see political calculations behind Bush's decision to make a foray to Houston.

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