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Reed Hopes Voters Keep Faith, Forget Abramoff

His foe in Georgia's GOP primary criticizes the PR work he did for his lobbyist friend.

July 18, 2006|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

ALPHARETTA, Ga. — For former Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed to succeed in his first bid for public office, he's going to have to pray for the help of voters like Norma Saunders.

Saunders, 83, has heard about Reed's ties to Jack Abramoff, the disgraced Washington lobbyist. But, she said, she still plans to vote for Reed in today's Republican primary for Georgia lieutenant governor.

"I have read about Ralph Reed through all of his troubles and triumphs, and I'm going to vote for him," Saunders assured a group of campaign volunteers who knocked on her door Friday. "I think he's articulate and capable."

For years, Reed has been the clean-cut, boyish face of the conservative Christian movement -- a behind-the-scenes whiz whom many credit with helping the GOP solidify power in Washington. Now, however, it appears he will need every ounce of that talent to survive his bid for the powerful post of lieutenant governor.

His opponent, conservative state Sen. Casey Cagle, has hammered Reed over his connections to Abramoff, the once-powerful Washington insider who in January pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and bribery.

Specifically, Cagle has criticized public relations jobs in which Reed rallied Christian conservatives to thwart regional gambling initiatives. In some cases, that work was funded by competing gambling interests represented by Abramoff, according to the conclusions of a U.S. Senate committee.

"Reed said gambling is immoral, but took millions of dollars from convicted felon Jack Abramoff to help casinos," a recent Cagle TV ad said, referring to Reed's "record of betrayal."

When Reed, 45, announced his candidacy in February 2005, most analysts considered the primary a cakewalk, given his prominence and talent for grass-roots organizing. Now the outcome is anyone's guess: One recent poll of likely Republican voters by the independent firm InsiderAdvantage had the two candidates tied at 43%, with 13% undecided.

If Reed loses the primary, he will probably go down as a footnote in the Abramoff saga -- a minor casualty compared with former House Speaker Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who resigned from Congress this year partly because of his ties to the lobbyist.

But if Reed wins the primary, he could pose a campaign risk for Georgia Republicans. The party's popular governor, Sonny Perdue, is up for reelection. And although Georgia's governor and lieutenant governor are independently elected posts, analysts say Democrats would probably try to portray Reed and Perdue as a team in the general election -- and saddle Perdue with Reed's baggage.

"The Democrats are really rooting for Reed," said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. "They think his presence on the ticket would weaken Republicans.... Then Gov. Perdue would have to be defending Ralph Reed."

In a statement Monday, Georgia's Democratic Party chairman, Bobby Kahn, said that having Reed on the ticket "might distract from Gov. Perdue's own abysmal record," including a 2005 ethics fine for campaign finance violations.

Reed, who headed the Christian Coalition from 1989 to 1997, is credited with building the group into a powerhouse that helped deliver Republicans a congressional majority in 1994. Time magazine recognized his influence in 1995, placing him on the cover with the headline "The Right Hand of God."

He later served as chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, and worked as southeast regional chairman of President Bush's 2004 reelection campaign.

The current controversies are related to Reed's public relations and public affairs work with Abramoff, a longtime friend.

Last month, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee issued a report on Abramoff that showed Reed had worked to stop the expansion of video poker in Alabama. That work was funded by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, a casino-owning tribe that was trying to squelch regional competition.

In another case, Reed rallied Christians to shutter the casino of a Texas tribe, the Alabama-Coushatta, an effort funded by a competing Indian band.

The Senate report said the tribes paid Reed millions -- indirectly, by funneling the payments through organizations acting as financial "conduits." Among them was Grover Norquist's anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform.

A planner for the Choctaws, Nell Rogers, told committee staffers Reed was "more comfortable" with that method of payment.

"Ralph Reed did not want to be paid directly by a tribe with gaming interests," the report quoted Rogers. "It was our understanding that the structure was recommended by Jack Abramoff to accommodate Mr. Reed's political concerns."

Last week, the Alabama-Coushatta tribe filed a federal lawsuit against Abramoff, Reed and others, accusing them of engaging in fraud in the efforts to shut down its casino. Reed faces no allegations of criminal wrongdoing.

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