Christian, but No Longer a Powerful Coalition

By Hallow, Ralph Z. | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 14, 2001 | Go to article overview

Christian, but No Longer a Powerful Coalition


Hallow, Ralph Z., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


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. …

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