Ties to Abramoff shadow Reed's run in Georgia1/18/06
By Jill Lawrence, USA TODAY
DANIELSVILLE, Ga. — Races for lieutenant governor aren't usually the stuff of high drama. But they don't usually feature an ambitious Republican strategist with links to both the White House and a national corruption scandal.
Ralph Reed, a former Christian Coalition leader and high-ranking Bush 2004 campaign official, mobilized Christian conservatives into a grass-roots army for Republicans in the 1990s and has helped crush Democrats in contests from president on down.
The mix of religion and hardball turned him into a lighting rod years ago. Now his longtime ties to fallen Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff are giving new fuel to his opponents and turning the race into a closely watched test of the Abramoff effect on the 2006 elections.
Abramoff has pleaded guilty to fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion and agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors. Careers and reputations are on the line as investigators probe the financial and political activities of lawmakers, aides and Abramoff associates.
While the probe has created no legal problems at this point for Reed, now does not seem like the ideal moment for him to emerge from behind the scenes. He calls it "a perfect time" for his political debut.
"Given my profile, I was going to be the subject of personal attacks if I ever ran" for office, he said in an interview. "I wish it hadn't happened," he added, referring to revelations about his old friend's activities. "But I've got no problem dealing with it."
Reed, 44, recently told 50 people at a GOP breakfast here in north Georgia, "I don't have thin skin." He vowed to become the state's first Republican lieutenant governor, and beyond that, "I promise you I'm going to be an impact player."
State Sen. Ralph Hudgens, who hosted the breakfast, calls Reed a strong candidate and says he is satisfied with how Reed is handling the Abramoff situation. "You have to be willing to break the relationship and that's what Ralph has done," he says.
Democrats and some Republicans are alarmed by Reed's candidacy. Lieutenant governors here run separately from governors and are president of the state Senate, making the office more powerful in Georgia than in most states. It's also a frequent launchpad for future governors. And governors have a good record of becoming president; four of the last five came from state executive mansions.
"We believe that Ralph wants to be president. The only place to stop him is right now," says former state senator Greg Hecht, the leading Democrat in the race.
Hecht and state Sen. Casey Cagle, Reed's Republican rival in the July 18 primary, readily give Reed credit for smarts and good looks. They also say he is unqualified for statewide office and hypocritical about moral values. "This race is about honesty and integrity," Cagle says. "You can't say one thing and then do another."
Both men have set up websites devoted to negative information about Reed (www.stopralphreed.com and www.readaboutreed.com). The sites highlight Reed's work for Abramoff clients with gambling interests, despite Reed's longstanding opposition to gambling.
They also show what his opponents allege are conflicts between Reed statements and documents released in a Senate Abramoff investigation. Reed, meanwhile, has put up www.reedfacts.com to rebut his accusers.
What's undisputed is that Reed received several million dollars to help Abramoff shut down a Texas tribe's gambling casino on behalf of tribes with competing casinos. Reed says Abramoff assured him he would not be paid out of the competing tribes' gambling profits.
But the tribes have few other resources, and Reed's critics say the ultimate source of his fees appear to have been casino revenue. "The amounts are so huge, there's no other explanation," says Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice.
McDonald's group and two others allege that Reed broke Texas law by not registering as a lobbyist there. Reed calls the lobbying accusations "utterly without merit." Travis County Attorney David Escamilla says he'll decide by month's end whether to bring charges.
Reed and Abramoff met more than 20 years ago and were so close that Reed introduced Abramoff to the woman who became his wife. More recently, Abramoff helped Reed get lobbying work, donated to his successful 2001 campaign for Georgia GOP chairman and took him golfing in Scotland with a congressman.
Reed is careful and choreographed when he discusses Abramoff. His most extensive remarks came Dec. 9 to Christian teens. He posted the comments on www.ralphreed.com.
"We will never know how many marriages and lives were saved, or how many children were spared the consequences of compulsive gambling, because of our work" to shut down casinos, he told the teens. But "had I known then what I know now, I would not have undertaken that work," he added.
Since then, Reed's public statements have tracked the speech text almost verbatim. At the breakfast here, he arranged to have Hudgens ask about Abramoff, according to Hudgens. Then Reed gave his standard response. He refused to talk about Abramoff on the record to USA TODAY.
Some non-partisan Georgia analysts say Reed should be more open. "He's going to have to answer a lot more questions if he's to survive this," says political scientist Merle Black of Emory University in Atlanta.
Reed stormed onto the field with a money take of nearly $1.4 million in the first half of last year. In the second half, he trailed both Cagle and Hecht. His rivals say that signals erosion in Reed's support. Reed calls the falloff expected after such a spectacular first half. He still has a huge financial advantage, he says, and 22 fundraising events scheduled through March.
Cagle, a sitting legislator, is barred from raising money for the first quarter while the state Senate meets, but says he expects a surge of money in April. A recent poll for TheAtlanta Journal Constitution found he did better than Reed against an unnamed Democrat.
Reed and Cagle oppose abortion and gay marriage and hold similar views on other social issues. "They're both fine Christian gentlemen," says Gerald Harris, editor of The Christian Index newspaper.
It's unclear whether Reed's link to Abramoff will turn off Christian voters. Sadie Fields of the Georgia Christian Coalition, says Reed will get a warm welcome when he and Cagle appear before the group Saturday.
"He has apologized for any disappointment anyone might have felt over Abramoff," she says. "It's time to move on."
Reed is a candidate now, but he's still a strategist to the core. When Hudgens joked to the breakfast group about an e-mailer calling him "a Republican thug," Reed interrupted him from the audience. "Don't repeat the negatives," he instructed with a laugh. He's following his own advice to the letter, and gambling it will work.
THE REED FILE
Age: 44. Born June 24, 1961, in Portsmouth, Va..
Family: Wife Jo Anne; four children.
Education: University of Georgia, B.A. in history, 1984; Emory University, Ph.D. in American history, 1989.
Career highlights: Executive director, Christian Coalition, 1989-97; president, Century Strategies (lobbying/consulting firm), 1997-present.
Political positions: Chairman of Georgia Republican Party, 2001-03; Southeast regional chairman of 2004 Bush campaign.