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Southern discomfort

Georgia | Ralph Reed sees his lead dwindle in his run for lieutenant governor

Issue: "Looking for votes," March 11, 2006

Maurice Atkinson learned everything he knows about politics from Ralph Reed. The vice chairman of the Bibb County Republican Party in central Georgia cut his teeth on political activism in Indiana, where he was an active member of the Christian Coalition when Mr. Reed was executive director of the organization. When Mr. Atkinson moved to Georgia six years ago, he delved into local politics and supported Mr. Reed in his successful bid for state party chairman. "I liked his ideas," Mr. Atkinson told WORLD. "He was extremely effective."

Supporting Mr. Reed for lieutenant governor of Georgia was initially a "no-brainer" for Mr. Atkinson. But a year later, he's changed his mind and now supports Georgia senator Casey Cagle, Mr. Reed's Republican opponent. Switching camps, Mr. Atkinson says, was a "no-brainer" as well: After reading multiple reports that Mr. Reed made millions from anti-gambling work backed by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his casino-rich tribal clients, "I realized that he's just flat-out wrong."

Mr. Atkinson's discontent is a sign that Mr. Reed's embroilment in the Abramoff scandal is hurting his race for lieutenant governor, a position often considered a steppingstone for higher public office. While Mr. Reed still has a four-point lead in Georgia polls regarding the primary still four months away, his race is no longer the cakewalk some pundits predicted.

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Last month 21 out of 34 Republican state senators signed a letter calling on Mr. Reed to withdraw from the race "for the good of the Republican Party." The Cagle supporters said Mr. Reed's ties to Mr. Abramoff could jeopardize the entire GOP ticket in the fall. Mr. Reed responded in a public letter to Mr. Cagle, calling the petition a stunt that "would make no difference to me or to the voters."

A July 18 primary will tell whether it makes a difference to the voters, but in the short term the controversy is making a difference to donors. Mr. Reed's campaign brought in $1.4 million in the first six months of 2005, but only $400,000 in the second half of the year, according to the Associated Press. Mr. Cagle raised more than $600,000 in the same six-month period.

Mr. Reed may have more to worry about than polls and fundraising in the months ahead. The National Journal recently reported that Mr. Reed was one of several people named in a federal subpoena probing the activities of the now-defunct U.S. Family Network, a nonprofit organization that received most of its funding in the late 1990s from Mr. Abramoff's clients. The subpoena also named Mr. Abramoff and Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform. Reed spokesperson Lisa Baron says that Mr. Reed has never been involved with the organization and has not received a subpoena.

Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee is considering an investigation into whether Mr. Abramoff abused nonprofit organizations in his dealings with Indian tribes. Committee chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) said the panel had obtained documents in the Abramoff case from the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and would use the evidence in an "ongoing, broad-scale look at whether tax-exempt groups are misused for financial or political gain."

The finance committee investigation could have an impact on Mr. Reed, especially if it examines Senate Indian Affairs Committee documents that suggest Mr. Reed's Century Strategies consulting firm accepted payments for work for Mr. Abramoff through at least one nonprofit intermediary organization. "We have fully cooperated with any and all inquiries," Ms. Baron told WORLD. "We have not been contacted by the U.S. Senate Finance Committee." Mr. Reed, who has not been accused of illegal activity, continues to refuse to answer WORLD's questions about canceled checks and e-mail evidence of money funneling.

Despite the potential trouble brewing for Mr. Reed in Washington and the hit he is taking in Georgia, he continues to enjoy support from key groups in his home state, including the Georgia Christian Coalition. But Mr. Atkinson says he's not satisfied with Mr. Reed's vague expressions of regret, calling them "the same canned, three-line apology he uses everywhere he goes." Mr. Atkinson says Mr. Reed should answer tough questions and own up to mistakes: "I believe in grace, but I also believe in accountability."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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