Features

Ideologue for hire

Politics | In Jack Abramoff's depiction, Ralph Reed fought for ideas "as far as the cash goes"

Issue: "Books and Movies 2006," July 1, 2006

The town of Jena, La., takes its name from a famous battle in which Napoleon Bonaparte led a single French corps to defeat the bulk of the Prussian army in 1806. Two centuries later, the small Jena Band of Choctaw Indians is close to winning in Louisiana a battle that seemed lost just four years ago, when the Jenas ran up against an evangelical campaign prompted by Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition.

Mr. Reed was in the news again last week for three reasons. First, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on June 18 that Mr. Reed was neck-and-neck in his race against state senator Casey Cagle for the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor in Georgia's July 18 primary. Earlier, Mr. Reed had a large lead in the polls and an enormous lead in fundraising.

Second, a jury on June 20 found former Bush administration official David Safavian guilty of covering up his dealings with Republican influence-peddler Jack Abramoff-and the prosecution's emphasis was on a golf trip via private jet by Mr. Safavian, Mr. Abramoff, an Ohio congressman, Mr. Reed, and others to the famous St. Andrews course in Scotland.

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Third, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on June 22 issued its report on activities involving Mr. Reed and disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Essentially, the Senate investigation showed that Jack Abramoff from 1999 to 2002 schemed to protect the profits of casino-rich Indian tribes. Along the way, he paid Mr. Reed's Century Strategies consulting business at least $4 million to whip up evangelical opposition to the gambling efforts of groups like the Jena Band of Choctaws.

Senators were stern about the overall Abramoff-led effort: North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad said it was "by far the worst case of greed" he had seen in two decades. The lobbying certainly worked in 2002: Even though Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster, a Republican, favored the Jena application to operate a casino, evangelical leaders pressured Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton to reject it, and she complied.

But what a difference one year makes: In 2003, when the Jenas renewed their application, Ralph Reed apparently was on the sidelines. In 2003, perhaps coincidentally, evangelicals were conspicuously silent, and Interior Department officials approved the tribe's plan, leaving final approval up to Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

Her opposition and various legal challenges have slowed down the casino's progress, but Jena chief Christine Norris hopes that her 271-member tribe will be cleared to operate a gambling business by the end of this year. If so, that will be a tribute to the tribe's persistence, and an indirect tribute to the cleverness of the Abramoff-Reed campaign in 2002 that protected Coushatta profits.

It's a campaign that the next generation of lobbyists will want to study, for Mr. Reed proved adept at engaging evangelicals to get things done, while obscuring the pro-gambling interests behind the consultant's curtain. (See WORLD, "Bruised Reed," Nov. 19, 2005; "Houses of cards," Jan. 14, 2006; and "Coushatta chronicle," March 4, 2006.) The Abramoff-Reed campaign is a classic example of how gambling expansion debates often proceed: Anti-gambling groups, which tend to be small in size and dollars, wind up in temporary alliances with existing casinos.

Mr. Reed has refused to talk with WORLD, but others have noted his role. Gene Mills of the Louisiana Family Forum, a respected evangelical group with close ties to Focus on the Family (FOTF), says his group became active in opposing the Jena casino in 2002 after Mr. Reed called: "He gave us the early intelligence on this." Mr. Mills says Mr. Reed told him that he had "some outside organizational interest" in seeing the casino defeated, and urged the Louisiana Family Forum to jump into the fray.

Mr. Mills said he exchanged information with Mr. Reed in the early stages of the opposition effort, but that's all: He didn't ask Mr. Reed to identify his "outside organizational interest," because "I knew that Ralph was a staunch opponent of gambling." That's the way other evangelicals acted as well: They trusted Mr. Reed, and apparently had no inkling that he was involved with Mr. Abramoff and was being paid by Coushatta funds.

Mr. Reed, according to e-mails released by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, repeatedly told Mr. Abramoff that he wanted more money and could get James Dobson himself on the radio to oppose the Jena casino plans. But FOTF spokesman Tom Minnery stated that FOTF never recorded an ad in Louisiana at Mr. Reed's request, and that FOTF only became involved in opposing the Jena casino because Mr. Mills (alerted to the issue by Mr. Reed) and Tony Perkins, then a Louisiana state representative, asked it to.

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