Originally created 09/14/97

Coalition: Congress lost touch



ATLANTA -- The Christian Coalition is being investigated for its close relationship to the Republican Party, but those ties didn't prevent leaders of the influential religious group Saturday from giving their allies a cold splash of holy water.

"To the conservative leaders who are wondering why the American people don't respond, here is a clue - the American people think you don't get it," said Randy Tate, a former GOP congressman from Washington state and the coalition's new executive director.

Congress has lost popular support because its leaders have strayed from the social issues, Mr. Tate said at the coalition's national convention.

"The American people don't care if there are 13, 15 or nine Cabinet agencies - they worry about whether their kids are safe at school and whether the education system is undermining the values that are taught at home," Mr. Tate told a crowd of about 2,500 conventioneers.

The convention was the first since Mr. Tate and his partner, coalition president and former Reagan Cabinet member Donald Hodel, took over the 400,000-member group from Ralph Reed earlier this year.

Mr. Reed, a 36-year-old University of Georgia graduate and protege of coalition founder the Rev. Pat Robertson, is moving back to his native Georgia to open a political consulting firm.

The convention brought out some of the Republican Party's biggest names, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who called the coalition "an outstanding force for good."

Embracing the group's top priorities, Mr. Gingrich promised Congress will send President Clinton another version of his vetoed bill outlawing partial-birth abortions, and pass Georgia Sen. Paul Coverdell's legislation letting parents set aside money for private-school tuition in tax-free accounts.

He also said Congress will scrutinize a $369 billion multi-state lawsuit settlement with tobacco companies to make sure legal fees don't consume billions intended for youth anti-smoking campaigns - which he said should also include anti-drug and alcohol messages.

"We are going to insist every state file every document of every agreement they have with lawyers," Mr. Gingrich said. "This is not going to be a litigation lottery for the enrichment of trial lawyers.

"We want all the evidence out in the open as to who is getting the money and there is not going to be any back-door money to any lawyers if Congress is going to pass this agreement."

South Carolina Gov. David Beasley, who won office in 1994 with strong coalition backing, told the group government should do more to reinforce the important of strong marriages and two-parent homes.

"We cannot allow the media and the messengers to twist marriage into just another lifestyle choice," said Beasley, who said the worst event of his life was his parents' divorce.

A pair of 1996 presidential candidates - eyeing another run in 2000 - joined in questioning the resolve of the Republican Congress to carry out the coalition's agenda and stand firm against the president.

"Our congressional leadership is neck-deep in compromise, captive to its doubts, in search of its soul," publishing heir Steve Forbes said.

Though not a favorite of the Religious Right in his first presidential bid, Forbes won applause Saturday for coming out in favor of a constitutional amendment banning abortion with narrow exceptions to protect the mother.

Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander complained that the Republican-led Congress too often presents the appearance of "sitting around the campfire looking for a leader."

"Never has a party done so little with the high moral ground as the Republican Party has done with education," said the former U.S. education secretary, who called for abolishing tenure laws that make it hard to fire even incompetent teachers.

Attendees paid $5,000 apiece to attend what the coalition billed as a grass-roots training session to groom activists from around the country for campaigns back home.

Evangelical Christian activists control the apparatus of most state Republican parties. Republican pollster Whit Ayres of Atlanta said his surveys show about onethird of GOP primary voters identify themselves as members of or sympathizers with the coalition.

"You need campaign workers and campaign organizers, and this is where you get them," said Woodrow Lovett, a Burke County farmer and former candidate for secretary of state, one of half a dozen would-be statewide candidates canvassing the event.

The conservative group boasts a $27 million budget and, by Robertson's count, has distributed more than 66 million "scorecards" encouraging churchgoers to support preferred candidates.

Invariably, those candidates are Republicans - which has prompted a lawsuit by the Federal Elections Commission and an Internal Revenue Service probe into whether the coalition engages in too much party-orchestrated activity to be tax-exempt.

St. Simons Island businessman Jerry Keen, president of the Georgia chapter of the coalition, said the relationship between coalition members, most of whom are antiabortion evangelicals, and the GOP is a natural one.

"It's not that we are a part of the Republican Party just because we are Republicans," Keen said. "That's sort of who we are right now. As soon as any party - Republican or Democrat - veers away from the principles of our organization, they will find themselves without our support."

And despite the weekend's griping about the slow pace of change in Washington, Keen said there's no breach between coalition leaders and the Republican congressional team.

"Impatient? Yes. But overall disappointed? No," he said. "There is always a level of expectation and one of the things we have to understand in the conservative movement is we didn't get where we are in two years or four years."

Robertson, recalling that the coalition got its start with a 1989 meeting he convened with ministers in Atlanta, said he was urged to adopt a "non-threatening" name for the group, "something like Traditional Family League."

"I said, `No - we represent Jesus Christ,"' he recounted. "We are not going to change Jesus Christ."

A group of about 20 abortionrights and gay-rights demonstrators paraded outside the convention hotel throughout the day, drawing sympathetic honks from some passing motorists.

In an Atlanta news conference, People for the American Way and other liberal groups denounced the coalition as a bigoted, narrowminded front for Robertson's political ambitions.

"The truth is that the Christian Coalition cares more about public indoctrination than public education," said the Rev. Timothy McDonald, a board member of People for the American Way and president of Concerned Black Clergy of Atlanta.