Originally created 06/28/99

Conservative activist tries to build party



ATLANTA -- Former Athens homemaker Linda Hamrick has come a long way from her days as a lonely voice criticizing Georgia officials' sex education plans in the early 1990s.

The conservative activist and former vice president of the Georgia Christian Coalition is now on the hot seat, the woman designated by state GOP leaders to carry out the day-to-day rebuilding of a party shocked by last year's failed election season.

New Republican Party Chairman Chuck Clay recently named Mrs. Hamrick as state GOP executive director, six months after she left former national Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed's political consulting firm with a decent batting average in an otherwise weak political year.

She will head fund-raising, target races the party hopes to win and recruit candidates in her new role.

While seldom at a loss for words while lobbying for social conservative causes at the Georgia Capitol, Mrs. Hamrick declined an interview request to talk about herself.

She would say only, "Republicans understand their party is filled with women leaders and they are not afraid to put them in leadership positions."

Although the new director is trying to avoid the spotlight, her appointment has evoked plenty of talk in political circles.

"I think that's the stupidest thing Chuck Clay has done since he started running for chairman," said Republican state schools Superintendent Linda Schrenko.

"Linda Hamrick can rekindle some badly needed excitement in this party," said U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood of Evans.

"I guess this means the Republican Party of Georgia wants to go farther right," said state Rep. Tom Bordeaux, D-Savannah.

"Although she is identified with social conservative issues, she is part of the activists who have been absorbed well into the party," said state Senate Minority Leader Eric Johnson, R-Savannah.

MRS. HAMRICK HAS BEEN

a controversial figure at the Capitol since the early 1990s, when she served on a review commission that recommended sex education policies in Georgia.

Mrs. Hamrick wanted sex education to emphasize abstinence from sexual activity. Her ideas made her a distinct minority on the panel, but she and Susan Cable of Macon spent years lobbying at the Capitol and throughout the state.

They also lobbied the Legislature for abstinence-based programs, publicly locking horns with movie star Jane Fonda over how to prevent teen-age pregnancies.

Mrs. Hamrick and Ms. Cable went on to found a conservative education group, United Parents for Excellence in Education.

Mrs. Hamrick also was appointed to the Georgia Commission on Women and the state School Improvement Panel.

She was vice president of the Georgia Christian Coalition before joining Mr. Reed's political consulting firm in time for last year's campaign season.

She helped Ms. Cable win a central Georgia state Senate seat and scored an upset in south Georgia, where pine-straw businessman Tommie Williams of Lyons ousted state Sen. Ed Boshears of Brunswick.

Mrs. Hamrick's experience last year helped put her in the running for the top GOP job, Mr. Johnson said. It didn't hurt that she worked for Mr. Clay's election as party chairman.

"As we began to cast out ... there was a lot of discussion about having a chance to go in a different direction," Mr. Johnson said. "I wanted somebody hungry to win and not just somebody wanting to pad their resume and earn a good income. She met that criteria.

"I also wanted somebody who had actually licked stamps and hammered in yard signs and gone door to door ... actually knew what it was like to be a candidate.

"Being a female obviously helped. But we didn't go out looking for a female."

MRS. SCHRENKO, THE STATE'S

first woman elected to statewide office, complained after last year's losses that the party was not inclusive enough. Women needed to be put in leadership roles in the party, she said.

However, Mrs. Schrenko and Mrs. Hamrick had a public falling out a few years back. The superintendent said the new executive director has alienated conservatives and moderates alike.

"He (Mr. Clay) has not made one faction of the party happy. He's made one fraction of one faction happy," Mrs. Schrenko said.

University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock noted the Clay-Hamrick team appears to be a classic example of one of America's oldest political traditions: balancing the ticket.

"You have Chuck Clay, from the less-right wing of the Republican Party, and Hamrick from the farther right," Mr. Bullock said. "Clay does not have strong ties within the Christian right community. You might think of him as an old-line Republican."

While the party doesn't want to appear wedded to the religious right, as Mr. Bullock pointed out, conservative Christians are the GOP's most loyal voters.

"The religious right is to Republicans almost what black voters are to Democrats," he said.

Mr. Johnson acknowledged the bond.

"I still think a winning coalition for Republicans involves marrying the traditional fiscal conservatives with the social conservatives," Mr. Johnson said.

Part of the party's problem last year, he added, was a weak Republican turnout from social conservatives.

"Going into 2000, we are going to be working hard to rebuild the successful coalition we had in the 1980s," he said. "Chuck is not viewed as part of the Christian Coalition team. It's a good marriage."

James Salzer is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.