Monday, January 16, 2006

Bent Reed

I don’t often feel personal animus towards people I don’t know, but there’s always been something about Ralph Reed that whenever I see him on television I just want to bitch-slap him until he cries. I don’t know what it is; the cherubic choirboy looks that mask his demonic gay-bashing bigotry or the smug little grin that emulates (or is emulated by) President Bush. Whatever it is, I just don’t like the guy, so I’m delighted to see that he’s been caught up as a prime mover in the Abramoff melt-down, and his career as a political king-maker and christopathic rabble-rouser could come to a screeching halt.

DAWSONVILLE, Ga. — Ralph Reed, candidate for lieutenant governor, had just finished his opening statement to the Dawson County Republican Party when retired pulp paper executive Gary Pichon sprang from his seat with a question that cut to the chase:

“Did you accept any gifts, commissions or other payments of any kind from Mr. Abramoff, and are you likely to be a party in the unfolding investigation?”

Silence enveloped the 60 or so Republicans in the auditorium, and Reed’s cheerful manner turned tense. “No,” he replied. “No to all these.”

As everyone knew, Pichon was referring to Jack Abramoff, whose outsize Washington lobbying scandal has reached down to Georgia. Abramoff and Reed — the former executive director of the Christian Coalition — have been friends for 25 years, and until recently it had been a mutually profitable association. Now it is proving highly inconvenient for Reed, and threatens to stall a career that has been emblematic of the modern GOP.

Reed served as executive director of the College Republicans from 1983 to 1985 and led a revival of the Christian right in the 1990s. He founded a grass-roots lobbying firm in 1997, bringing in millions of dollars in fees, chaired the Georgia Republican Party in 2002 when the GOP took over the state, and served as Southeast director of the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign.

At age 44, he still has the choirboy looks that have been noted in dozens of profiles over the past 20 years. But the first major dent in Reed’s carefully cultivated image came with the disclosure in the summer of 2004 that his public relations and lobbying companies had received at least $4.2 million from Abramoff to mobilize Christian voters to fight Indian casinos competing with Abramoff’s casino clients.

Similarly damaging has been a torrent of e-mails revealed during the investigation that shows a side of Reed that some former supporters say cannot be reconciled with his professed Christian values.

For all his professed “Christian” values, the guy is a money-grubber to the point that he disgusts people, including Abramoff and his henchman, Michael Scanlon.

One of the most damaging e-mails was sent by Abramoff to partner Michael Scanlon, complaining about Reed’s billing practices and expenditure claims: “He is a bad version of us! No more money for him.” Scanlon and Abramoff have pleaded guilty to defrauding clients.

And Mr. Reed, who once envisioned himself as the Christian Coalition’s version of M*A*S*H’s Col. Flagg as he motivated wingers to the polls (“I want to be invisible. I do guerrilla warfare. I paint my face and travel at night. You don’t know it’s over until you’re in a body bag. You don’t know until election night.”) has emerged as the face of the scandal in Georgia, where his race to become lieutenant governor has hit a series of speed bumps.

Random interviews on Main Street in heavily Republican Alpharetta — a rapidly growing town of 37,850 on the far northern suburbs of Atlanta — suggested that even many people who follow politics casually are aware of the linkage between Reed and Abramoff.

“Ralph Reed? He’s a politician,” said David Loudenflager, a Republican who retired after working 32 years for the Arrow Shirt Company. “He was involved with Jack Abramoff and the Indians and all those.”

Loudenflager does not like the Democratic Party — “they give away everything” — but he puts no stock in the Christian Coalition: “All these people running around telling you how good they are, and how right they are. You better be careful and hold on to your wallet.”

Todd Guy, owner of Trader Golf, said succinctly in response to an inquiry: “Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition? My God! Abramoff.”

The only thing better than having his race make a huge crater in the road would be for him to be caught in a gay sex scandal, but if justice has its way, that may happen in the natural course of the penal system and he’ll end up married to the guy with the most cigarettes.