"On the campaign trail in South Georgia, Ralph Reed, the Republican strategist who created the Christian Coalition, wears shiny black cowboy boots - full quill ostrich leather - to help give him the swagger of a man still on the make. He is running for lieutenant governor in the Peach State, his first campaign for public office, but he wants everyone to know that he is not just another local boy trying to break into state politics. As we mingle at a private reception at Sea Palms Resort, he tells me, 'This isn't my first rodeo.'"
- Michael Scherer, writing in
Salon.com online magazine
Why in heaven's name would any rational Georgian vote for Ralph Reed for lieutenant governor? Read the big papers. Watch the networks. They'll tell you. Reed is a caricature of the national wheeler-dealer - a slick guy draped with so much smarmy baggage you wouldn't let your kids or your wife get close to him.
Look at a couple of Reed's old pals - black-hat lobbyist Jack Abramoff and scandal-ridden Rep. Tom "the Hammer" DeLay. Abramoff is waiting to go to prison. DeLay is quitting Congress as corruption charges against him pile up.
Even as Reed, a Duluth resident, solicits votes across Georgia, he waits for the other shoe to drop. Abramoff may sell him (and others) out to federal prosecutors in exchange for a reduced prison sentence. Or members of DeLay's inner circle could rat on Reed to save themselves.
Several ranking Republicans have called on Reed to drop out of the lieutenant governor's race. They say his presence is tarnishing the Republican Party's splendid reputation. Reed's GOP opponent, state Sen. Casey Cagle of Gainesville, has caught fire. He raised $100,000 in a single day recently, an unheard-of haul in such a short time for a down-ballot contest. He is a nice guy and a straight shooter, the kind of fellow just about anybody would be happy to support. He may be a tad naive and not as quick as some might hope, but what the hey? He's running to succeed Mark Taylor, not Bill Gates.
Two Democratic candidates, Jim Martin and Greg Hecht, both with solid public-service backgrounds, wait patiently in hope of taking on Reed - if he survives the GOP primary.
So back to the original question: Why would anybody support Reed?
The short answer: Reed is easily the best-qualified candidate ever to seek the lieutenant governor's office.
In fact, Georgia has never had a statewide candidate with such compelling credentials. When he says the Georgia campaign is not his "first rodeo," he's not kidding. Sure, Reed has made serious mistakes, multimillion-dollar errors in judgment. But criminal conduct? Probably not. Who has not had friends who went wrong and tried to lead others astray? So Reed hung around with Abramoff and DeLay. They are bad guys, all right. Yet I worry more about Reed's association with a couple of crazy TV preachers.
In the main, Reed has been a super-success at nearly everything he has tried. His organizational skills as leader of the national Christian Coalition helped change the nation's political direction. As Georgia Republican chairman, Reed reorganized get-out-the-vote efforts to allow the GOP to finally sweep the statehouse. To be sure, the Republican takeover had been in the cards for years. Reed's strategy made it happen earlier.
He directed President Bush's overwhelmingly victorious campaigns in the South. He helped Sen. Saxby Chambliss win. As a public relations guru, he represented some of the nation's most famous (Verizon) and infamous (Enron) companies. In short, Reed is used to working in the circles of power. He knows how to leverage influence and make things happen. He also possesses the right look; he exudes confidence.
Then there's his ambition. Sen. Casey Cagle is dead on when he asserts that Reed sees the lieutenant governor's office as a stepping-stone to loftier posts. For that reason, Reed could turn out to be the best lieutenant governor in Georgia's history. He would knock himself out trying to please voters and help the state. He wants to be popular, and he wants to move up.
If he escapes damage from the Abramoff-DeLay blowup, you can bet Reed would be as clean as any official we've ever elected. He has been scared straight.
An afterthought: Reed has admitted some mistakes and said he's sorry. Forgiving sinners is part of our tradition, isn't it? We'll soon see. The primary is July 18.
Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Write him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. His Web site is www.billshipp.com. His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.