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Race to the Right

Recruiting blacks will force the Christian Coalition to confront the tension between its two goals: to be religious and to control the political agenda.

When the Christian Coalition decided in 1994 to woo black voters, it turned to Hollywood and hired a former Disney marketing executive, Stephan Brown.

Brown's tenure in the job was brief and unsuccessful; within 18 months, he was asked to resign. The problem? Marketing, Brown says. The coalition, usually an eager seeker of publicity, was keeping a remarkably -- and to Brown, foolishly -- low profile on its new endeavor. Coalition leaders refused, for instance, to make hay of the eviction of Alan Keyes, the black Republican presidential candidate, from the March 1996 GOP debates in Atlanta. To Brown, that was a no-brainer. "The PR opportunity that existed there -- to stand up strong for a black man -- was to me irresistible." The coalition recruited blacks, paid their way to its conferences, and welcomed them to its annual get-out-the-vote Road to Victory conferences. But it kept all this activity very quiet.

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How things have changed. Last June, the coalition's executive director, Ralph Reed, held a highly publicized meeting in Atlanta with civil rights leaders and with several pastors of churches that had burned. Quoting Martin Luther King Jr. and W.E.B. DuBois, he apologized for conservative Christians' past sins and pledged to raise $1 million to help restore the burned churches. (To date, the coalition has raised some $850,000.)

This past January, Reed went public in an even bigger way. At a press conference, surrounded by black conservatives, he announced the coalition was leaving the "safety of the suburbs" for the inner cities. In addition to continuing its traditional battles over abortion and a balanced budget amendment, Reed said, the coalition was launching a "Samaritan Project," putting its organizational muscle behind proposals such as economic empowerment zones, scholarship programs for low-income children, and a $500 tax credit for those who donate time and money to poverty-fighting organizations. He also announced that in May the coalition would sponsor a special Congress on Racial Justice and Reconciliation.

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