October 2002 Church & State | Featured

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito is seeking re-election in her West Virginia congressional district this year, and she knows winning a second term in the House of Representatives won't be easy.

In 2000, Capito eked out a narrow, 5,000-vote victory in a district that has historically voted Democrat. In fact, Capito is only the third Republican in almost 80 years to serve this congressional district and the Democratic National Committee has indicated that it will be focusing intense attention on the race in November.

Capito, however, is not without political assistance from Washington, D.C. In particular, she's benefiting from ties to President George W. Bush's "faith-based" office.

James Towey, head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, visited the area in August to travel with Capito and present a $25,000 check to a computer-training program run out of a Baptist church in the town of Kanawha.

Towey's recent travels to offer grants to faith-based charities, and the White House's political interest in competitive House districts, are neither coincidental nor uncommon.

Capito is one of many ideological and partisan allies of President Bush facing difficult campaigns this year. The White House is all-too-aware of the fact that the greater the number of Republican losses in November, the harder it will be for the president to advance his agenda.

In addition, the administration is surveying the political landscape and realizing that the GOP will need stronger support from African-American voters, who have traditionally rejected Republican overtures, to win key political campaigns nationwide.

The Bush administration's political strategists believe the "faith-based" initiative may be the political weapon they need to address both of these critical concerns.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush repeatedly emphasized his desire to lower the wall that separates church and state and allow the federal government to finance the work of churches and other houses of worship. After his inauguration, one of the president's first orders of business was the creation of an office that dealt almost exclusively with breaking down so-called "barriers" to public subsidies for faith-based organizations.

At the time, Bush's public rhetoric focused on aid to the disadvantaged and downtrodden. While unveiling the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in January 2001, Bush spoke of a "call to conscience" to "provide practical help to people in need." He emphasized the non-partisan, consensus nature of the project, and his intention to offer public funds to religious ministries because these groups "have proven their power to save and change lives."

Even after intense debate began over the faith-based initiative, and the effort drew criticism from the left, right and center, Bush has nevertheless fought for the plan and worked with Democrats such as Sen. Joe Lieberman on getting the measure through Congress.

Recently, however, another agenda has come to light. While the administration continues to advocate for the faith-based initiative, it does so while quietly concentrating on partisan political goals in the 2002 election. In fact, Bush's White House seems especially focused on using the larger endeavor as part of an aggressive outreach effort to African American voters in competitive political states and districts.

The strategy, thus far, has been simple and straightforward: The Bush administration is sending faith-based officials to carefully selected locations to appear with Republican candidates while touting publicly funded grants to religious groups. At the same time, the White House is directing special attention to African-American religious leaders in the hopes it will translate into increased political support on Election Day.

The potential results could serve as a boon for Republican candidates nationwide and Bush's 2004 reelection campaign, a fact that apparently has not gone unnoticed by the president's strategists. (In 2000, Bush received a mere eight percent of the African American vote. In contrast, Bob Dole got 12 percent in 1996.)

While the faith-based initiative has been controversial in its own right, this new information raises a host of additional questions about the integrity of the Bush plan. First, using government employees the staff of the White House faith-based office to travel the nation to bolster the campaigns of key Republican campaigns raises serious ethical questions. It appears that White House faith-based staffers are visiting states and congressional districts based on politics, not policy. If taxpayers are financing these campaign projects, the Bush administration may be wandering into to potential legal and ethical pitfalls.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, is the abuse of something called the "Compassion Capital Fund" to pursue African Americans. The White House successfully lobbied for about $30 million for the Fund for 2002. The money was intended by Congress to provide technical support for charities, such as streamlining the process for creating non-profit organizations. Instead, the Fund is being used by the administration to direct publicly funded grants to religious organizations.

Under the system created through the Fund, religious groups will receive grants, and in turn, use these taxpayer funds to grant "sub-awards" to other religious and other intermediary organizations for their operations. The administration is pushing to expand financing of the Compassion Capital Fund, which is now expected to grow to $150 million in 2003, representing a possible treasure trove for Bush's efforts in 2004 if grants were awarded with political ambition in mind.

In essence, the Compassion Capital Fund has become tantamount to a White House "slush fund," in which the Bush administration promises to distribute money to leverage political support from religious groups and African-American voters.

The most blatant display of this strategy at work occurred in South Carolina earlier this summer.

The South Carolina Republican Party, in the midst of campaign work on extremely competitive statewide gubernatorial and senatorial races, cosponsored a "seminar on faith-based and community initiatives" featuring assistance from the White House Faith-Based office.

The keynote speaker at the partisan political event, held in Columbia, was Jeremy White, the associate director of outreach at the White House Faith-Based office, who is an African American. According to media reports, White spoke to more than 100 church and charity leaders, the majority of whom were also African American, about how to apply and receive grants from the federal government to perform social services.

The event was the first and most blatant example of mixing White House faith-based efforts and partisan politics. The seminar was sponsored by the state Republican Party as part of its self-described "outreach program." The main topic of the event, according to The State newspaper in Columbia, was information on how pastors could "get their part of $30 million in federal money" through the Compassion Capital Fund.

After the event, clergy participants were contacted, not by the White House office, but the state Republican Party. Ron Thomas, political director of the South Carolina GOP, sent acknowledgements to participants on party letterhead with additional information about how religious groups can apply for federal grants through the president's faith-based initiative. In other words, any lines that may have existed between official White House educational efforts and state GOP political outreach to African-American voters were blurred to the point of non-existence.

Thomas later told The Washington Post that the seminar was "a great, great success," but said the GOP-sponsored outreach program was "not necessarily a political event."

When considering the Palmetto State's political atmosphere, it's little wonder why the Bush administration's interest in South Carolina is so high. Polls show races for South Carolina governor and U.S. senator to be very close, and in July, Bush personally made his third visit to the state in nine months.

Similar political faith-based activities have also been common next door in North Carolina, where the state GOP has launched a campaign to lure African-American voters to support Republicans through advocacy of faith-based funding.

As the Charlotte Observer recently put it, "In a state where fewer than 5 percent of black voters are registered Republicans, GOP leaders are sending a message: The Republican Party stands for issues important to blacks." As part of that effort, the state GOP is sponsoring radio ads on black-oriented radio stations that highlight Bush's support for faith-based programs. The North Carolina GOP has been busy all year preparing for a competitive Senate race to replace the retiring Jesse Helms.

North Carolina was also the site of a Bush Faith-Based Office seminar sponsored by the administration's Department of Education earlier this summer. Consistent with the Bush administration's broader strategy, most attendees at the June 22 meeting in Salisbury were African American religious leaders. The event was held at Livingstone College, a predominantly African American college.

While Bush's faith-based office has asked multiple representatives to visit communities to tout the president's interest in offering public funds to religious charities, Towey, head of the White House's faith-based office, has been far more peripatetic than any of his colleagues.

Towey, in fact, began a multi-city tour over the summer to speak with service providers, religious leaders and elected officials about the faith-based initiative. Yet, upon further examination, Towey's appearances appear to have specific political objectives. In addition to his trip to West Virginia for appearances with Rep. Capito, Towey has made appearances with vulnerable Republican candidates nationwide.

Connecticut: Within a week of political appearances with Capito in West Virginia, Towey was in Connecticut promoting the Bush faith-based initiative with Rep. Bob Simmons at a soup kitchen in the state's 2nd congressional district. The Cook Political Report, a non-partisan publication that monitors campaigns, describes Simmons' district as "highly competitive," and adds that the Democrats put Simmons "very high on the target list" for 2002.

Arkansas: Towey also traveled to Arkansas this summer for appearances with Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R), who many consider one of the Senate's most vulnerable incumbent Republicans. Hutchinson and Towey toured women's shelters in Little Rock and met with two-dozen religious leaders about government support for religious charities.

Kentucky: In August, Towey was in Kentucky for appearances with Rep. Anne Northup, who is in a difficult campaign of her own. Northup "hosted" an event with Towey at the Shiloh Baptist Church in Louisville, a predominantly African American church, where Towey spoke on the values of the Bush faith-based plan. Northup has extensive experience on this issue, having been accused earlier this year of creating a non-profit organization to steer federal money to religious groups in order to shore up her political strength in the African American community in her competitive congressional district.

Illinois: Towey visited southwestern Illinois in August for appearances with Rep. John Shimkus (R) from the 19th congressional district, where he is facing a tough re-election fight against another incumbent House member, Rep. David Phelps, whose district was merged with Shimkus' as part of Illinois' redistricting.

Florida: In September, Towey traveled to Florida for an appearance with Gov. Jeb Bush, who is both another vulnerable Republican incumbent and the president's brother. At an event in Orlando, Jeb Bush told 250 religious charity leaders, "Faith and government are not mutually exclusive." The Orlando Sentinel captured the preferred photo-op: Towey and Jeb embracing on stage at the meeting.

The common thread of Towey's events is an appearance with a high-profile Republican candidate in a tough re-election campaign. In multiple instances, Towey was appearing almost exclusively with Republican office holders, and in several cases, before largely African American audiences.

In some instances, the outreach to African American voters is carefully staged. Bush traveled to Ohio, for example, earlier this summer for an event plugging his plans to offer public funds to religious groups though faith-based aid and private school vouchers. According to a report in Akron's Beacon Journal, the audience was "about 95 percent white," and made up of "Republican dignitaries, contributors and members of religious and conservative organizations."

Those who weren't in the room, however, were given an entirely different impression. On stage at the event was a high school choir made up almost exclusively of African Americans, followed by a gospel choir, whose members were all African Americans. As the Beacon Journal reported it, "Two-thirds of the people sitting in camera view behind the president and set off by red, white and blue, also were African-American."

Other instances, meanwhile, are even less subtle. The Bush administration sent a team of faith-based office staffers to New Orleans earlier this summer, for example, for a seminar on funneling federal funds to religious charities. The three-day event, led in part by Bobby Polito, director of the Faith-Based Office at Bush's Department of Health and Human Services, focused almost exclusively at directing efforts at the African American religious community, a critical voting bloc in a swing state. Towey appeared at the event via interactive TV hookup from the White House.

Those present for the administration's government-sponsored event in New Orleans could be forgiven for thinking they had wandered into church accidentally. The "seminar" looked more like a revival meeting than a government conference. Two invocational prayers were offered to kick off the event, gospel choirs entertained attendees and some break-out sessions were halted when participants claimed to be receiving words from God.

The central message of the New Orleans conference, according to those in attendance, was funding religious groups through the Compassion Capital Fund. Not coincidentally, Louisiana is home to one of the nation's most competitive Senate races (Sen. Mary Landrieu's re-election bid), in which President Bush personally took an active role in shaping the GOP field.

Similarly, the White House also sent a team of faith-based officials to Minneapolis this summer for a faith-based event hosted by officials from Bush's Health and Human Services Department. The Rev. Floyd Blair, an African American minister and a Bush HHS official, was seen by AU employees present for the conference literally directing African American religious leaders to special sessions for exclusive information. Blair also spoke extensively about the Compassion Capital Fund to attendees, calling the available tax dollars "faith money."

Minnesota is home to the nation's most competitive gubernatorial race a three-way campaign in which a recent poll showed all candidates with about 30 percent support each and the re-election campaign of Sen. Paul Wellstone, widely considered the Senate's most vulnerable incumbent Democrat. (Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney personally played active roles in selecting the Republican nominee for the race, St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, by discouraging potential challengers.)

As a result, when considered in the broader political context, the Bush administration has convened three multi-day seminars on faith-based funding through the Compassion Capital Fund. At each event, the message was intentionally directed specifically to an African American audience in the apparent hopes of developing political support for a constituency that has historically been hostile to Republican candidates. Moreover, all three events were hosted in politically significant areas North Carolina, Louisiana, and Minnesota where very competitive swing states are in the midst of an important Senate race, gubernatorial race, or both in 2002.

Critics of the president's faith-based plan believe these partisan efforts make a bad plan even worse.

"The Bush administration's claims about the faith-based initiative serving a noble, charitable purpose now ring hollow," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "While the faith-based scheme was problematic all along for constitutional reasons, this new trend makes clear that the administration is willing to manipulate assistance to charities for partisan political ends.

"Complicating matters, these activities demonstrate the White House's willingness to blatantly and shamelessly use the Compassion Capital Fund inappropriately," Lynn added. "Remarkably, administration officials are actually making promises about spreading 'faith money' around. What was once considered a bi-partisan mechanism for supporting religious charities has unfortunately become a political slush fund for the White House to advance political purposes."