Former U.S. Rep. Randy Tate of Puyallup, Wash., was named Wednesday as the new head of the national Christian Coalition, giving him at age 31 the day-to-day operation of one of the country’s most visible and influential political groups.
Tate’s new job as executive director was announced at a news conference featuring evangelist Pat Robertson, who founded the coalition in 1989 and has since watched it grow to 1.8 million members in 2,000 chapters located in all 50 states.
Robertson said he appointed Donald Hodel, former Reagan Cabinet official, to succeed him as president. Robertson, who becomes chairman of the board, said he would retain ultimate authority over the coalition. Hodel, 62, who now lives in Colorado, once ran the Bonneville Power Administration.
For Tate, the move marks a rapid political comeback. In November, he was voted out of Congress after one two-year term and has not had full-time employment since. Now he is positioned to become one of the lead spokesmen and lobbyists for the entire conservative Christian political movement.
“Heading the Christian Coalition is one of the few national leadership positions in politics, and a hugely important job,” said Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash., who encouraged Tate to try for the post.
While he’s relatively inexperienced in national politics, Tate is no stranger to the group or to Robertson. He has long called himself a Christian activist and has a perfect voting record in Congress and the Washington Legislature on social issues important to the coalition, such as abortion and prayer in school. He also was elected as an alternate delegate for Robertson at the national Republican convention in 1988 when Robertson ran for president.
At the same time, Tate’s status as a former congressman - and a personal favorite of Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich - likely will give the coalition easy access to Republican leaders and cement its image as a lobbying powerhouse on Capitol Hill.
“Randy has a passion and a faith that appeals to the folks in the trenches of the Christian Coalition, but at the same time he’s a savvy political guy,” said Steve Sego, a partner in Bellevue’s Madison Group, a political-consulting firm.
Tate inherits the coalition from Ralph Reed, a boyish, energetic 35-year-old who is widely credited with transforming it from a marginal group of Christian activists into a well-connected political power.
The coalition can draw religious conservative voters to the ballot box like no other group and has become so influential in Republican primary elections that GOP candidates are under great pressure to adhere to most of the group’s demands, Republican strategists say.
These include taking a public stance on a range of social issues, such as abortion, homosexuality and school prayer.
For all its influence, however, the group has had almost no success getting any of its positions enacted into law, even in the past three years as Republicans have controlled Congress. Reed was criticized at times by the coalition’s own members for setting aside this social agenda and focusing the lobbying efforts instead on conservative economic policies, such as tax cuts.
Though Tate was once branded a “poster boy of the radical right,” he is expected to continue this tradition of working conservative and Christian issues within the political system, Republicans say.
“Randy used to be more rabid, but he realized when he got elected to the Legislature that it wasn’t abortion that got him there,” said one Republican activist who knows Tate well. “He focused more on fiscal conservatism, not all the social stuff.”
Tate was elected to the state House in 1989 at age 23 and served there six years.
People who have followed the Christian Coalition since it was created say its leaders had a central goal of picking someone adept at articulating a message, particularly to the media.
“He’ll represent their viewpoint well, and he’ll have the skills to take their issue to a broader public,” said Larry Sabato, a political-science professor at the University of Virginia. “They want someone to slot into the TV shows, like Ralph Reed did.”
Others claimed that selecting a former Republican congressman only reinforces the impression that the nonprofit Christian advocacy group really works in cahoots with the Republican Party.
A lawsuit pending in U.S. District Court in Washington alleges that the Christian Coalition’s voter guides were distributed in coordination with Republican candidates. The Federal Election Commission says it’s against the law for a nonprofit organization to help finance partisan political activities.
“They have just confirmed what people suspected all along, which is that they are a political lobbying organ by any measure,” said Chuck Lewis, director of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan watchdog group. “Having a former member of Congress underscores that identity.”