Listening In: Ralph Reed

WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith and today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with Christian political activist, Ralph Reed.

I first met Ralph Reed in 1979 when we were both undergraduates at the University of Georgia. Even then as a freshman, I could tell that he was a gifted organizer and it didn’t take long for him to have a high profile on campus, but he had his sights set much higher than campus politics.

He helped organize college students for Reagan in 1980 but he took a break from college to become an intern at the College Republican National Committee in 1981. By 1983 he would succeed Grover Norquist as executive director of the CRNC. But it took a conversion to Christ, which we’ll hear about later in the program, to give Ralph Reed sharper focus in his political activism. He became active in the pro-life cause and that ultimately led to his leadership of the Christian Coalition from 1989 to 1997. He subsequently founded his own political consultancy, Century Strategies, became chairman of the Republican Party of Georgia and even ran for lieutenant governor in the state of Georgia.

But Ralph Reed’s work has not been without controversy. His opposition to gambling successfully kept casino gambling out of Georgia and other southern states, but some of his work was indirectly financed by existing gambling companies whose real motivation was to stifle competition. I asked Ralph Reed about that time in his life later in the program, and we’ll also talk about the latest chapter in his life as chairman and founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which helped Donald Trump and a number of other conservative political newcomers win elections in 2016. I had this conversation with Ralph Reed at the offices of Century Strategies in the Buckhead district of Atlanta

Ralph Reed, welcome to the program and you know, this is a great view you’ve got here and uh, we’re, I guess we’re in Buckhead, right? This is the part of town they call Buckhead.

RALPH REED, GUEST: We’re in the heart of Atlanta, Georgia.

SMITH: And we’re in the offices of Century Strategies, which is the… sort of the for-profit arm of your life. It’s where you do your political consulting and other kinds of consulting. There’s another part of your life, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which is up in Duluth, which is I guess about 15 or 20 miles from here, north of Atlanta. Tell me about that group and sort of the difference between the two and the fact that you lead both of them.

REED: Well, Century Strategies is my tent making. That’s how I make a living. And I founded Century 22 years ago and we’ve never missed payroll, fortunately. We really don’t do any political consulting anymore here.

SMITH: It’s all corporate then?

REED: It’s all strategic consulting to either for-profits or nonprofits. And basically with my background, whether it’s public relations or media relations or marketing or public affairs, you know, hopefully after 10 presidential campaigns and running two major public policy organizations, I know something about that world. So, we’ve been able to work for some of the leading corporations in the world, really. I mean, Microsoft and the biggest antitrust case since the breakup of AT&T. And we’ve worked for, you know, many other leading corporations, uh, faith.

SMITH: But very little politics out of this office then.

REED: Correct, because the last campaign that I really worked on as a consultant was the 2004 Bush reelect. The stuff that I do now politically is either as a friend or a private citizen or in my capacity as chairman of Faith and Freedom.

SMITH: Well, let’s segue and talk about that. Tell me what faith and freedom does. It’s a nonprofit organization and you said, I think, offline, you had nearly a million donors last year. Is that right?

REED: Yeah, we have about 950,000 donors. We have a total of 1.8 million activists, supporters, members, and donors. And I founded that 10 years ago this year. This will be our 10th year. Basically, Faith and Freedom is an organization that seeks to advance and enact public policy and legislation that reflects biblical principles. So we’re pro-life, we’re pro-family, we believe in the sanctity of marriage, the traditional family, the sanctity of innocent human life. But we also work in a lot of, I guess for lack of a better term, sort of non-traditional issues like criminal justice reform and immigration reform based on what we believe are biblical principles. We were very deeply involved in the passage of the First Step Act late last year. I was privileged to be in the Oval Office when the president signed that legislation. That was an impressive bipartisan coalition that included law enforcement, civil libertarians, minorities, and pro-family and social conservative groups. And then the other big part of Faith and Freedom’s mission is to educate, register to vote, mobilize, and turnout Christian voters to the polls. And in 2018 we knocked on over 2 million doors in 21 states. We distributed 30 million voter guides in 117,000 churches. We mailed 23 million pieces of nonpartisan voter education mail. Sent out over 9 million text messages to faith-based voters. And we saw a record turnout in those off-year elections. And now we’re gearing up for 2020.

SMITH: Well, I don’t want to get too much in the weeds of the mechanics of that process. But when you said you had, you know, a million more or less donors and, what, $30 million?

REED: Roughly.

SMITH: Yeah, roughly $30 million in revenue. But you’ve got a relatively small permanent staff there, right? So I mean is what you’re doing maybe raising money and then whenever the election cycles come you sort of spend it all at once and then you keep doing it again and communicating with your members. How does the… because I know you don’t make direct contributions to candidates, like for example, the Susan B. Anthony List. 

REED: Right. We don’t contribute to candidates. We may in the future. We’ve talked about, you know, having a federal or multi-candidate PAC that gave to candidates. I think that’s frankly likely at some point in the future. But we think our greatest value and our greatest sort of return on investment is we’ve built a voter database over the last 10 years that today is 41.6 million evangelical and pro-family and pro-life voters in 29 million households in all 50 states. And we try to touch every one of those voters seven to 12 times in the roughly 60 to 90 days before an election. And we’re not, you know, Warren, just to be clear, we’re not telling them who to vote for. We’re not saying vote for this person, vote against that person. But on the issues that they care about, whether it’s life, religious liberty, support for Israel, the Iran nuclear deal, criminal justice reform, border security, taxes, spending, whatever the issue may be, we usually have about 10 issues on our voter education material.

We tell them what the media won’t tell them. We tell them where the candidates actually stand on the issues. The candidates and the political parties want to obfuscate where they stand. The media largely either wants to ignore it or lie about it. They’re going to write 10,000 about Bob Mueller. But they’re not going to tell a single Christian voter that Donald Trump was the first president since Congress mandated we moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem to actually do so. We’re going to tell them. And then we’re gonna say, look, once you see which candidate aligns with you on your biblical values and your positions on the issues, then by all means go to the polls and vote for the candidate of choice.

SMITH: And y’all do voter registration as well.

REED: Uh-huh.

SMITH: Do you pick states? Do you target precincts or districts? Or is it just across the board part of your — 

REED: We try to do it across the board, but you know, at this point it’s where it matters the most. And in 2018 we were active in 22 states that decided the outcome of that election. Every key Senate race, every key governor’s race. And then we were involved in, you know, give or take 40 congressional races. And you know, we’re going door to door. And I say there’s lots of great people out there doing good things. And when it comes to, you know, philosophy, you know, I’m a conservative, but when it comes to strategy, I’m a Maoist, you know. Mao said let a thousand flowers bloom. So I’m for anybody and everybody who wants to go out there and talk to citizens of faith and encourage them to be effective and robust and muscular citizens to do so. But I’m very confident, with all humility — cause you know, the Lord is the one that has done this, not me — that Faith and Freedom in 2018 contacted more voters of faith more ways, more times and got more of those voters to the polls than anybody in America.

SMITH: Well, you sort of cut your teeth on some of the activities that you’re doing now as far back as college. But I think most significantly, probably, when you were ahead of the Christian Coalition from, what, 1989 to ’97 something about along those lines. And so I guess my question is I’ve sometimes heard Faith and Freedom, especially since you’re the leader of it, characterized as a Christian Coalition 2.0 or Christian Coalition on steroids or some description that includes Christian Coalition in it. How does that description hit you? Do you say, yeah, thumbs up. I can understand why people say that. Or no, we’re doing something totally different, and Christian Coalition is still doing its thing?

REED: You know, I would say yes and no. You know, I think it’s the same mission and purpose, which is to encourage God’s people to be effective citizens. And I feel very strongly about this, Warren, that this is a central Biblical teaching. I don’t think any true, full understanding of the scriptures is possible without the understanding of the person of faith’s dual obligation to be a citizen of the heavenly kingdom and also to be an effective witness of God’s goodness, his justice, and his righteousness here on Earth in whatever earthly citizenship he has placed you. In the Old Testament that’s reflected in one’s obligation to Israel—the ancient polity. And, I think in the New Testament, it’s reflected through the life and lessons of Jesus, the Apostle Paul, Peter, and the early church and how they exercise their citizenship.

And so it’s the same mission, but on the other hand, you don’t pour new wine into old wine skins. It’s a different time. It’s a different season. I think that we’re seeking to be even broader in the issues that we embrace. I certainly did that at Christian Coalition, but I mean today, we as a social conservative organization work on expanding the child tax credit, paid family leave, immigration reform, and criminal justice reform. And we’re spending as much time on those issues as we are on the life and the religious liberty issue. I think that’s a little different than 25 years ago.

I think the second thing that is candidly different is the country’s becoming more diverse. I personally embrace that. I think it’s a good thing. So we have a very muscular outreach to minority churches, especially African-American and Hispanic churches. We have paid Hispanic organizers, we distribute bilingual voter guides.

The third thing, and I think in many ways this is the biggest change. It’s the biggest change in politics in my career is the rise of big data and data analytics. You know, we’re able to track 147 different data points on every voter and have our data team write algorithms that allow us to find voters of faith. 25 years ago, we were finding voters of faith by key punching church membership directories. The biggest voter file I ever had at the peak of the Christian Coalition was about 8 million voters. Today I have 41.6 million. That gives you a much larger audience to talk to and to turn out on election day.

SMITH: Ralph, in that first segment, you’ve already raised a lot of issues that I would love to have the time to explore with you. I won’t be able to explore them all, but a couple that I did want to mention, you mentioned the First Step Act, which you guys were involved with. And, of course, Chuck Colson, who was one of my mentors…

REED: One of mine, too, by the way.

SMITH: Yeah, exactly. And Prison Fellowship was involved in that process.

REED: Very much so.

SMITH: And, of course, President Trump was as well. Jared Kushner whose father had been to prison was kind of the point man in the White House for making sure that First Step got passed. And so, it really was a true bipartisan effort and it was a great step forward, I think many of us believe, when it comes to changing sentencing guidelines and sentencing reform and all that kind of stuff. But prison reform itself, that’s probably just — what happened is probably just a piece of what needs to happen there. And then there are some other issues, though, that are maybe more clear and present. And one is immigration reform and you mentioned also the paid parental leave, which many conservatives have been opposed to over the years.

REED: Right.

SMITH: So let’s start there. Why are you for it?

REED: Well, I’m for it because we support pro-family policies and the reality is the world that we live in today is a different world than existed 30, 40, 50 years ago. Even 25 years ago, in terms of a number of women who were in the workforce and the percentage of women of childbearing and childrearing age that are working outside the home. And we want as much as possible to make it easier for them to be there for their children especially in the early months after that child is born. So we don’t favor government regulation. We don’t favor government mandates. We don’t want the federal government telling every business in America how to run its employee policies. But we do like the idea of, without a tax increase and without a mandate, allowing workers to take some period of time to be at home with their newborn. And, you know, the devil will be in the details. It’ll all be worked out legislatively, but whether it’s three months or six months or whatever it is, and then take some of the funds that they might have later as a retiree and sort of pull those funds forward to subsidize family leave.

SMITH: So just to make the math easy, if I take three months now to be home with my kid, that might delay my retirement age, my Social Security eligibility, by three months? 

REED: You would be making a decision. It’s your choice that I’m prepared to back my receiving Social Security funds for three to six months, whatever it is, in order to be home with my child now. And we think that that’s a trade off that a lot of young mothers are going to want to do. And, you know, I think we just have to recognize that for many young people today, they’re two income households and it’s not the economy of your parents or your grandparents anymore. And if we want to, here’s the other thing we know: we know that making it easier for people to get pregnant and have children and raise children is critical for us to encourage people to get married and have babies. And I’m pro-life and I’m pro-family. And to me being pro-life doesn’t just mean protecting the unborn child in the womb. It’s making it easier for people to be parents and to raise children.

SMITH: Yeah. So, you’re for it, it sounds like. I’ve heard former Senator Rick Santorum, former presidential candidate Rick Santorum come out in favor of a plan like this.

REED: Yeah, Marco Rubio is one of the leaders of it. Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa is a big leader of it. 

SMITH: I think it’s Rubio that is actually planning to introduce it legislatively.

REED: I think he frankly has already done so.

SMITH: And, of course in the State of the Union, the president came out in favor of parental leave as well.

REED: I’ve had the privilege of working with Ivanka Trump and her team on this at the White House. 

SMITH: All of which is to say that even though we know where you stand and that you’ve got an agenda and you want to be positive about it, realistically, what are the chances? what are the chances of, say, Rubio legislature something like the Rubio legislation passing?

REED: Here’s the way I would answer that, Warren: I think it’s no different than the criminal justice reform issue where it’s going to happen in some form. It’s either going to be a bad liberal bill or it’s going to be our bill.

SMITH: So we’ve talked about prison reform and the First Step Act. We talked about paid parental leave. Another issue that is sort of outside the realm of this marriage, life, religious liberty triad that Christians have traditionally been focused on is immigration reform. And that’s another issue that you’ve taken a leadership role in. What’s your position on immigration reform?

REED: Well, you know, it’s really interesting. The Bible actually has a lot to say about this. We develop our public policy positions first by going back to the source of the greatest amount of knowledge and truth we know of, which is the Bible. What does the Bible tell us? Actually a lot, but two truths that are really important. The first is we’re called to show compassion for the sojourner and the alien in our midst. And God says to the Israelites, show compassion to the alien and the sojourner. Why? Because you were once an alien in the midst of Egypt. There was a time when you were an alien. You were treated unfairly. Don’t do that to others. So we want to show compassion. But then the other corollary principle is anybody who comes into another country should abide by the laws and be a law abiding resident of that country. So we want to show compassion, but we also want to enforce the law.

And for us that translates into three public policy imperatives. First, secure the border. Two is we believe in replacing the failed policy of chain migration with placing an emphasis on unifying the nuclear family. And then the third principle is some form of justice and an end to legal limbo for the dreamers, the people who were brought here before 2012 by their parents, through no fault of their own. We could support either permanent legal residents, as long as they pay their taxes, they’re enrolled in school, they’re enlisted in the military, and they pass a criminal background check. The president has even come out for a pathway to citizenship, but we don’t believe that the sins of parents should be visited upon children. They didn’t do anything wrong. We’ve gotta find a way, again, with certain parameters for them to be able to stay.

SMITH: Ralph, I’ve heard some people describe what you just described in this way and I’m wondering how it hits you. Tall walls, wide gates, open arms. In other words, border security, but a clear path for freedom-loving people, for people that want to come here and follow our laws and work to come in and that we should be a compassionate country towards those people. Whether you describe it the way I just described it or the way you just described it, it’s a fairly nuanced position. And I know you support president Trump. But would it be fair to say that maybe President Trump is in some ways an enemy to that nuanced position when he stands up in front of large crowds and says, build the wall and make Mexico pay for it? I mean has his rhetoric militated against the kind of careful thinking that is that you’ve articulated just now and it will be required to produce the bipartisan support of the kind that y’all were able to craft for, say, the First Step Act? 

REED: Not in my experience. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to President Trump about this issue. I’ve worked with the White House and the administration on this issue extensively. And if people are fair and they give President Trump a fair hearing, they will know that he not only proposed to allow every one of the 6-to-700,000 young people who were enrolled under Obama’s DACA program to stay, he proposed to allow all 2 million who entered the country before 2012 illegally, to stay. And he proposed that they be allowed to apply for and receive citizenship. If Obama had proposed that, people would have attacked him. So I think Trump has actually been very generous.

One other quick thing, if you go back to his State of the Union address, what did he say after he talked about the need for border security? He said that as long as we could secure the border, he was in favor of expanding legal immigration. He wants more people to be able to come. I don’t believe that Donald Trump is anti immigrant. I believe he’s pro law enforcement and pro border secure.

SMITH: I guess Ralph, though, really I’m not arguing that point. I mean, I’ll concede that point. Stipulate it for the record that what you just said about your position and Donald Trump’s position is true. But my real question is, though, does he not undermine his own position whenever he stands up in front of large crowds and says build a wall and make Mexico pay for it, and some of the inflammatory rhetoric that he used during the campaign, seems to be at odds with his own position at least if what you say is true about his position?

REED: I don’t think so. And I’ll tell you why. They say that only Nixon could go to China. Probably only Ronald Reagan could have done the deals that he did with Gorbachev after the Berlin Wall fell or before the Berlin Wall fell but as the Soviet Union was disintegrated. And there’s a sense in which the ground that Trump occupies on those issues, especially border security, build the wall, make Mexico pay for it, is what gives him the ability to actually do a deal on comprehensive immigration reform. So if he were rhetorically where George W. Bush was, which was family values don’t end at the Rio Grande, even though I worked for George W. Bush and I agreed with him then, and I agree with him now, it’s arguably easier for Trump to do the deal. The challenge that Trump’s got is the Democrats don’t want to give him that victory. If you look at the negotiations after Trump into the shutdown and they were in negotiations about the ultimate deal that he ended up signing, they did sort of a temporary spending bill while they negotiated, the Republicans walked in to that sort of special committee and said, alright, let’s put border security and Dreamers on the table and the Democrats, not Trump, the Democrats said Dreamers are off the table. You know why? Because the last thing they want, Warren, is Donald Trump in the Rose Garden signing a deal for the Dreamers surrounded by Hispanic kids and him hugging him and going, I’m so glad we were able to get this done. They will not let that happen. He’s not the impediment to getting this done. The Democrats are.

SMITH: So, are you pursuing this issue because it’s a good campaign issue or because you want to actually get it done?

REED: I’m for this issue because I genuinely believe that on this issue, as in so many others, if you forget about the politics and you just focus on what the biblical principles and values are and let that be your guide, let that be your North Star, the policy takes care of itself. I mean you described it very well, you know, with high walls and wide gates and open arms. That’s the kind of country we want to be.

SMITH: Ralph, I should probably share with our listeners that I’ve known you since we were both in college. I think you started at the University of Georgia in 1979. I’m a few years older than you. But it took you a while to get through college because you kept wanting to Washington DC and getting involved in…

REED: I was working on campaigns.

SMITH: Yeah, exactly. So…

REED: I was so busy trying to save Western civilization that it took me a while to get my undergraduate.

SMITH: Well, in fact I want to talk to you about that because you were more of, I would say, a conservative ideologue rather than someone motivated by their Christian beliefs.

REED: Oh, yeah. I wasn’t a believer, really, until 1983.

SMITH: But yeah, tell me about that. How did you get involved in politics first of all, and secondly, how did you come to faith?

REED: Well, I got involved in politics. I had a friend of my family that ran for Congress in the mid to late seventies in Miami where I then lived and I just was a volunteer and I went door to door. But I’m telling you, Warren, you learn a lot about politics knocking on doors. And I kinda caught the bug there. And then when I got to college, it was the Reagan-Carter campaign and I was at the largest state university, you know, in Georgia, Jimmy Carter’s home state. And I was a Reagan guy. And, you know, Reagan really captured, I mean, he really won my heart, captured my imagination, gave me hope for a better future for my country. And I just turned into a total, you know, Reaganite, and you know, really conservative ideologically, got involved in college Republicans, went to Washington.

But in the midst of that, I guess the briefest explanation of it is the thing that I thought would satisfy me, which was political engagement and victory I ultimately found, didn’t satisfy, you know? And I got to Washington and I started to get to know some of the members of Congress and their staff, and I got to see them behind the curtain. And they weren’t always behind the scenes what they pretended to be. And I guess I had to sort of make a decision as to what kind of person I wanted to be. I had been raised in the Methodist church. My parents had been raised in the Methodist church. My best friend was my minister’s son. So I spent a lot of time in the home of my pastor. But I had never really had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. And I had never really turned my life over to him.

And you know, one of the things about those Reagan days is, you know, that was when Christians were really starting to pour in. I mean everybody remembers the “moral majority,” but it was much bigger than that. It was a, it’s hard to explain, but it was a real move of the Lord, I think, that there were just so many Christians that were getting involved and under the auspices of the Reagan effort. And I’ve started to bump up against those young people and they would, unbeknownst to me at the time, they were praying for my salvation. And long story short, I was kind of, you know, my philosophy was work hard and party hard and you know, there was a lot of wine, women, and song and all that kind of thing.

And I quit drinking. And then one night I was at a bar on Capitol Hill, and I don’t know, I guess it was a prompting of the Holy Spirit, but I just thought, you know, I ought to go to church tomorrow. And so I went to the yellow pages, which is, they existed back then, and I found a church just outside Washington DC, having no intention to do other anything other than just, you know, go to church. And then at the end of the sermon there was an altar call and, man, I felt like a bolt of lightening hit me and I just walked up and made my formal decision to follow Jesus Christ. That was September of 1983.

SMITH: Well, that restaurant you said, but you call it a bar, it’s a restaurant. Bull Feathers. I’ve eaten meals in that restaurant many, many times. I wonder that they should put a plaque in there that says, talks about it’s the birthplace of the religious right.

REED: I guess where Ralph Reed heard from God.

SMITH: In bull feathers, yeah. Which is of course a restaurant where a lot of staffers go. So that happened and you were already very actively involved in College Republicans and back and forth between Washington and Georgia. So it took you about six years to get up to get your four year degree, but you move pretty rapidly through a PhD program. Is that because you kind of had focus and direction and you knew where you were going or…?

REED: You know, it’s funny. I had really intended to get out of politics and pursue an academic career. I mean, I really felt called to the classroom and I felt like we needed to have more Christian, I dunno, maybe role model would be too strong of a term. But, you know, as a professor and as an academic be somebody who could be an example, young people that, you know, being a believer or a Christian or a believer in the Bible as the Word of God did not mean that you put your brain in a blind trust, you know. That you could pursue true intellectual inquiry and serve Jesus Christ. And I felt that as a calling. So I was very committed. But it also took me six years to get that one because as I was writing my dissertation, my phone rang out of the blue and it was Pat Robertson and he had returned to CBN, Christian Broadcasting Network after running for president. And after taking a couple of years to sort of turn that ministry’s finances back around after his departure. He was ready to sort of saddle up and start this new organization that ended up being the Christian Coalition. So he invited me to a meeting that was coincidentally in Atlanta. I was at Emory and he said, hey, aren’t you in Atlanta? And I said, yeah. And he said, look, I’m having a meeting at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Atlanta. Why don’t you come? So I go to this meeting and it’s, you know, Charles Stanley and D. James Kennedy, and Pat Robertson and Tim and Bev La Haye, and me, you know. I’m like some 28 year old kid who’s barely shaving, you know. And at the end of the meeting, Pat turned to me and said, I want to introduce everybody to Ralph Reed. He’s going to be the first staffer of this new organization.

SMITH: And he hadn’t even talked to you about that.

REED: No, had not even told me. And so they all were looking at me and I was looking at that. I’ll never forget that. I went up to Pat afterwards and I shook his hand and I said, well, that was quite a surprise. And he said, well, welcome aboard. You have no money, no budget and no staff. I’ll see you Monday.

SMITH: Well, and the rest, as they say, is history. Because from, as I said earlier, from ’89 to ’97, I mean, you guys, you know, really blew up.

REED: Yeah, we exploded.

SMITH: Had a big impact.

REED: And meanwhile, on the weekends, I’m still editing my dissertation. So that took me two more years. But I have to give Pat credit. He kept telling me, make sure you finish, you know, don’t walk away and not finish it. So I am a doctor but not a real one.

SMITH: Yeah.

REED: I just play one on television.

SMITH: Well, and those are, I mean obviously, Ralph, those are some of the early successes that, you know, turn Ralph Reed into the Ralph Reed that we all know and love or know and hate, depending upon which side aisle aisle that you’re on. But I want to pivot, if you’ll let me, and ask you not necessarily about some of your successes but about some of your failures. Because that’s often what builds character and where you have some learnings. And I don’t mean to do this to re-litigate some of these things. But two or three episodes and I’m just wondering if you know your take on them and you learn from them.

One was the demise of Christian coalition. Christian Coalition, you left and it kind of blew up in a kind of an unceremonious way. Any regrets about that era or what did you learn from that time in your life of building an organization and then seeing it maybe live a little bit beyond its useful life, at least for what it was originally started for and then walking away from it?

REED: Boy, that’s a great question. I mean, I guess, sure, I have regrets that it didn’t go on. I mean, and by the way, nobody was more surprised than I was. I mean, I would have never left if I had thought for one minute that that was even possible. I mean, I thought we had a strong foundation and I had a great staff. I had a great team. So I was very surprised and very disappointed that it didn’t stay on the track that it was on and have the kind of influence that it had after I left. I think the biggest issue I learned was the importance of succession in an organization. And I think if I had to do it over again, which I don’t, you know, I can’t go back and do a re-do. None of us can.

I think I would’ve sat down with the board and I would said, you know, let’s look at the next five or 10 years. Am I going to stay? Am I going to make this a life’s work? Am I not likely to? And without referencing any companies, you know, I’ve really benefited from serving as a consultant to some of the leading corporations in America. There’s one company, I won’t name them, but they’ve never in their hundred year history, they’ve never once hired a CEO from outside the company. So I think if you’re going to retain a corporate culture, you have to sort of line people up and the succession, no guarantee of anything. But if you look at the way Tim Cook was able to succeed Steve Jobs — now, there’s one where if there was ever a guy who was irreplaceable, it was Steve Jobs. But that company’s probably worth two or three times more today than it was on the day he died. So I’d say for me at Faith and Freedom, now that I’m wearing that hat and I’m now the head of that, I’m starting to think about, you know, succession and making sure that we develop people who can continue the work.

SMITH: Yeah. Another episode I’d like to ask you to reflect on a little bit, and that is running for lieutenant governor here in the state of Georgia. You did Christian coalition. You started Century Strategies, ’97. You became head of the Republican Party here in Georgia and had great successes there and that motivated you, I guess in part to maybe put your own hat in the ring and you ran for lieutenant governor. It did not end well. Talk about that and what you learned.

REED: I would say, this is what I tell people. First of all, I’m really glad I did it. And I am so much better of a friend and a counselor and an advisor to candidates because I have myself been one. I think a lot of the people that sit on my side of the table talking to candidates, they can’t really fully appreciate what that person’s going through because they’ve never had the guts to put their own name on the ballot and take the arrows. And I did. And what I tell them is what I believe about my own candidacy. If you run for the right things and you’re advancing them for the right reasons, you cannot fail. You may not win the election, but you’re gonna motivate likeminded people. Good people are going to get involved. And over time, even losing candidacies lay the groundwork for future successes. You’ve got to remember, I worked for a guy for seven and a half, almost eight years, who ran for president and lost.

And, you know, the Bible says, I think it’s in the 12th chapter of John where Jesus says, unless a kernel of wheat dies, you know, it abides alone. But if it goes into the soil and gives itself up, it bears much fruit. In Pat’s case, his defeat paved the way for the Christian Coalition. And it is undeniable that it changed the direction of American history. Whether you like Pat or don’t, agree with his politics or not. It changed the country. And I believe the same thing about my decision to run. I really don’t have… You know, would I have done a few things differently?  Yeah, I was a first time candidate. But I stood for the right things and I ran for the right reasons.

SMITH: And I’ve also heard you’ll never do it again.

REED: Well, I’ve never said that. I’ve never said…

SMITH: Well, you’ve been quoted as saying that.

REED: I have?

SMITH: Yeah.

REED: What I would say is this: if a flaming angel appears at the foot of my bed and tells me to run, I’ll run.

But, you know, I’ll tell you what my pastor told me when it was over. It’s kind of interesting. He said, Ralph, out of that one defeat will come a thousand victories. And at the time I went, yeah, sure. But keep in mind I hadn’t started Faith and Freedom yet. Look at what Faith and Freedom as accomplished. I’m far better at what I do because I had the guts to run. And I will tell you, I learned what most people never learn. It is tough to be a candidate and put your name on the ballot.

So a lot of times what I’ll do, and I did this a little bit before, but more so now when I call somebody who’s running for office and they’re a friend of mine, maybe a believer, they stand for our principles. Back in the old days whenever I called, it was just cause I was trying to get them where I wanted them to be on an issue. And I still do that. But now I’m really just trying to be a friendly shoulder that they can lean on and a friendly ear that they can talk to. You know, I just want them to know I love you. I know you’re under attack. I want you to know, I appreciate you being willing to do this for the rest of us. And I’m your friend and thank goodness they’re willing to do it.

SMITH: Yeah. Real quickly, a third area. And it came partly during that lieutenant governor’s campaign, the Indian gaming controversy. That some would say helped derail your lieutenant governor’s bid. Again, I don’t want to re-litigate what happened there, but anything you’d do differently in that situation?

REED: Yeah, sure. I mean, I wouldn’t have worked on the issue. At the, you know, my concern was that I not be paid with any revenues that came from a casino, you know. And I had been approached before to work on these issues because there’s always some gaming interest that doesn’t want somebody to come to the state next door. So, I’d been approached before and I said, look, I can only do it if I’m paid with revenue or funds that didn’t come from a competing casino. And every conversation I’d had before, that ended the conversation. They said, well, we can’t really do that. So.

SMITH: And as a matter of principle, you were opposed to gambling.

REED: And still am.

SMITH: And you would want to work for organizations that would limit gambling. But in this particular case, the organization that wanted to limit gambling where other gambling interests that were competitors and that’s where it ran afoul.

REED: And in the case of the main… I was working for a law firm that had gaming clients. The Indian tribe, that was that law firm’s main client paid me from revenues that came from other businesses. And all I will say is this: Again, I would turn it down today because I just wouldn’t work as a consultant on that issue. Now at Faith and Freedom, we still oppose casino gambling expansion.

SMITH: Well, Ralph, you’ve been very generous with your time, but I can’t resist asking you a couple of quick lightning round questions here in closing. One is looking ahead to 2020, what do you see?

REED: I think it’s going to be the most expensive and the most uproarious campaign for president we’ve ever seen in our lifetimes. I think the total amount spent between the two sides is going to be somewhere between $7 and $10 billion. And the other side is fired up. And I think by the time we get there, Trump supporters will be really fired up. I mean, he’s got a 75 to 80% approval rating among evangelical Christians. I think they’re strongly behind him because of his support for the sanctity of innocent human life. His appointment of so many conservative judges, including Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. His pro-Israel position. So many positions that he’s taken in support for religious freedom. I don’t claim to know, I don’t have a crystal ball to tell you who the Democrats will nominate, but I’m confident that the platform that they run on will be to the left of the one that Hillary or Obama ran on. So I think the distinction is going to be very sharp. It’s going to be a very polarized debate. And the number of truly undecided voters is going to be infinitesimal. It’ll be 1, 2, 3%.

SMITH: Well, I know you’re a Trump supporter and you’ve here and elsewhere made an articulate case for some of his accomplishments, but you don’t think there’s any chance that some of the character issues that have dogged him might catch him before the next election?

REED: No. I really don’t.

SMITH: Final question. You’re no longer the young Turk. I guess it was in 1995, which was 25 years ago nearly that you were on the cover of Time magazine at age 33 for all of the accomplishments then. So even though I know you have plans for many years ahead, probably more behind than ahead of you at this point. You’ve already talked about succession planning at Faith and Freedom. What do you want people to say about Ralph Reed when you’re gone? What do you want your legacy to be?

REED: Well, I’m not sure I think of it in terms of what others will say. But what I’d like to be able to accomplish is I feel that my sort of life purpose is to encourage godly men and women to be servants and advance godly values and principles in the civic arena. And whether that means as a candidate, as an office holder, as an appointed official, I just want to see a Christian community that exercises real stewardship and responsibility in the leadership of their community, state and nation, and in advancing the common good while doing so.

And I really see my job and sort of my role and my mission and purpose to bring that about. And, you know, I feel that if my life ended tomorrow, you know, if I got hit by a bus tomorrow, I’ve already done an extraordinary amount by the grace of God to accomplish that purpose.

But as many years and as much time as he’s got left, that’s what I’m about. And that’s what I’m doing.

SMITH: Thanks Ralph.

REED: Yep.

SMITH: Appreciate it very much.

REED: Good to see ya, Warren.

SMITH: Likewise. 

(Photo/The New York Times, Mike Cohen)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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