'The Initiative Is Working'
Jim Towey, Office of Faith-Based & Community Initiatives director, discusses putting "compassionate conservatism" into action.
BY: Ira J. Hadnot
Jim Towey prides himself on his bipartisanship.
A self-styled "pro-life Democrat," he runs the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, President Bush's program to provide federal dollars for social services through private groups affiliated with churches and other "faith-based" institutions.
Previously, he worked for Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon, a Republican, and Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat.
One of the challenges he faces, he said, is putting Mr. Bush's philosophy of "compassionate conservatism" into action while avoiding the partisan battles that doom so many initiatives in Washington. He said he shares the president's belief that grassroots efforts can be more effective than big government in delivering services to the needy. And, he added, Mr. Bush has proven early critics of the faith-based approach wrong.
Mr. Towey, who has been on the job for 30 months, formerly ran Aging with Dignity, a nonprofit organization that helps families plan the care of members in their later years.
A Catholic and a lawyer, he served as counsel to Mother Teresa for 12 years. In 1990, he lived as a volunteer in a home she ran for AIDS patients in Washington.
Mr. Towey spoke with [Dallas Morning News] Staff Writer Ira J. Hadnot this week, while representatives from his office were meeting in Irving with local nonprofits interested in learning more about faith-based grants. Here are excerpts:
Question: The faith-based effort was a cornerstone of the Bush campaign in 2000, but it's barely been mentioned this time around. Why?
Answer: That may be the perception, but President Bush has talked about this at a number of events. The war and the economy have been his main focus. The initiative is working, and that is why he doesn't have to keep pushing it.
Question: How do you respond to critics who say that with the end of the welfare state, churches cannot be the safety net for social services?
Answer: The critics owe President Bush an apology. That was their expectation, but it did not happen. There never was a transfer of federal responsibility. There was a more effective use of federal resources.
The focus was not to channel money to faith-based organizations, but to remove the barriers so they could successfully compete for federal grants. The president wanted to level the playing field. We haven't completely done that, but we have gotten close.
Four years ago, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was telling grantees they could not have any religious affiliation. Last year, HUD gave out $113 million in grants to faith-based groups that had applied for the first time - a 100 percent increase over the $56 million in 2002.
Question: Is this new money or money that would have already been available and is now being shared with faith-based entities?
Answer: The new money, nearly $189 million, is coming through the president's Compassion Capital Fund. It's being used for mentoring children of prisoners, for treatment vouchers for drug addicts, and for abstinence-only education programs. There are a number of grants for at-risk youths, people with HIV/AIDS and homeless people.
Question: How many of those receiving faith-based awards are churches?
Answer: We cannot answer that. We don't want to know which ones are churches. We [only] need to know that they are tax-exempt organizations and they do not do anything impermissible with the grants.
Question: Because President Bush backs many of these programs, isn't it hard for them not to become politicized?
Answer: The faith-based organizations know the rules. There are some that will not take money because they don't want any restrictions on what they preach.
I think the more critical point here is the president has successfully brought faith back into the public square. It is possible for groups to partner with the government and not lose their religious identity. And it is possible for millions of Americans to benefit from these services and not have to profess a religious affiliation.
The critics said the right wing would be treated more favorably. The critics were wrong. We are working with a broad spectrum. I have helped Democratic governors establish faith-based offices in their states.
Question: You've worked with Mother Teresa, with AIDS victims and at various levels of government. What do you get out of this job?
Answer: I am the luckiest man in the world. I love these issues. I like the passion the president displays and his conviction that individuals can make a difference in the lives of people who are less fortunate.
When I was director of Florida's department of health and social services, I saw the limits of what government could do. We can hand out food stamps, but government can't love. It cannot hold your hand and walk you through a difficult time.