A former White House official reveals how politics and cynicism warped a noble idea to help the poor.
BY: David Kuo
The first scene is nine months before the 2002 mid-term elections.
Jim Towey [the head of the faith based office] and I we were sitting with Ken Mehlman, head of political affairs. We laid out a plan where we would hold "roundtable events" for threatened incumbents with faith and community leaders. Our office would do the work, using the aura of our White House power to get a diverse group of faith and community leaders to a "non-partisan event" discussing how best to help poor people in their area. The White House would win not only because it was a political benefit to threatened incumbents, but also because it showed minority communities we cared. Evangelicals would be happy, too, because we would emphasize the president's deep personal faith.
Ken loved the idea and gave us our marching orders off the top of his head. There were 20 targets.
"This is good, very good, very, very good," Mehlman said. "But we want to be careful too. We can't be requesting the events, we'll have to have the candidates request them. And it can't come from the campaigns. That would make it look too political. It needs to come from the congressional offices. We'll take care of that by having our guys call the office to request the visit."
I hoped the more politically useful we were, the more we would matter inside the West Wing, and the more we mattered the more we could accomplish. We planned to continue to make our policy case and lay out arguments to our White House colleagues for why the president needed to fulfill his promises. But if the policy people remained hostile to us, and the legislative liaisons weren't helpful, I hoped we could now earn the ultimate trump card by the election—that the political folks would be our principal advocates. I was well educated in Washington's ways—politics equaled power and we needed power.
[During a similar event the next year in Atlanta] Ralph Reed surveyed the enormous ballroom with wide eyes. He looked back at me. "Do you realize what you've done here? Do you realize what this is? This is what Republicans have been trying to do for the last 20 years. For the last 20 years we've tried to find a way to get this kind of an audience into a room. "
Ralph knew why I invited him. He pulled out his cell phone, dialed a number and exclaimed, "Karl, I'm down here in Atlanta at the faith-based conference. You've won't believe what we've got here. You've got 3,000 people, mostly minorities, applauding a stinkin' video of the president. This is unbelievable. THIS IS UNBELIEVABLE!!"
More than a dozen conferences with more than 20,000 faith and community leaders were held in 2003 and 2004 in every significant battleground state, including two in Florida, one in Miami ten days before the 2004 election. Their political power was incalculable. They were completely off the media's radar screen.
While the conferences were being birthed, we were also figuring out what to do with the Compassion Capital Fund. Promised originally at $200 million per year then cut in early 2001 to $100 million, and then again to $30 million, it was only faith-based money we had to distribute [even though $8 billion of new money had originally been promised].
Many of the grant-winning organizations that rose to the top of this process were politically friendly to the administration. Bishop Harold Ray of Redemptive Life Fellowship Church in West Palm Beach had been one of the most vocal black voices supporting the president during the 2000 election. His newly-created National Center for Faith-Based Initiatives somehow scored a 98 out of a possible 100. Pat Robertson's overseas aid organization, Operation Blessing, scored a 95.67. Nueva Esperanza, an umbrella of other Hispanic ministries, headed by President Bush's leading Hispanic ally, Luis Cortez, received a 95.33. The Institute for Youth Development, that works to send positive messages to youth, earned a 94.67. The Institute's head was a former Robertson staffer. Even more bizarre, a new organization called "We Care America" received a 99.67 on its grant review. It was the second highest score. They called themselves a "network of networks" an "organizer of organizations". They had a staff of three, all from the world of Washington politics, and all very Republican. They were on tap to receive more than $2.5 million.
All this information trickled in to our office when we requested updates on the Compassion Capital Fund. It took a while, but we finally got the list of recommended grantees. It was obvious that the ratings were a farce.
[A few years later,] my wife Kim and I were together with a group of friends and acquaintances. Someone mentioned that I used to work at the White House in the faith-based office. A woman piped up and said, "Really? Wow, I was on the peer-review panel for the first Compassion Capital Fund." I asked her about how she liked it and she said it was fun. She talked about how the government employees gave them grant review instructions – look at everything objectively against a discreet list of requirements and score accordingly. "But," she said with a giggle, "when I saw one of those non-Christian groups in the set I was reviewing, I just stopped looking at them and gave them a zero."
At first I laughed. A funny joke. Not so much. She was proud and giggling and didn't get that there was a problem with that. I asked if she knew of others who'd done the same. "Oh sure, a lot of us did." She must have seen my surprise, "Was there a problem with that?"