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Church voter drive finds ally in Perry
June 3, 2005

Exclusive: Is Texas network nonpartisan or a 're-election machine'?

Written by Wayne Slater, Dallas Morning News

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Gov. Rick Perry

AUSTIN – Gov. Rick Perry is taking an active role in the development of a network of Christian pastors who seek to register at least 300,000 new "values voters" in Texas and elect candidates who reflect their moral agenda.

Dubbed the "Texas Restoration Project," the network constitutes the most ambitious effort by conservative religious leaders in Texas to mobilize churches, conduct voter-registration drives and turn out voters on Election Day.

About 500 ministers gathered last month in Austin for a closed-door session in which Mr. Perry, top members of his administration and influential religious figures touted the involvement of churches in political affairs. Mr. Perry is expected to attend future gatherings as well.

Organizers, while reluctant to describe their effort in any detail, say the project is nonpartisan and not aimed at helping any specific candidate. Critics say it appears to be part of Mr. Perry's re-election campaign.

"The event had all the markings of the creation of a re-election machine for Perry – from list-building to get out the vote," said Kathy Miller of the progressive Texas Freedom Network, which monitors church-state issues.

Churches and other tax-exempt groups are prohibited from endorsing specific candidates.

Eric Bearse, a Perry spokesman, said the governor was invited to speak to the pastors.

"We agree with what they're doing, which is to mobilize people of faith," Mr. Bearse said. "But we recognize it's not to benefit a particular candidate or party."

Calling all conservatives

Mr. Perry faces a potential challenge in next year's GOP primary from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. The governor, who would seek to cast himself as the more conservative candidate in a primary race, has spent months shoring up support among key social conservative leaders across the state.

The effort continues Sunday, when the governor will appear at a Fort Worth church to sign a law requiring that minors have their parents' consent before getting an abortion. Mr. Perry also plans to discuss the anti-gay-marriage constitutional amendment on the November ballot.

In an e-mail to supporters, Mr. Perry has invited "pro-family Christian friends" to be at Calvary Cathedral for the event, which his political team plans to film for a campaign commercial. Mr. Perry's office said several thousand people had been invited to the event at the nondenominational evangelical church but declined to be more specific.

Organizers plan to motivate voter registration with the gay-marriage issue, an effort that Perry allies believe will help build the governor's voter base.

Mr. Perry wrote a letter inviting pastors to last month's two-day event at an Austin hotel. A former executive director for the Texas Republican Party handled arrangements. Rooms, meals and conference expenses for the 800 pastors and spouses who attended were paid for with private funds, said David Lane, a spokesman and organizer for the Texas Restoration Project.

Evangelical alliance

Organizers declined to characterize the denominations of the pastors involved or name specific churches or groups, other than to say that the project is an alliance of conservative evangelical Christians. They would not allow a reporter to attend the event with Mr. Perry two weeks ago.

"The mission is the mobilization of pastors and pews as a way to restore Texas and America to our Judeo-Christian heritage," said Mr. Lane, who has worked on similar efforts in California and Ohio.

According to working materials distributed at the Austin event, the project plans six "Pastor Policy Briefings" this year, will sponsor voter-registration drives at churches Sept. 18 and 25 and will encourage pastors to get out the vote the Sunday before Election Day in November.

One person involved in the project said pastor briefings would be coordinated with Mr. Perry's schedule.

The Texas Restoration Project's blueprint to enlist 1,000 "Patriot Pastors" and register 300,000 voters this election cycle represents a new level of political participation by conservative Christian leaders in Texas.

The Texas effort mirrors the Ohio Restoration Project, which has held several pastor briefings featuring Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, a conservative Republican who is running for governor in 2006.

Ohio evangelist Rod Parsley, who spoke at the Austin event, said abortion, marriage and religious expression are issues that can galvanize Christian voters.

"People of faith are not looking to endorse candidates, but rather to endorse candidates who endorse their values," he said.

Perry rallies pastors

In his luncheon address to the pastors, Mr. Perry touted the Texas group's efforts to get Christian voters involved in politics and thanked "each one of you who prays for me and my family in Jesus' name."

He called himself an ally on abortion, prayer in school and gay marriage.

"If we can talk so openly about the spiritual battle we confront from the Sunday pulpit, why can't we also talk about it in the public square?" the governor said, according to a copy of prepared remarks released by his office.

Three members of his administration – deputy chief of staff Phil Wilson, appointments chief Coby Shorter and the head of the state's faith-based initiative program, Susan Weddington – addressed pastors during the two-day gathering.

Speakers included David Barton, vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party and founder of WallBuilders, which has challenged the separation of religious and public life.

"Tactics like stealth candidates and slanted voter guides are yesterday's news," said Ms. Miller of the Texas Freedom Network. "You have a new generation of the Christian right like the Texas Restoration Project that is acting as an adjunct of the Republican Party and the governor's re-election campaign."

Mr. Bearse dismissed the criticism.

"We believe when people of faith turn out in large numbers, it's helpful to the whole process. It's helpful to every officeholder," he said.

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