The religious right's man in Georgia


Atlanta -- THERE ARE so many parallels between the fictional Forrest Gump and Pat Gartland, the affable, yarn-spinning chairman of the Georgia Christian Coalition, that when he launches into one of his stories you half expect him to pull out a box of chocolates and offer you a piece.

A scrawny kid who spent a year in the hospital with rheumatic fever, Mr. Gartland emulated the lifeguards he hung around at Myrtle Beach, S.C., and got recruited out of a Catholic high school in Baltimore to play for the University of Alabama.

These were the Gump years, when leadership development meant having your face mask yanked by Bear Bryant himself. Mr. Gartland roomed for a while with Joe Namath, then went on to play a little pro ball with the Atlanta Falcons and the Baltimore Colts.

Flash forward a couple of years, and 2nd Lt. Gartland is in Vietnam, standing over the desk of the cigar-chomping Gen. Creighton Abrams. He's about to get passed over for a job when General Abrams notices in his records that he played for "The Bear." The next thing you know he's in charge of recreational services for U.S. forces in Vietnam.

Is this beginning to sound like a part Tom Hanks could play? Mr. Gartland turns up a few years later as aide to Gen. John Singlaub, just as the general's remarks about Korea and the Panama Canal treaty land him in hot water during the Carter administration.

Out of the Army, he volunteers to serve on a moral concerns committee at his church and meets the boyish Ralph Reed, future director of the Christian Coalition and architect of the religious right's smoother, more pragmatic new style of politicking.

Mr. Gartland has brought that style to Georgia, and in the process has drawn the ire not only of liberals, but also of those in the religious right rubbed the wrong way by the coalition's new approach.

"I tell people, hey, Jesus had 12 disciples and he only got 92 percent of the vote," Mr. Gartland says. "Sometimes they have to think about that one a minute."

Under Mr. Gartland's leadership, said state Republican chairman Rusty Paul, the Christian Coalition "has moved to become a true political force" in the state.

A loose umbrella for several religious conservative groups, its support for Sen. Paul Coverdell was considered crucial in his 1992 race, and its voter guides, passed out in churches across the state, had a lot to do with the gains made by Republicans last year.

At the same time he has established himself as a player in state GOP politics, Mr. Gartland has made the coalition's first serious attempt at inroads in the Democratic Party, courting the likes of Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard.

It's all part of a coalition strategy driven, Mr. Gartland says, by issues rather than candidates.

"I'd love for everyone to vote out of conviction," he says of politicians who have sought the coalition's support. "But the bottom line is, if they vote our way, who cares?"

A member of Mount Paran Church of God who was raised Roman Catholic and is married to a Southern Baptist, he doesn't spend a lot of time on religious subtleties, either. He knows what side he's on, and currently, it's the side that's gaining.

"One thing Coach Bryant taught me is if I have 10 and you have 9, I've done won the ballgame," he said.

As a theological tenet that may leave something to be desired, but as a political principle, it gets to the gist of things.

Tom Baxter is chief political reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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