Features: The Democratic Party’s Worst Nightmare

North Philly minister and former Eagle Herb Lusk is George Bush’s favorite black man. It’s a friendship that might signal a seismic political shift: the Democrats losing their hold on African-Americans

The one thing Lusk doesn’t look like is a pol. He still looks, even at 52, with a wife and three grown children, like an athlete, with a barrel chest and a spring-loaded walk and easy confidence. But Lusk does boast the sort of connections most pols would envy, and spending any time with him in People for People’s drab headquarters on North Broad almost guarantees picking up bits of conversational detritus not usually heard outside an episode of West Wing: “I need her to call Karl Rove,” Lusk tells a People for People staffer one morning as he sits in his austere office, where windows along two walls offer impressive views of Broad Street, the Ben Franklin Bridge and the epic blight of North Philly. Later, during a meeting about an upcoming fund-raiser for People for People, Lusk tells an employee: “What you should do is write a letter for me to sign and address it to Andy Card,” President Bush’s chief of staff. It is a measure of Lusk’s considerable charm that he doesn’t sound like the world’s biggest a-hole when he says these things.

Then there are the photos. Having a wall of grip-and-grin pictures with high-profile officials is SOP for practically everyone having anything to do with politics. Lusk is no different, except that almost every photo is of him with the Leader of the Free World: at the White House, during a speech, at a party. It has gotten to the point where even Lusk is sick of seeing his mug next to Bush’s. On a recent weekday morning, Lusk is sitting at his desk, tearing through envelopes, when he suddenly looks up. “Man, if I get one more picture of me with the President,” he says, holding up yet another photo he’s been sent of himself with Bush, “I’m going to drop dead.”

Lusk met the President more than five years ago, in the summer of 2000. The Republican National Convention was about to roll into Philly, and the Bush campaign wanted to highlight some local, real-world examples of faith-based charities, organizations not unlike the ones Bush had championed as governor of Texas.

Lusk’s work offered a pitch-perfect example of what Bush had been talking about in his campaign. In 1982, after completing seminary, Lusk accepted the pastoral office at Greater Exodus Baptist. It was not a prestigious assignment. At the time, the church’s congregation could be counted in the dozens. Its bank account held just a few hundred dollars. When it rained, members put out buckets to collect the water that leaked through the church’s ceiling.

Out of necessity, Lusk spent much of his time during those first years raising money. He was not shy about using his status as a former Eagle to make connections with affluent suburban churches and other professional athletes, a tactic that proved highly effective. By the early 1990s, the church had retired all of its debts, repaired its structural damage, and invested almost $2 million in improving its building. Yet Lusk wanted to do more. The neighborhood around Greater Exodus, at Broad and Fairmount, is among the poorest in the city; drug dealers roam the streets, and prostitutes once hung out on the church steps. So in 1991, Lusk formed a separate nonprofit organization, People for People, Inc., to focus on economic development.