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

At the time, the political establishment viewed his endeavors with weary skepticism. “People were always talking about the programs they were going to start in North Philly, and almost none of them ever did,” says Maurice Floyd, a former city commissioner and well-known political consultant. “Reverend Lusk was different. When he said he was going to do something, he actually did it.” After establishing its first initiative, a mentoring program for kids, People for People quickly expanded, first into job training, and then into banking and education, often tapping state and local grants to fund its programs. It is now a huge operation, with some 200 employees and a budget of $10 million a year. “Everything we’ve done comes out of what we see in the neighborhood and the needs of the community,” says Lusk. “I wanted this to be a model for other urban churches.”

By 2000, Lusk was well known among local pols. But his appearance at the Republican Convention, where he agreed to speak about faith-based initiatives, launched him into another stratosphere of notoriety. Even that didn’t go off without a hitch, though. A couple of days before he was to appear via video feed from inside the church, Lusk was handed a script by the Bush people. “I don’t read scripts,” Lusk protested. “They said, ‘You don’t understand, this is the big leagues.’ I said, ‘No, you don’t understand, that wasn’t the deal.’” The standoff was remedied when word came down that Lusk should be allowed to say whatever he wanted. ”I heard it came from Bush, who supposedly said, ‘Trust the preacher,’ but I don’t know for sure,” says Lusk. The GOP needn’t have worried. When he got on the air, Lusk announced: “We are supporting Governor Bush, because we know that he gives faith a chance.”

Lusk has never been shy about his political views. He is an arch-conservative on social issues, particularly abortion and gay marriage, which he calls “non-negotiable,” and had long cultivated relationships with Republicans. He is close to Rick Santorum. He hosted Bob Dole at his church in ’96, and he has given money to Speaker of the Pennsylvania House John Perzel. “Herb is a contrarian within the ­African-American ministerial community,” says former Republican mayoral candidate Sam Katz. “Most are Democrats by rote. But Herb marches to his own drummer.” Still, his decision to so publicly support Bush set off a wave of criticism — much of it for how and where he did it. The watchdog group Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent a letter to the IRS asking that it investigate Lusk and his church for violating federal laws against churches endorsing candidates for public office. (The IRS inquiry never amounted to much.) He even got heat from Bill O’Reilly, who, during a segment on his television show, questioned the wisdom of endorsing Bush from the pulpit. “Don’t know if the Republican political convention is the right forum,” O’Reilly told Lusk.

Such a prominent break with the political orthodoxy of the black clergy earned Lusk no small amount of scorn locally as well. Colleagues pulled him aside to tell him how foolish he was. Letters and e-mails poured in, more than a few of which called him an Uncle Tom. “A lot of African-Americans are highly suspicious of George Bush,” says Bruce Crawley, chairman of the African-American Chamber of Commerce. “So a lot of people were angry with Herb Lusk.”

Lusk is philosophical and unapologetic about the incident. “I told people, ‘When I was growing up in Memphis, it was the Ku Klux Klan that wanted to deny me the right to speak, to think for myself,’” he says. “Now, it’s my own people.” The comparison, he admits, did not go over well. But if the episode made Lusk a darling of the right and an enigma to his fellow clergy, it also served to endear him to the future president. Even before he was inaugurated, Bush invited Lusk to Austin for a summit of religious leaders about faith-based initiatives. After Bush was sworn in, Lusk went to Washington for yet another meeting on the issue. That summer, when Bush came to town for the Fourth of July, he stopped by Greater Exodus for a neighborhood picnic. Last year, when Bush announced an increase in funding for the global fight against HIV, he did so at Lusk’s Broad Street complex. “I want to thank my friend, Herb Lusk, for inviting me back to the Greater Exodus Baptist Church,” Bush told reporters at the time. “I’ve been here before. … At the time, I said Herb is a social entrepreneur who can make things happen. We’re in this beautiful building because he made things happen. He believes, as I do, in the power of faith to touch every heart and to change every life.”

Since Bush took office, the GOP has been on a high-profile mission to woo African-Americans, largely by stressing Bush’s compatibility with many black voters on values-related issues: the centrality of faith in the President’s life, his opposition to gay marriage and abortion. And the chief conduit through which the party has focused these efforts, not surprisingly, has been conservative black clergy. As Bush political adviser Matthew Dowd told the Los Angeles Times earlier this year, “The minister is the number one influencer in the African-American community.”

Few of those ministers have been as assiduously courted as Lusk. When Bush spoke at Greater Exodus last year, it was the only church in the country he had visited more than once, and it’s rare for a White House gathering about faith-based initiatives or AIDS relief in Africa not to include Lusk. Then there’s the money. In 2004, on the eve of the President’s visit to talk about his Global AIDS initiative, People for People was awarded a $1 million “faith-based” grant by the administration to help low-income people buy homes — a benefit that has raised more than a few eyebrows. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, for one, called the grant a “heavenly payoff” for Lusk’s political support of Bush.

Lusk isn’t the only religious figure whose political support, critics believe, has been rewarded with faith-based money. One of Milwaukee’s most prominent black pastors, Bishop Sedgwick Daniels, received $1.5 million in federal money. A South Florida group led by Bishop Harold Ray, also a Bush supporter, got $1.7 million in faith-based money. Not surprisingly, the White House has denied that the faith initiative is a political tool, insisting the money is simply a way to support Bush’s contention that religious groups can do a better job than government in providing services such as drug treatment and job training. The reason Lusk is a favorite of the White House, says Jim Towey, assistant to the President and director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, is that “he practices what he preaches. He’s successful because he knows the streets and its needs, yet he balances that knowledge with an effective knack in the boardroom.”

At this point, it’s anybody’s guess how effective the Republicans have been in their efforts, and how much Lusk — or any other African-American minister — can change voter patterns in the long run. Much of the benefit for Republican candidates is one of context, of virtue by association: If my preacher thinks this guy is okay … The federal government’s lead-footed efforts at helping hurricane victims in New Orleans — the overwhelming majority of whom were black — surely didn’t add to Bush’s popularity in the black community. Yet if 2004 is any guide, Democrats have reason to start sweating. In key battleground state Ohio, for example, Bush’s percentage of the black vote doubled to 16 percent, giving him a margin of victory substantial enough to avoid a recount. In Pennsylvania, the percentage of ­African-Americans voting for Bush was also 16 percent, which more than doubled his percentage from 2000. Even more ominous for the Democrats is the fact that the most significant trend among African-­Americans — especially young African-Americans — is that their votes will increasingly be up for grabs. According to David Bositis, a pollster with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, more than a third of blacks between the ages of 18 and 25 now identify themselves as independents — a number that continues to grow.