What Shaped These NW Republicans? -- Don Hodel Learned Lessons Over Wppss

THE CHRISTIAN COALITION grew out of Pat Robertson's unsuccessful 1988 presidential campaign. It grew and grew, and today has 1.8 million members and received more than $20 million in donations in 1996. Here's a look at the man who will be in charge now.

Northwesterners remember Donald Hodel as a younger man of an earlier era, a hard-charging Reagan-administration official who demonized environmentalists and wanted electricity bills to become nuclear-power bills.

But to friends and colleagues in Colorado, Hodel, the businessman of the 1990s, has all the right credentials to help lead Christian activists into the next millennium: He's articulate, charismatic and unswerving in his faith in God.

Yesterday, the 62-year-old energy consultant was named part of a new dual-leadership team at the Christian Coalition, an emerging grassroots force in U.S. politics.

Though Hodel and former Republican Congressman Randy Tate of Puyallup will work as partners, Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson made it clear that Hodel will be the man in charge. As president and chief executive officer, Hodel will oversee strategic planning and day-to-day operations. Robertson moves up from president to chairman of the board.

Hodel's in charge

Political activists across the spectrum say Robertson made a smart choice in selecting a man who knows how to bring unity to an organization with varying points of view, and who can make a political argument without imparting rancor and discord. Putting Hodel at the top, they say, suggests the Christian Coalition is returning to its evangelistic roots but also recognizes the need for mainstream acceptance.

Hodel is also, like Tate, a man with strong ties to Republican and Christian causes. A native of Portland and a graduate of Harvard, Hodel practiced law and served as chairman of the Oregon Republican Party in the 1960s.

"He's got a kind of contagious energy and buoyancy about him that energizes people," said John Andrews, a cable-network executive who has worked with Hodel on political causes in Colorado.

"There's a grace and trustworthy manner about him that enables him to take very tough stands without it becoming polarizing or personal bitterness being engendered."

Few in the Pacific Northwest would have said anything remotely similar 25 years ago.

Where he was in the '70s

Hodel became a nemesis of Washington's environmental movement in the early 1970s when, as administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), he warned of an energy shortage and persuaded area utilities to invest in construction of five nuclear-power plants. In a noted 1975 speech, he called environmentalists "prophets of shortage" bent on "stopping all development in this country."

His prodding - and the nuclear project - ultimately led to the financial debacle now known as WPPSS (Washington Public Power Supply System). By the time bonds on those nuclear plants went into default, leaving the public billions of dollars in debt, Hodel had left for Washington, D.C., to serve as deputy secretary of the Interior under then-Secretary James Watt.

"The irony for us is that the guy who built the house of cards got a promotion out of it," said Tim Stearns of Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition in Seattle.

What other foes say

But other political foes have gained respect for Hodel over time, calling him more of a pragmatic conservative than a rhetorical one. They say he has become more open-minded and moderate on environmental issues. Hodel himself has lamented his role in WPPSS and called his strident comments about environmentalists a mistake.

After two relatively quiet stints as Energy secretary and Interior secretary under President Reagan, from 1982 to 1985 and from 1985 to 1989, he seemed to disappear from the national radar screen.

But in Summit County, Colo., 80 miles west of Denver, Hodel has been well-known to Christian activists and conservative groups.

In the early 1990s, he served as chairman of the board for the Independence Institute, a conservative think tank in Golden that has advocated school vouchers, term limits and a state flat tax on income. He gained public exposure as a talk-show panelist and political analyst, and became known to Republicans as a reliable fund-raiser.

He now serves on the board of directors of Focus on the Family, a Colorado Springs-based media ministry founded by James Dobson. When a top executive stepped down last year, Hodel was asked to fill in as executive vice president. One former leader of the Christian Coaltion in Colorado says he, too, has turned to Hodel for political and spiritual counsel.

"He has a calming and reassuring effect on organizationally tangled situations, and he can impart a clear sense of mission and purpose" said Andrews, founder of the Independence Institute.

Many in Colorado know Hodel best because of public appearances he has made talking about his teenage son's drug addiction and suicide in the 1970s. After the suicide, Hodel and his wife, Barbara, became regular speakers on the Christian circuit, talking about how their loss reaffirmed their faith in Jesus Christ.

His faith may have been part of his life as a BPA and Reagan administration official. But it is only in the past 10 years, supporters say, that Hodel has talked about it so openly and movingly.