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On Aug. 10, shortly before People for the American Way convened a three-day planning session on its agenda for the 2008 election cycle, director Ralph Neas pulled aside Norman Lear and James Autry, two of the organization’s founders. Only four months earlier Neas had signed a contract extension that ran through 2008. In the months since, however, the 61-year-old veteran of civil rights and judicial confirmation battles had reconsidered. He told the two men that he’d been following the action on global warming and health care reform � issues outside PFAW’s purview � and wanted to leave while there was time for at least one more big chapter in his career. By the time the board sat down for its opening dinner, an announcement was ready: Per Norman Lear’s suggestion, Neas would become PFAW’s president emeritus. That status would keep him as an employee until at least early 2008, handling fund raising and strategy issues. Meanwhile, day-to-day management of the organization would fall to Chief Operating Officer Nick Ucci, while the board searched for a successor. It was simply the right time to leave, Neas says, and it was only fair that the board know of his departure before hashing out its strategy for the 2008 election. Under Neas, People for the American Way has been one of the highest-profile progressive political groups in the country. Since his tenure began in 2000, membership tripled to 1 million, revenue has doubled since 2003, and in 2006, National Journal‘s Hotline deemed it one of the most effective progressive organizations of the election cycle. But not everything has been smooth on Neas’ watch. As he departs, PFAW (according to its 2006 Internal Revenue Service filings) is battling to plug a $3.7 million budget deficit, and has shuttered its branch offices in California and Texas in favor of a money-saving switch to a BlackBerry and laptop model. More fundamentally, the organization has questioned whether its ambitions to foster the progressive movement may have drifted too far from its core issues of church and state separation and judicial appointments. At the meeting that saw Neas’ resignation, board members agreed to pare back PFAW’s agenda and hone the group’s focus. With more than 30 activists and donors from across the progressive spectrum sitting on the group’s two boards of directors, that decision amounted to what Mary Jean Collins, PFAW’s national political director, considers a remarkable consensus on PFAW’s base issues. But only when the board receives the resulting action plan and budget, she says, will it be clear that the organization means to stick to its reforms. BACK TO BASICS After making his resignation announcement during the August retreat, Neas made a short speech, and then Lear did, too. Hugs and a few tears briefly followed, Neas says, and then PFAW’s staff and board members got to work. One prominent topic was making PFAW’s newer civil society programs financially self-sufficient. Another was PFAW’s need to refocus on its roots: At the beginning of 2007, the group had lost a key figure when its legal director, Elliot Mincberg, took a job as the chief investigative counsel for the House Judiciary Committee. While Mincberg’s new position was something to celebrate, some board members wondered if PFAW was embracing too broad a progressive agenda, which had grown to include everything from voting machines to the estate tax. Those concerns largely came from people unfamiliar with PFAW’s Washington operations, says Mary Frances Berry, a University of Pennsylvania history professor and board member. “It’s not like we’re responsible for Alito and Roberts being on the [Supreme] Court,” she says. But the board agreed that issues beyond PFAW’s founding mission of fighting the religious right and judicial battles should stay in a supporting role. “Part of the organization reflects Ralph’s broad vision,” says Wade Henderson, director of the nearly 200-member Leadership Committee on Civil Rights that Neas built into prominence during the 1980s. With some of PFAW’s newer programs overlapping with other progressive organizations, Henderson says he believes the board is now considering where it can make the most difference. CHANGING MISSIONS PFAW has become a far broader organization than the one that ran its first TV spot in 1981, decrying the political activism of televangelists as “not the American way.” PFAW changed, Neas says, to match the Christian right’s development from a narrow fringe movement to an entrenched political network. When Ralph Reed and other conservative evangelicals sought to make social issues into a wedge between African-American ministers and gay rights activists, PFAW responded with the African American Leadership Council, which sought to minimize strife between civil rights groups. For similar reasons in 2004, PFAW launched Young People For, a leadership training program for college students, its Election Protection program to combat alleged vote suppression, and Democracia USA, a voting registration effort in the Latino community. “If you’re going to be a presence in the Latino community and you’re being respectful, you’ve got to consider immigration issues as a fundamental civil rights issue,” Neas says, describing PFAW’s “multidimensional” nature as its principal strength. Jay Sekulow, the chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a fixture of conservative Christian legal advocacy, credits Neas with adapting. The ACLJ weighs in on issues affecting the larger judicial climate such as national security and the USA Patriot Act. “There’s been a maturation of the movement on both sides,” Sekulow says. “Ralph saw the bend in the road before he got there.” THE NEW NEAS PFAW has already hired a search consultant to find a “visionary” candidate to replace Neas, and by the end of this week, it expects to release a job description. In February or March, Neas says, he expects he’ll be announcing his new plans. PFAW is on track to meet its budget and revenue goals for the year, says Ucci, giving it the financial foundation necessary for an election year push. With the Republican presidential field playing to the religious right, PFAW’s Collins says, it may well be a very good year for PFAW’s core issues. While conservative Christian activists flocked to the Hilton Washington for the Values Voters Summit the weekend before last, PFAW released a parody Web site called Right Wing Facebook, mocking GOP presidential candidates for coddling the religious right. Balancing PFAW’s founding goal of defending the separation of church and state with broader electoral and civil society goals will likely continue to be a principal challenge for PFAW and its next leader, Neas suggests. “To fight the radical right, you do it in the courts, Congress, the media, by building civil society and backing a progressive movement,” he says. Moments later, he adds a caveat: “We would spin ourselves endlessly if we tried to take a lead role on everything.”
Jeff Horwitz can be contacted at [email protected].

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