Religious group's leaders accuse candidates of ignoring the poor

Coalition heads to attend presidential hopefuls' events to request meeting

January 12, 2000|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A coalition of religious leaders gathered in a church in the shadow of the White House yesterday to criticize the presidential candidates, saying they talk at length about their personal faith while ignoring issues of justice and compassion toward the poor.

The religious leaders, who are affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation, a faith-based group specializing in community organizing, said they intend to pursue candidates on the campaign trail until they agree to sit down and discuss the group's agenda.

The group's first stop is a fund-raising lunch today in Wilmington, Del., where they bought two tables -- tickets totaling $1,600 -- in an attempt to speak with Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

It is unconscionable, in this time of unprecedented prosperity, that there are families who are falling behind economically, coalition members said yesterday at a news conference at St. John's Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square.

This presidential campaign has been marked by candidates' statements of personal faith. For example, Bush, asked during a debate last month in Iowa what philosopher was most influential in his life, replied that it was Jesus. But clergy members who spoke yesterday say there has been almost no talk about action on behalf of the poor, which is required by the doctrines of the major faiths.

"The only mandate of the major religions is that we take care of the poor and helpless," said Lutheran Bishop Harold Jansen of the metropolitan Washington synod.

We don't want to hear the words, the leaders said yesterday, without some action.

"We want a moratorium on religious rhetoric from the presidential candidates and a national debate on the stubborn realities of low-wage work and scarce and unaffordable housing," said the Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood of East Brooklyn Congregations in New York and a co-chair of IAF East.

Candidates defend actions

Candidates say they do have proposals that address the needs of the poor.

A Bush spokesman said the Texas governor meets with groups frequently to discuss issues and has offered many programs that would benefit the poor.

"Governor Bush wants to close the opportunity gap by improving schools so every child has a first-rate education, and cutting taxes so that working families, especially those on the outskirts of poverty, can keep more of what they earn," said Bush spokesman Scott McClellan.

Tony Wyche, a spokesman for Democrat Bill Bradley, noted that his candidate believes that religion is "an extremely private issue. As such he chooses to keep his views to himself.

"I would add that he is the only presidential candidate who has put forth a comprehensive plan to deal with the problems of children in poverty, everything from raising their parents' minimum wage to increasing the earned income tax credit to improving children's health care and education," Wyche said.

Chris Lehane, a spokesman for Vice President Al Gore, points to his candidate's proposal for $115 billion in improvements for the nation's public schools.

"Al Gore's approach is that public schools are the principal tool to make sure we equip our kids with the education they need to succeed," Lehane said.

In addition, the vice president has talked a number of times of closing the digital divide and closing the opportunity gap, Lehane said.

The coalition, which was formed in 1940 by community organizer Saul Alinsky in Chicago's Back of the Yards neighborhood, has a recent record of successful projects.

In 1983, IAF East, which comprises local organizations from Boston to Washington, began building the first of nearly 5,000 Nehemiah homes for sale to working families in inner cities, including Baltimore's. Local IAF-affiliate Baltimoreans United for Leadership Development led a successful effort in 1995 to pass the nation's first living-wage bill.

Wages, homeownership

The IAF is seeking to extend its local success to the national level. The coalition is calling on presidential candidates to support its proposal for a national living wage, which it defines as a wage and benefits package worth $25,000 for any worker employed by any company that receives any form of federal subsidy.

The IAF also called for a national homeownership campaign, the construction of hundreds of thousands of homes for the working poor, an extension of its Nehemiah homes project. And it will press for a national Joseph plan, which is similar to the one established last year in Maryland, a kind of rainy day fund that banks a portion of any government surplus to be used for the poor during an economic downturn.

Arnie Graf, a Baltimore-based senior organizer for IAF, said that in addition to attending the Bush fund-raiser today, the coalition will travel to New Hampshire for the Jan. 26 televised debate in an attempt to confront the candidates.

"We are going to dog them until we get a response," he said.

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