WASHINGTON-Fresh off the campaign trail, where he headed Sen. Hillary Clinton’s religious outreach, Burns Strider has founded a new firm to help other Democrats bridge the so-called “God gap.”
Few are as well-placed as Strider to do that.
Strider, a 41-year-old native of Grenada, Miss., led the House Democrats’ Faith Working Group and has the ear of political insiders in Washington.
Now he and three other young Democrats with campaign experience have formed the Eleison Group, a consulting firm dedicated to helping their party win campaigns, and assisting non-profits in shaping the national values debate.
Early clients include the Michigan Democratic Party, Oxfam International and the We Campaign, part of Al Gore’s climate protection efforts.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Can you explain what a faith-based guru does on the campaign trail?
A: I like to say I connect the dots. You have a candidate who has a faith profile-in this case Sen. Clinton is an active and devout United Methodist. You work to take that and share it with the country, to build consensus around her, to generate support of leaders in the faith community that can serve as validators and create a network where you can move information and the message. Every day I did a lot of meetings, a lot of conference calls and a lot of travel across the country.
Q: What kinds of questions did people ask you about Sen. Clinton? Did they ask about her personal faith or about issues like abortion and climate change?
A: I would go out in the country and sit down at a table with 10 to 15 clergy and lay leaders and just say “let’s talk.” In conversations like that with Democrats, rarely if ever what came up were hot-button issues. Reproductive rights issues, guns, gay lifestyle, didn’t come up. In South Carolina, Louisiana or Southern California, you ended up talking about health care, the genocide in Darfur, economic issues. It showed a huge shift in the country, in both the faith community and the Democratic Party. This Democratic primary was historic for a lot of reasons, and one of them is the faith outreach and conversations that went on.
Q: Sen. Clinton seemed very successful at getting the votes of Catholics and evangelicals, according to exit polls. Why?
A: It speaks more to her message than anything else, faith outreach or whatever. She had a message about economic security, about jobs, about healthcare and that’s what faith voters were interested in.
Q: Any piece of advice you’d be willing to give the Obama campaign about reaching those two faith communities?
A: Sen. Obama has an incredible base in the faith community, and that base is only going to grow as he moves forward. He has a great testimony and he delivers it incredibly. It’s very authentic. He knows the issues and he knows (evangelicals). With that and with the challenges we’re seeing Republicans have in the faith community, Sen. Obama is going to do well there.
Q: What part of Clinton’s message or testimony resonated with the clergy and lay leaders?
A: Sen. Clinton’s testimony is the testimony of millions of Americans: growing up in church, in Sunday school; being a mom who has church picnics at her house, in this case the house was the governor’s mansion of Arkansas; of a lady who thought her Sunday school class was spending a little too much time talking about what was going on around town and volunteered to teach her own Sunday school class and made her own lessons.
Q: What were the trail highlights for you?
A: The trip to Saddleback Church (in Lake Forest, Calif.) where Sen. Clinton addressed Rick and Kay Warren’s summit on AIDS was remarkable. Seeing the power of that church in action was a really great experience. You can just about go through the whole campaign and come up with moments. Sen. Clinton would call them “grace notes.” There were hundreds if not thousands of grace notes throughout the campaign.
A: Why found the Eleison Group?
Q: We want to be successful in helping good people win campaigns, helping non-profits advance good causes, helping anyone seeking to advance the common good.
Q: Without, I hope, sounding crass, is their money in faith outreach?
A: Certainly we have families, and we think there’s a future in this. I’ve worked on the Hill for (Speaker) Nancy Pelosi, (House Majority Whip) Jim Clyburn, on campaigns. I’ve now worked for Sen. Clinton doing faith outreach. We’ve built Rolodexes; we know a lot of people and how to connect communities and how to build relationships.
All of us have been in on this since 2006, thinking and developing ways to help our party advance its cause within the faith community. The Eleison Group is kind of the second wave. Hopefully, we’re smarter. We’re not in our basement with TV trays. We have offices and we have friends and contacts in the consulting community.