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A Faith-Based Mission for Change

Towey has crisscrossed the country holding seminars for 15,000 clergy members and social service leaders on how to apply for grants. During the presidential campaign, he told attendees that if Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) won, the faith-based initiative would be relegated to the Smithsonian -- a charge Kerry denied.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, contends that the seminars were really campaign rallies paid for with taxpayer funds and aimed largely at black churches in swing states.


H. James Towey, head of the president's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, has a portrait in his office of Mother Teresa, who he says strongly influenced him. (Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

In Profile

H. James Towey

Title: Assistant to the president and director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

Education: Bachelor of science in accounting, Florida State University; law degree, FSU.

Age: 49.

Family: Married; four sons and a daughter.

Career highlights: Founder and president, Aging With Dignity; Florida state health official; aide to the late Gov. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.); lawyer and volunteer for Mother Teresa in Mexico, India and Washington, D.C.; legislative director for Sen. Mark O. Hatfield Jr. (R-Ore.).

Pastimes: Sports fan, especially FSU football and basketball.

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David Kuo, who served as Towey's deputy until leaving the White House in frustration in December 2003, said yesterday on the Web site Beliefnet.com that the conferences sent "a resounding political message" that "President Bush cares about you." But in reality, Kuo wrote, "there was minimal senior White House commitment to the faith-based agenda."

While the president won $1.6 trillion in tax cuts, Kuo said, only a fraction of the new funding he promised for faith-based programs has materialized -- partly because of "Republican indifference" and "knee-jerk Democratic opposition" on Capitol Hill, but also because the White House "never really wanted the 'poor people stuff.' "

Towey maintains that the president is wholly committed to the faith-based initiative and is trying to change not just a few regulations, but "a culture."

"What fuels the president's passion on this," Towey said, "is his belief that many of our country's poor desperately want to access effective programs run by faith-based and community groups, and often they couldn't."

What fuels Towey's own fire, he made clear in an interview, is his experience with Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity. He was an aide to Sen. Mark O. Hatfield Jr. (R-Ore.) in 1985 when he stopped in Calcutta and Mother Teresa urged him to visit her home for the dying.

"I thought I was going to get a tour. That's the only reason I went," he said. "But the nun [in charge] thought I came to volunteer, so she said, 'Here's some cotton and here's some medicine, go clean this guy in bed 46 with scabies.' " Too proud to admit he was afraid, Towey said, "I was busted, boxed in. . . . So that's how I was introduced to the poor, and I got hooked."

Returning to Washington, he began volunteering at Mother Teresa's soup kitchen in Anacostia. When she opened a home for AIDS patients in the District, he did night duty there. Eventually he became a full-time volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity in Tijuana, Mexico.

In 1990, he went back to politics, joining the staff of former senator Lawton Chiles (D), a friend and mentor who had just been elected Florida's governor. But he continued to do legal work for Mother Teresa for more than a decade, most famously against a Tennessee coffee shop that sold T-shirts of her face's "miraculous" appearance in the swirls of a cinnamon bun.

Jim Krog, a Florida lobbyist who was Chiles's chief of staff, remembers Towey's first day as director of social services in Dade County. The building in a run-down neighborhood was surrounded by barbed wire, and Towey immediately ordered the fences taken down.

"People said, 'What are you doing? You're going to have the homeless sleeping here!' " Krog said. "And Towey said, 'Well, they need a place to sleep.' "

Towey was forced out as head of Florida's health and social services agency in 1995 by the GOP-led state Senate in a budget battle that grew intensely personal, partly because of what the Republicans perceived as his sanctimony. Even some of his staff poked fun at him for wearing flip-flops to the governor's mansion and writing "Please pray for the poor" on memos.

Fleeing to the nonprofit sector, he founded Aging With Dignity to help elderly people set up "living wills" to guide their medical care. Jeb Bush was an advisory board member, as well as a fellow communicant at Tallahassee's Blessed Sacrament Parish.

Towey said he is sure that "Jeb put in a word to help me" land the White House position, but that Bush Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. also had listed him as a candidate.

"What you see with Jim Towey is what you get. He lives by what he says," Krog said. "It makes people uncomfortable, because they think nobody can be this way -- you can't be in politics and have this, I've heard it described as arrogance, as piousness, as earnestness. . . . He has a core set of beliefs, and he tries never to compromise them."


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