Obama’s new po­lit­i­cal group to lure un­lim­ited do­na­tions

Pro­tec­tion from strict dis­clo­sure rules draws crit­i­cism

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY TOM HAM­BURGER ham­burg­ert@wash­post.com

In close con­sul­ta­tion with Pres­i­dent Obama, two of his top po­lit­i­cal strate­gists are de­sign­ing an am­bi­tious new or­ga­ni­za­tion funded by do­na­tions from wealthy in­di­vid­u­als and cor­po­ra­tions aimed at mak­ing po­lit­i­cal and leg­isla­tive gains at the fed­eral and state lev­els.

The fledg­ling Or­ga­niz­ing for Ac­tion says it will be non­par­ti­san and steer clear of elec­tion ac­tiv­ity. But the line be­tween is­sue dis­putes and elec­toral pol­i­tics can be a fuzzy one. The first of an ex­pected wave of ads on gun con­trol, for ex­am­ple, has tar­geted only Repub­li­cans. And OFA board mem­ber Jim Messina, who man­aged Obama’s re­elec­tion cam­paign, has been talk­ing with Demo­cratic Party lead­ers, in­clud­ing those re­spon­si­ble for success in the 2014 midterm elec­tions.

Over the past month, Messina and Jon Car­son, a lead­ing strate­gist, have trav­eled the coun­try meet­ing with mem­bers of the Obama 2012 Na­tional Fi­nance Com­mit­tee, who are be­ing pressed back to work to find sup­port for the new or­ga­ni­za­tion.

In hud­dles with Hol­ly­wood stu­dio ex­ec­u­tives, Cal­i­for­nia en­ergy in­vestors and Chicago busi­ness ti­tans, they have sug­gested $500,000 as a tar­get level for OFA bundlers and that top donors get in­vi­ta­tions to quar­terly OFA board meet­ings at­tended by the pres­i­dent.

The next step in con­vert­ing Obama’s elec­tion ap­pa­ra­tus to grass-roots lob­by­ing is a “founders sum­mit” March 13 that in­cludes a $50,000-per-per­son meet­ing at the Jef­fer­son ho­tel in Washington led by Messina and Car­son. Those plan­ning to at­tend said they hope the pres­i­dent will be part of the day’s agenda, though the White House and OFA de­clined to com­ment on that pos­si­bil­ity.

A one-page memo ac­com­pa­ny­ing the in­vi­ta­tion lays out the goals of the new OFA: Build­ing grass-roots sup­port for Obama pro­pos­als on is­sues rang­ing from cli­mate change to im­mi­gra­tion re­form to women’s health.

In ad­di­tion, the memo says, the OFA will help “strengthen the pro­gres­sive move­ment and train our next gen­er­a­tion of lead­ers.”

It also prom­ises to en­gage in “state-by-state fights” over is­sues such as “bal­lot ac­cess and mar­riage equal­ity.”

Ad­vo­cates for cam­paign fi­nance re­form see the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s goal of rais­ing tens of mil­lions of dol­lars as a new chan­nel to al­low wealthy in­di­vid­u­als and cor­po­ra­tions to seek fa­vors from the ad­min­is­tra­tion. And they crit­i­cize Obama for aban­don­ing re­form rhetoric in fa­vor of a group that can raise un­lim­ited sums with lim­ited trans­parency, the very cir­cum­stances he com­plained about pub­licly in 2010 when the Supreme Court granted cor­po­ra­tions and unions the op­por­tu­nity to con­trib­ute to groups seek­ing to in­flu­ence elec­tions.

Un­like po­lit­i­cal par­ties and other or­ga­ni­za­tions set up to win elec­tions, the OFA is not sub­ject to fed­eral elec­tion fundrais­ing re­stric­tions and dis­clo­sure re­quire­ments, mean­ing the pub­lic will have only lim­ited op­por­tu­ni­ties to learn about its op­er­a­tions, in­clud­ing how rev­enue is col­lected and spent.

OFA of­fi­cials say they have adopted a vol­un­tary dis­clo­sure sys­tem that goes be­yond that re­quired by law and that will pro­vide suf­fi­cient pub­lic re­view.

Although the or­ga­ni­za­tion is only four weeks old, Obama has be­gun to use it to build sup­port for his pol­icy ini­tia­tives, in­clud­ing a six-fig­ure on­line ad­ver­tis­ing

“The new OFA or­ga­ni­za­tion is of­fi­cially non­par­ti­san.”

Katie Ho­gan, spokes­woman

cam­paign that started Fri­day tar­get­ing 13 Repub­li­can mem­bers of Congress who have yet to sup­port his pro­posal for back­ground checks for gun pur­chasers.

A pow­er­ful force

Be­cause the pres­i­dent is per­son­ally back­ing a new group that has ac­cess to his cam­paign’s data on vot­ers, in­clud­ing e-mail ad­dresses and so­cial net­work in­for­ma­tion, Democrats and Repub­li­cans say it could be a pow­er­ful force in up­com­ing con­gres­sional votes and elec­tions.

The OFA will draw on “the tools, knowl­edge, net­works and vol­un­teers that se­cured Pres­i­dent Obama a sec­ond term,” ac­cord­ing to the sum­mary pre­pared for donors. It lists re­sources the group can de­ploy: a “grass­roots army” of 2.2 mil­lion vol­un­teers, and “so­cial me­dia as­sets” that in­clude 33 mil­lion Face­book friends, 26 mil­lion Twit­ter fol­low­ers and 17 mil­lion e-mail sub­scribers.

With such po­ten­tial power comes the new or­ga­ni­za­tion’s great­est chal­lenge: Sus­tain­ing en­thu­si­asm and sup­port from donors and party reg­u­lars in the months af­ter Obama’s elec­tion to a sec­ond term.

The am­bi­tious goals and plen­ti­ful po­lit­i­cal re­sources were ini­tially wor­ri­some to some con­gres­sional Democrats, who feared that the new Obama en­tity could eclipse their fundrais­ing ef­forts and even their leg­isla­tive in­de­pen­dence. Messina, li­on­ized for his role man­ag­ing the 2012 cam­paign, scored points with House Democrats with his trips to Capi­tol Hill ex­press­ing his in­ter­est in work­ing to­gether. His mes­sage was brought home dra­mat­i­cally last month when he promised Rep. Steve Is­rael (N.Y.), chair­man of the Demo­cratic Con­gres­sional Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, that Obama would head­line eight fundrais­ers for House Democrats in 2013.

Af­ter the 2008 cam­paign, the field or­ga­ni­za­tion moved over to the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee, but some in­sid­ers felt the Democrats’ grass-roots or­ga­niz­ing un­der­per­formed in mo­bi­liz­ing voter sup­port for the health­care over­haul and other parts of the pres­i­dent’s agenda.

‘So­cial wel­fare’ des­ig­na­tion

OFA stands alone as a non­profit group in­de­pen­dent of the DNC. In­stead of be­ing sub­ject to Fed­eral Elec­tion Com­mis­sion dis­clo­sure rules, it has reg­is­tered un­der sec­tion 501(c)4 of the tax code, mean­ing it will be gov­erned by the looser stan­dards of the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice rather than the more rig­or­ous dis­clo­sure rules of the FEC.

Th­ese 501(c)4 or­ga­ni­za­tions are clas­si­fied as “so­cial wel­fare or­ga­ni­za­tions.” Be­cause they are re­quired to have ed­u­ca­tion or an­other pub­lic cause as their “pri­mary pur­pose,” most of their funds can­not be spent on elec­tions. Karl Rove’s Cross­roads GPS or­ga­ni­za­tion is set up in sim­i­lar fash­ion, and crit­ics have said that most of the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s mil­lions are spent to in­flu­ence elec­tions rather than ed­u­cate or pro­mote pub­lic wel­fare, a com­plaint the or­ga­ni­za­tion re­jects.

“The new OFA or­ga­ni­za­tion is of­fi­cially non­par­ti­san,” said Katie Ho­gan, who moved over from the cam­paign’s press of­fice to speak for the OFA. Sup­port­ing the pres­i­dent’s pol­icy agenda is OFA’s pri­mary pur­pose, she said, adding that the or­ga­ni­za­tion “will not par­tic­i­pate in elec­toral con­tests.”

Ho­gan’s state­ment, re­it­er­ated on OFA’s Web site, con­trasts with the im­pres­sion left in some quar­ters af­ter con­ver­sa­tions with Messina about get­ting Demo­cratic can­di­dates ac­cess to the Obama’s cam­paign’s rich store of voter data, which could help any can­di­date tar­get and de­liver a mes­sage.

Those files are be­ing used by OFA. But Ho­gan said the data are owned by the Obama 2012 re­elec­tion cam­paign and have been leased to the OFA.

Obama’s de­ci­sion to back an or­ga­ni­za­tion rais­ing funds from cor­po­ra­tions and the wealthy ap­palled ad­vo­cates of cam­paign fi­nance re­form.

“This is an un­prece­dented ve­hi­cle pro­vid­ing a whole new en­try point for cor­rup­tion by in­di­vid­u­als and com­pa­nies that may seek to buy in­flu­ence with the ad­min­is­tra­tion,” said Fred Wertheimer, a Washington lawyer and re­form ad­vo­cate who is pres­i­dent of the or­ga­ni­za­tion Democ­racy 21. “It will ei­ther lead to scan­dal or the ap­pear­ance of scan­dal.”

“This OFA idea is a ter­ri­ble ex­am­ple of in­di­vid­u­als and cor­po­ra­tions be­ing asked to pay to get ac­cess” to ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, said Bob Edgar, a former Demo­cratic con­gress­man from Penn­syl­va­nia who heads Com­mon Cause.

Ho­gan and oth­ers at OFA point out that the non­profit plans to go fur­ther than Cross­roads GPS and other 501(c)4 groups by vol­un­tar­ily re­leas­ing the iden­tity of donors, with con­tri­bu­tion to be listed in ranges.

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