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AARP Opponents Try to Capitalize on Flap

When AARP, the dominant player among seniors groups, found itself in hot water because of controversial comments made by one of its top executives about Social Security reform, Phil Kent saw an opportunity.

Kent is CEO of the competing American Seniors Association, a 6-year-old outfit that bills itself as AARP’s conservative alternative. He is always on the lookout for opportunities to woo some of AARP’s 40 million members to his startup, a task he says became significantly easier when AARP endorsed the measure during the health care debate in the last Congress.

“Hardly a week goes by where we don’t get a torn up AARP card,” he said.

The most recent AARP dust-up came after the Wall Street Journal quoted the group’s top lobbyist, John Rother, indicating that AARP is willing to drop its long-standing opposition to a Social Security overhaul. Since then, AARP has labored to clarify that despite the quotes, it has not, in fact, flipped its position.

“We could not be more adamant that AARP has not changed its position on Social Security,” said Mary Liz Burns, AARP’s senior manager of media relations. “Basically, the quotes, and the way the story was handled, mischaracterized our views.”

But Kent thinks there is more to the story.

“The flap just showed the hypocrisy. They’ve always been for tax increases and big government,” said Kent, whose 13 million-member group is based in Atlanta. “We see a great opportunity over the next year.”

The ASA and the 60 Plus Association — another AARP competitor — both issued press releases June 17 when the Wall Street Journal story ran and have since engaged in a full-scale media campaign including TV and talk radio interviews and editorial pieces.

“The AARP has always ducked this tough problem and attacked former President George W. Bush and lawmakers and organizations that tried to propose meaningful reform — even though delaying a Social Security fix will cause deeper cuts in benefits or greater tax hikes down the road,” the ASA press release said.

“We’ve said we’re for reforms, but we sure as hell aren’t talking about cutting benefits,” James Martin, chairman of the 60 Plus Association, told Roll Call. “That is a cruel joke on seniors.”

Kent said he hopes to capitalize on the flap to chip off more AARP members. “We’re going to ramp things up to rebrand the ASA,” he said, including a possible National Press Club event this fall.

Beltway insiders discount AARP competitors’ ability to make a dent in the massive organization’s influence or bottom line.

But health care lobbyists said it remains an open question as to whether Rother, the organization’s longtime executive vice president of policy and strategy, will remain with the group or how it will affect his clout inside. Burns said AARP would not comment on such speculation and is instead “focusing on protecting Social Security from any harmful cuts that may be part of any debt ceiling negotiations.”

One health care lobbyist called the whole flap a “communications mishap” in which Rother “got himself a little far out there. Now they’re trying to clean up the mess.”

It also has given anti-AARP Republicans on the Hill new ammunition. But still, this lobbyist said, “I don’t think it moves them back.”

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