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As Occupiers Protest Democrats, Democrats Court Occupiers

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Rep. Keith Ellison, co-chairman of the Progressive Caucus, has spoken with Occupy protesters in D.C., New York and Minnesota and said Democrats need to build up their outreach.

Congressional Democrats still haven't quite figured out how to harness the energy behind the Occupy Wall Street movement for political gain, but they nevertheless are incorporating the group into their messaging as a way to maintain ties with the leftist protesters.

The efforts have yielded mixed results, and took a step back Thursday night when a handful of OWS supporters protested a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee fundraiser in downtown Washington, D.C. With the 2012 elections drawing near, Members acknowledge they have some work to do.

"You can always have a better message, there's no question," DCCC Chairman Steve Israel acknowledged. "And the message that counts is the values that we have, many of which we share with the protesters, versus the misguided priorities the Republicans have."

Republicans seized on the OWS protest of the Democratic fundraiser. National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Paul Lindsay called it "a stunning rejection of [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi's aggressive courting of the movement" and suggested Democratic incumbents could face primary challenges as a result.

Israel disagreed.

"What I love about America is we have the right to disagree even when we agree," the New York Democrat said. "And we agree with their call for more jobs. We've tried to do it, Republicans have said no. We agree with their call for more college affordability. We've tried to do it, Republicans said no."

Democrats are trying to highlight those similarities with OWS themes threaded throughout party messaging this week. Pelosi even incorporated the group's "we are the 99 percent" slogan into her remarks.

The California Democrat also talked up a pet issue of OWS — corporate money in campaigns — and blasted last year's Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that allows corporations and unions to spend unrestricted money on campaigns.

"Many in the 1 percent have used that secret, unlimited, undisclosed money to affect an election, to affect public policy that again is counter to reigniting the American dream," she said. "We must give that 99 percent a stronger voice."

Just as Republicans built a strategic relationship with the conservative Tea Party movement, which ultimately helped the GOP recapture the House majority in 2010, Democrats are trying to do the same with OWS.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus hosted three D.C. protesters at an October meeting. Liberal lawmakers also quickly responded after riot police in Oakland, Calif., fired tear gas on a crowd in front of city hall in October, critically injuring one protester in the process. After the incident Rep. Barbara Lee (D), who represents much of Oakland, declared "I support the occupiers. A nonviolent protest is the way we petition our government for a redress of grievances."

Still, as Rep. Dennis Kucinich pointed out, "What I have seen is Occupy Wall Street has essentially stayed away from politicians."

The Ohio Democrat, a rock star in liberal circles, said he has visited OWS sites in Washington and Cleveland. Rep. Keith Ellison said he has been to sites in Washington, New York and his state of Minnesota to speak to protestors. Ellison, who is a co-chairman of the Progressive Caucus, said Democrats need to kick up their outreach.

"Will they be a voting force? Don't know. I think what they would say is if you give us something to vote for, we'll vote," Ellison said. "So we've got to be fighting for the issues that we all know we need to fight for."

The 77-member Congressional Progressive Caucus is set to unveil a broad economic plan next week that aides say will address some of the OWS concerns, including the rising number of foreclosures and unemployment among younger workers.

Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson said he plans to launch a group in the coming weeks that will touch on the issue of corporate influence in the political process.

"Yes, there clearly are threads that connect," the Connecticut Democrat said. "The thing about the occupy group is it shows a frustration in a lack of jobs and a frustration in a lack of fairness."

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