Clark to Keynote Forum for Podesta Group

Posted September 29, 2003 at 7:05pm

The Center for American Progress, an organization founded by Democratic strategist John Podesta after the 2002 election to counter Republican message efforts, is set to formally enter the political fray next month with an issues conference featuring newly minted presidential candidate Wesley Clark as a keynote speaker.

Clark, the retired general now running for the Democratic presidential nomination, will join former Carter administration National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski in a “coming together of experts and practitioners who share grave concerns about the wisdom of the current course of America’s foreign policy,” according to a CAP release. The forum will take place Oct. 28 and 29 in Washington, D.C.

“This will definitely be our most public event,” said Anna Soellner, a spokeswoman for CAP.

CAP officials emphasize that Clark was booked prior to his becoming a candidate for the party’s nomination.

Formerly known as the American Majority Institute, the group is casting itself as the new intellectual center of the Democratic Party.

The organizational structure is split into two components: a 501(c)3 think tank and a 501(c)4 rapid response and communications operation that will dabble more heavily in campaign politics. Both divisions are referred to by their designation within Internal Revenue Service tax code.

Fundraising for the 501(c)3 is already in full swing while the 501(c)4 money-gathering has just begun, according to Laura Nichols, former communications director for Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) and now senior vice president of CAP.

Both entities can accept unlimited donations and do not have to reveal their donors.

CAP’s focus on crafting progressive policy differentiates it somewhat from the litany of fundraising groups formed by prominent Democratic aides and interest group chiefs in the wake of the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in 2002.

These groups include Americans Coming Together, America Votes, the Partnership for America’s Families and Voices for Working Families, all of which are 527s, which can raise unlimited funds but must report their fundraising activity to the IRS.

“We have always talked about being the party of better ideas but [CAP] is a way of putting it into practice,” said one prominent Democratic strategist.

With the official unveiling of CAP roughly one month off, the group is aggressively recruiting top Capitol Hill staffers to fill key positions.

Aside from Nichols and Podesta, who is CAP’s president, former Appropriations Committee Democratic spokesman David Sirota has been brought on as director of strategic communications, and Debbie Berger will oversee booking of CAP personages on radio and television programs.

Berger, who formerly worked at CNN, is the daughter of former Clinton administration national security adviser Samuel Berger.

CAP is also currently recruiting a Capitol Hill liaison to work as a middleman between the organization and lawmakers.

The leading candidate for that post, according to Democratic sources, is Mark Patterson, policy director to Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

Patterson currently organizes outreach efforts to the lobbying and interest group communities for Hill Democrats. It is unclear whether Patterson would leave his current post or simply take on an additional role with the CAP.

CAP officials emphasized that no final hiring decisions had been made.

Former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee executive director Howard Wolfson called the staff “a collection of the best and brightest minds of the party.”

“They will have a huge impact and make a tremendous difference,” Wolfson said.

Another Democratic strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the initial hires reflect that CAP officials “have managed to not make this a training ground for one particular politician.”

“We don’t want this to be the Hillary 2008 committee, the Daschle 2008 committee or the Clinton White House in exile,” the strategist added.

Despite the high-profile players involved in CAP, its activities have largely flown under the radar to this point.

Podesta hosted a book event last Thursday for Matthew Miller, a syndicated columnist and a CAP fellow, at the Mayflower Hotel in D.C.

Podesta also moderated a debate between Stuart Butler, vice president of domestic and economic policy at the Heritage Foundation, and American Prospect founder Robert Kuttner over the economic solutions offered by Miller in his new book “The Two Percent Solution.”

Aside from Miller, former Council on Foreign Relations head Lawrence Korb is serving as an unofficial spokesman for CAP, according to Soellner.