Group Brings Labor, ATLA Together

‘Grassroots Democrats’ Will Focus Efforts on Funding State Party Operations

Posted October 1, 2003 at 6:52pm

Key leaders in the labor movement and trial lawyer community will convene a strategy session today with officials from roughly half of the state Democratic parties to tout the activities of a new fundraising organization designed to funnel money to local party operations.

The organization — Grassroots Democrats — is one of a number of fundraising entities formed in the wake of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act to harvest soft-money donations.

It is one of three groups that will be the prime beneficiaries of union giving, according to Communication Workers of America President Morty Bahr, one of the board members of Grassroots Democrats.

The other AFL-CIO “umbrella” groups are Partnership for America’s Families, which is being headed by former AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal, and Voices for Working Families, which has American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees President Gerald McEntee at its head.

Grassroots Democrats will seek to differentiate itself by focusing on channeling money to help state parties with party building and turnout efforts, said Executive Director Amy Chapman. The group is likely to focus its efforts on between 18 and 22 battleground states.

“We are the only 527 out there committed to working with state and local Democratic parties and providing them with guidance and assistance to help them raise nonfederal money for their coordinated campaigns,” said Chapman.

The group is not expected to spend significant sums on issue advertising. As Bahr puts it: “We are not doing campaigning.”

As a 527 organization, Grassroots Democrats can accept unlimited donations but must report its financial activities to the Internal Revenue Service. They will file their first report at year’s end.

Today’s session, which comes on the eve of this weekend’s Democratic National Committee fall meeting, is designed as a training ground for participants — mostly comptrollers and executive directors from a variety of states — in the new organization that will include special emphasis on how each state party can raise the maximum amount of soft money for the 2004 elections.

Chapman, who served as AFL-CIO campaign director in the 1998 and 2000 cycles, said Grassroots Democrats is hoping “for a strategic discussion to try and get a sense of how [state parties] see their fundraising and coordinated campaigns working in light of the campaign finance laws.”

The group’s four-member board represents an impressive amalgam of key Democratic interest groups that funnelled millions of dollars to the national party committee in past elections.

Bahr and AFSCME’s McEntee both have spots on the board, as does Linda Lipson, the senior director for public affairs of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. Former Democratic National Committee Vice Chairman Joe Carmichael rounds out the board.

Between CWA, AFSCME and ATLA, at least $500,000 has been committed to Grassroots Democrats.

Lipson is the most recent addition and her presence — along with the financial heft of ATLA — broadens Grassroots Democrats beyond being simply a labor group, according to its supporters.

Lipson said she chose to get involved with the group rather than the myriad other ventures because “this group is dedicated to building the party structures.”

Several more board members are expected to be announced in the next few months, Bahr said. He noted that they are looking for “prominent people from the business world and private sector” to take leadership roles.

Labor groups donated roughly $97 million in the 2002 cycle, 93 percent to Democrats; law firms gave $95 million, with more than three-quarters of that total directed to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Chapman said the budget for the group will be in the “low millions,” an estimate significantly less than those put forward by other 527 groups such as Americans Coming Together, an organization funded in part by financier George Soros, which has set a budget of $75 million.

“We are not trying to build an organization, we are trying to work with organizations that currently exist,” said Chapman. “We didn’t start out saying we wanted the world.”

As a result, Grassroots Democrats will not raise large amounts of money into the 527, focusing instead on channeling donations from traditional Democratic donors to state parties.

Under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, an individual can give up to $10,000 per year to a state party, while multicandidate political action committees can give $5,000 a year.

“We need to be the one to identify the people who are Democratic donors and [explain to them] how they can be of the most help,” said Chapman.

Another focus of the group — and several others 527s like ACT and America Votes — is turnout programs that come in response to the “72 Hour Program” that Republicans successfully employed in the previous cycle.

“The 2002 elections served as a powerful wake-up call for Democrats in every community,” said a Grassroots Democrats internal memo. “We saw Republicans begin to try our voter turnout projects but with one key difference. Instead of carrying a positive message of inclusion, they spread a negative message.”

The fundraising and turnout efforts of Grassroots Democrats are likely to supplement the efforts by the Democratic National Committee, which although it is banned from raising and spending soft money has invested heavily in a voter database, known as “Demzilla,” which attempts to collect hard-dollar donors into a central list.

The DNC raised $12 million from July 1 to Sept. 30 and retained $9 million on hand, according to figures released Wednesday.

They continue to be significantly outraised by their Republican counterparts, however.

In the third quarter the Republican National Committee raised $22 million and has $27 million in the bank.