Politics & Poker: ‘Michael J’ Working to Help ADA Move On Up

Posted November 20, 2009 at 5:22pm

In the color-coded spectrum of modern-day politics, Americans for Democratic Action is, naturally, a deep blue.

[IMGCAP(1)]But it’s hard to think of the venerable liberal organization without seeing sepia tones.

After all, ADA’s founders included Eleanor Roosevelt, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Reuther, the legendary labor leader. Walter Mondale headed its youth caucus in the 1950s. The group’s leaders literally stood with Martin Luther King Jr. during his “I Have a Dream— speech and other iconic moments of the civil rights struggle, and their opposition to the Vietnam War was pivotal in moving the Democratic establishment against the war — especially considering the anti-communist stance of ADA founders in the 1940s.

And through the years, ADA’s annual scorecard of Members of Congress has helped shaped the public’s perception of their elected officials.

But besides those ratings, you might be hard-pressed to say what ADA has been up to since the 1970s, as the country has generally turned more conservative. In recent years, more aggressive liberal groups like MoveOn.org have dominated the conversation on the left, pioneering the use of modern technology and helping move public opinion in the process.

“They’re no longer what they were, both in terms of activity and in terms of mission,— observes David Keene, chairman of ADA’s opposite number, the American Conservative Union.

Michael J. Wilson hopes to change that. Wilson, a fast-talking, energetic veteran of the labor movement, took over as the new national director of ADA a few months ago, replacing Amy Isaacs, who retired after spending her entire professional life working for the group in a variety of roles.

Wilson — known as “Michael J— to his friends and colleagues — is all too aware of the challenges ADA faces. In fact, he told the group’s board of directors that he would only take the job if they were willing to accept “radical change.—

“ADA is 63 years old,— Wilson muses during a recent interview at the group’s K Street offices. “The things we did in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s really don’t apply to the politics of the 21st century. … We can’t look in the rearview mirror and talk about what we’ve done in the past.—

You might say Wilson is the living embodiment of the changes that he hopes to bring to ADA. A one-time community organizer in Chicago — not unlike another change agent who works just down the block on 16th Street Northwest — Wilson is the first African-American leader of the organization.

But that fact is incidental to ADA veterans.

“This is an unbelievably impressive guy — and I’m not easily blown away,— says Cheryl Kagan, a former Maryland state legislator who serves on the group’s national board.

Wilson’s résumé includes stints as an aide to the late Rep. Charles Hayes (D-Ill.), service in the U.S. Department of Labor and several top posts at the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

With its annual Congressional scorecard, culled from 20 or so floor votes, ADA has built a reputation as an umbrella group for liberal causes. And that remains one of its appeals.

“I can support one group and not have to write 19 checks and join 19 organizations,— Kagan says. “ADA has been the measurement of what’s liberal and what’s progressive for all these years.—

Yet in these days of microtargeting, the one-stop-shopping approach may not be as effective as it once was — and Wilson knows it.

“If you name it, ADA has probably taken a position on it,— he says. “The problem with being everything is, we don’t have an identity and a focus.—

Under Wilson’s direction, ADA for the moment is going to concentrate most of its energies on just two issues: full employment and marriage equality. It isn’t necessarily an obvious or natural mix. But Wilson believes they are two areas where ADA can make a difference — and distinguish itself from other liberal groups.

With unemployment high, Wilson has no illusions that full employment is attainable anytime soon. But he says the group can help by identifying “the real unemployment rate,— pushing for increases in the rate and length of unemployment benefits, promoting funding for job training programs and a better stimulus package, and organizing unemployed workers to speak out for policies that benefit them.

On the issue of marriage equality, Wilson says gay rights groups need allies to join them on the front lines, in much the same way that Walter Reuther spoke at the Lincoln Memorial during the fabled 1963 civil rights march, even though “his rights were not jeopardized.— ADA had people on the ground in Maine this fall during the unsuccessful attempt to preserve the state’s gay marriage law at the polls and is lobbying the D.C. Council as it considers a gay marriage bill.

Keene, who has watched the relevance of the ACU fluctuate through the decades, says Wilson is smart to carve out a niche for ADA, rather than try to take on some of the newer groups that are influencing the left.

“When somebody else has picked up the job, you don’t want to go back and say, ‘Hey, that’s mine,’— he said.

ADA has several weapons in its arsenal: a lobbying shop, a political action committee, an education fund, active chapters in half a dozen states and a handful of field organizers around the country — not to mention dues-paying members in all 50 states. ADA also has key alliances on Capitol Hill — Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) are among its former presidents.

And then there’s the annual scorecard — which even conservatives like Keene say is a big asset. Wilson calls it “the gold standard— but can’t help but notice with a rueful laugh that “conservatives have tried to use our voting record as a club to beat down our supporters.—

Wilson freely admits, though, that he looks at MoveOn.org as a model — both for its effectiveness and for the way it drives people on the right crazy.

“If in a few years, people think of us in the same way,— he says, “then I think we’ll have succeeded.—