Conservatives Eye Radical Change

Posted April 22, 2011 at 5:48pm

In the past month, the American Conservative Union, one of the nation’s oldest organizations on the right, has begun a makeover, dropping one-third of its staff in search of a new generation of scrappy, agile activists.

Gregg Keller, a 33-year-old Missourian who joined as executive director in mid-March and has helped lead the restructuring, is one of them. He has no qualms about staying in budget hotels to save money, and when it comes to the organization’s new Washington, D.C., offices, well, almost anything will do.

“I tell the Realtors we aren’t looking for A space or B space; we are looking for C space,” Keller said. “Blood on the walls is negotiable.”

Taking strategic cues, at least in part, from the tea party, the organization has trimmed its staff and operating budget. But tea partyers and establishment types alike are skeptical that the ACU has much of a purpose beyond hosting one of the most important annual conservative gatherings, the Conservative Political Action Conference.

“The ACU was just really not doing anything,” said Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center, who has long played a prominent role in CPAC but emerged as a leading critic of the ACU’s decision to welcome the gay group GOProud as a co-sponsor of its 2011 event. “CPAC got mired into needless controversy, and it lost its brand.”

The group recently ousted the director of CPAC, Lisa De Pasquale, who bore the brunt of the GOProud controversy. She’s been replaced by Christopher Malagisi, a 29-year-old who teaches at the Leadership Institute, a training ground for conservative activists run by Morton Blackwell, an ACU board member.

The deputy director of the conference and a junior lobbying aide also left the organization, which terminated its contract with an outside public relations firm that the ACU declined to name.

All this came after the group’s longtime chairman David Keene in February passed the helm to Alberto Cardenas, 59, a two-time head of the Republican Party in Florida and a well-known Washington lobbyist who represents a variety of Florida interests. Keene, who remains on the ACU board, will now lead the National Rifle Association.

ACU insiders say the idea behind many of the changes is to minimize what goes on in Washington and maximize action at the state level, all while combating a reputation for stodginess and even hostility toward the tea party.

“We realized that as a staff we needed to get younger and hungrier,” Keller said. “We want people here who have servants’ hearts, not people who are here because they are trying to advance their own careers.”

The tea party is probably the wrong place to look for support. Mark Meckler, who heads Tea Party Patriots, said that attending one CPAC, in 2010, was enough for him.

“It’s an old-line political organization,” he said. “We just don’t pay attention to it.”

Others, particularly some of the newer faces on Capitol Hill, wonder whether the 47-year-old organization’s board — stacked with old-guard names such as Blackwell, a former aide to Ronald Reagan and John Bolton, President George W. Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations — will stand in the way of its revitalized mission.

The ACU’s leaders say they are keenly aware that the drama of the 2011 conference threatened the group’s credibility as the primary umbrella organization for conservatives.

“ACU should focus on its core competencies: CPAC and ratings,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, who has served on the organization’s board for more than a decade. “Anything else is gravy, slash, dangerous. It could be a problem.”

He acknowledged, however, that donors are often unwilling to give to an organization that claims to include all elements of the movement.

In 2009, the group received $1.4 million in contributions and spent $1.6 million on salaries and other expenditures, according to documents filed with the IRS. The ACU insisted it was getting stronger financially but declined to disclose details of its current budget. The ACU rarely reports more than $100,000 in lobbying expenses annually.

Its real Washington power comes from pressuring lawmakers with ratings it puts out every two years based on voting records and, of course, the publicity candidates and other conservative leaders can get at CPAC.

That’s why the group plans to extend those two projects to the state level, hosting regional conferences and rating the members of state legislatures. The ACU plans to organize its first local meetings in states such as North Carolina and Pennsylvania, where similar organizations already host annual conferences. Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio are also priorities.

“Some people at ACU were taking the position that you need to be a big tent for everyone,” said Bozell, adding that he is optimistic the group can turn itself around. “When you stand for everything, you stand for nothing.”