The White House and Obama campaign officials have helped create two new organizations that will enable Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick to become a lead defender of the president’s signature health care reform law during the 2012 election campaign.
The Democrat is serving as a key adviser to a nonprofit group that is working with the Obama administration to defend and promote the overhaul. And, at the suggestion of David Axelrod, the senior White House adviser who left the administration to head President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, Patrick has also set up a political action committee to fund his stump speeches around the country.
The idea for both the PAC and the nonprofit, staffed by some of Obama’s top strategists from the 2008 campaign, originated in the Obama circle months ago, according to those involved in the planning of both efforts.
With Patrick at the helm, the groups, unveiled this spring, give the nascent re-election effort a platform to highlight former Gov. Mitt Romney’s role in the Massachusetts health care law, which served as a model for the national health care overhaul Obama championed in the 111th Congress. At the same time, it puts Patrick in charge of what could quickly become tens of millions of dollars — the nonprofit already has at least $5 million in the bank — that will help him raise his profile among Democrats and keep health care at the center of the 2012 campaign.
But Patrick’s ramped-up involvement in national politics has raised concerns among Republicans and Democrats in Massachusetts that he is neglecting his day job to build support for a post in the next Obama administration or a run against Sen. Scott Brown (R) — two ideas that the governor has repeatedly dismissed.
And while the groups are operating entirely within legal bounds, election law experts say White House involvement violates the spirit of rules barring coordination between candidates and outside organizations dedicated to promoting them.
On Feb. 12, just two weeks after Axelrod left his post as senior White House adviser, he met with Patrick in Chicago, the city that all three men call home. He recommended Patrick start a federal political action committee to finance his work promoting the president, according to David O’Brien, who manages the governor’s state and federal committees.
TogetherPAC, which was set up in late March, has raised at least $20,000 to fund campaign appearances such as the Democratic dinner Patrick headlined this weekend in Wisconsin. In January, Patrick addressed a crowd in Colorado -— that time on the dime of his state PAC, O’Brien said — and next month he will speak at a 1,000-guest, $180-per-ticket dinner in Florida, touching down in three 2012 battleground states in just a matter of months.
In the past several weeks, Patrick has also made several appearances on national television shows complimenting his Republican predecessor, Romney, for passing the health care law that became the intellectual framework for Obama’s plan.
Those close to Patrick insist that he will finish his term as governor, which ends in 2015, and will then likely return to the private sector. They say his involvement in the 2012 campaign is simply a function of circumstance: He is good friends with the president — the two men are often described as political soul mates — and he presides over a state where nearly all residents have health care thanks to the individual mandate.
“Massachusetts, no matter what, is going to be ground zero in the presidential campaign,” said Mary Ann Marsh, a Boston-based Democratic consultant who has advised Sen. John Kerry and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy. “You’re better to be on offense then sit there and get beaten up morning, noon and night.”
That’s why a group of Obama’s top strategists from 2008, including Paul Tewes, the architect of the successful 2008 caucus campaign in Iowa, asked Patrick to be a spokesman and board member for the nonprofit group they set up to promote the health care overhaul championed by Obama.
KnowYourCare, a 501(c)(3), was established to educate the public about the law, while a sister 501(c)(4) organization, called ProtectYourCare, will target Republicans working to defund or repeal it. The groups were registered in Washington, D.C., in June and August 2010, respectively.
The idea was spun off of the groundwork laid by the Health Information Campaign, a group set up with a similar purpose last spring by former Majority Leader Tom Daschle and Vicki Kennedy, the wife of the late Senator. That organization has since gone dark and some of its key staff members now advise the new nonprofit, said David Di Martino, who serves as a communications consultant for KnowYourCare/ProtectYourCare.
Patrick’s allies say the two groups are not part of a broader strategy and that the governor was not even approached about serving on the board of KnowYourCare/ProtectYourCare until mid-March. But the missions are inextricably linked, drawing on the same fundraisers to raise money from many of the same donors.
It is one of several new liberal groups like American Bridge and the House Majority PAC that hope to combat the conservative groups that funneled millions to Republicans in 2010.
Former Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, one of the first prominent Democrats to endorse Obama during the 2008 primaries, also sits on the board of the health care group, as does Neera Tanden, who heads the liberal Center for American Progress and worked on Obama’s health care task force.
The nonprofit, based in Washington, has regular strategy sessions with the White House political team, sources familiar with the organization said. That coordination is not a violation of election laws so long as the group does not expressly advocate Obama or attack his opponents, but it raises concerns about who is directing millions of dollars that could influence voters next year.
“I do consider it a violation of the spirit of the tax code and the election code,” said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist at the watchdog group Public Citizen. “It’s an example of the type of coordination I’d like to see banned.”
As a corporation, the group is not required to disclose its donors and can make unlimited expenditures on political activity. However, in order to maintain its status as a tax-exempt social welfare organization, electioneering cannot be its primary activity.
It is increasingly common for elected officials to set up a variety of money-raising entities, but Patrick’s commitment to the presidential race, still 18 months away, is unusual for a sitting governor.
His recent travel, including a two-week book tour to promote an Obama-esque autobiography, has not gone unnoticed at home.
“He’s doing everything to try to get on the radar screen,” said Holly Robichaud, a Republican consultant in Massachusetts. “Who knew being governor would be part time? He didn’t tell us this last November.”
Even fellow Democrats wonder privately if his ambitions go beyond Beacon Hill, despite promises to complete his second term.
“My sense is that he’s positioning himself to take on a larger political role — either appointive or elective,” said a former aide to Gov. Michael Dukakis (D). These groups “give him a national forum, both to support the president’s health care agenda, as well as to broaden his national political standing.”