Odd Couple or Old Friends? OFA Steps into Fair Elections

BY Simone Pathe  April 12, 2013 at 11:57 AM EDT

Obama for America volunteers work in Colorado on a 2011 day of action. Obama for America has been restarted as Organizing for Action. Photo by Flickr user Barack Obama.

It’s house party time in New York.

Supporters of campaign finance reform are kicking off 100 parties across the state this week to pressure state legislators to approve a public matching system before the end of the session in June.

Modeled after New York City’s system, the bill has strong support from Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and support has grown since the recent arrests of elected officials throughout the state.

Much like house party invitations Empire State progressives may have received over the past two presidential cycles from Obama for America, this house party push is coming from OFA, too — the new OFA, that is.

Organizing for Action — the tax-exempt organization launched in January to advocate for the president’s agenda — joined the New York Fair Elections coalition at the end of March with an email to their 744,000 state members.

As a 501(c)4 organization, OFA is not required to disclose its donors or cap their donations, which — along with candidate Obama’s decision not to accept public financing in 2008 — doesn’t create the strongest parallel with the New York Fair Elections coalition.

“What we don’t want to do is repeat the mistake that I believe in 2008 we made, where some of that energy dissipated and we were only playing an inside game,” Mr. Obama said recently in defense of OFA at its “founders’ summit” in Washington’s St. Regis hotel.

But nearly as soon as OFA debuted, public finance and clean government groups like Common Cause urged it to shut down.

Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center co-wrote a letter to Mr. Obama questioning the legality of his soliciting gifts, while Progressives United, former Sen. Russ Feingold’s group, said simply, “this is what selling access looks like.”

Even after OFA’s decision in early March to reverse course on accepting corporate donations eased some criticism, the Sunlight Foundation raised concerns about OFA only disclosing donors quarterly and withholding their donors’ employment data, potentially concealing their interests and agendas.

OFA disclosed their first quarter donors of $250 or more online Friday but reports that the average donation from their 109,582 supporters was $44.

Even without big corporate money, OFA’s “finance leadership levels” include much bigger donors than the kind of small donor movement Fair Elections New York is hoping to foster. An OFA memo obtained by the New York Times reveals that raising $1 million over two consecutive years is a prerequisite for serving on the board of directors, which will include a council of 10 “leaders in industry.”

So by stepping into New York, OFA has put some of its toughest critics in an interesting position. Suddenly, the 12-week-old group is adding major legitimacy — not to mention potential resources — to a movement many of these same public finance and clean government organizations have championed.

OFA’s involvement has injected the campaign with a greater sense of urgency, said David Donnelly, executive director of Public Campaign Action Fund, one of the four main leaders of the 100 organizations in the coalition.

On the ground, Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, credited OFA’s mobilizing efforts with helping turn out an estimated 500 people at a rally in New York City, and boosting turnout at others in Albany and Syracuse last week.

Common Cause President Bob Edgar heralded OFA’s involvement in the Fair Elections coalition as a “precursor to a national drive for reforms like public financing and full disclosure of campaign donations to campaigns, PACs and the politically active and tax-exempt ‘social welfare’ organizations that have emerged since the Citizens United decision.”

Never mind that OFA is a social welfare organization. “We welcome OFA. We don’t want them to be the elephant — I mean donkey — in the room,” Edgar told the PBS NewsHour.

But Edgar still thinks they should shut down and start anew with a commitment to campaign finance reform. “It has every right to exist. That’s not my concern. My concern is the optics of it for reform.”

OFA officials counter that getting involved in a state-level campaign, at the behest of their state members, is a testament to the organization’s grass-roots structure. OFA acts on requests from members when local priorities align with the president’s agenda, explained OFA spokesperson Katie Hogan.

That’s an argument Sunlight Foundation Policy Director John Wonderlich isn’t buying. Acting like a grassroots organization while accepting “dark money” is “dissident at its core,” he said.

Democracy 21′s Fred Wertheimer echoed that sentiment, telling the NewsHour that OFA’s involvement in New York does “not change our view of the fundamental problems” with the organization or of Mr. Obama’s unfulfilled commitment to campaign finance reform.

Hogan and Fair Elections partners would not hint as to whether OFA’s involvement in New York is a precursor to engagement in campaign finance reform in other states or at the national level.