By Alex Brant-Zawadzki and Dawn Teo
If you thought the Tea Partiers screaming on your television set over the summer were obnoxious, wait until they're screaming into your phone in 2010 via robocalls -- that is, if the Federal Election Commission sides with Tea Partiers' bigwig beltway lawyers. Conservative operatives who helped organize the summertime protests want to change the way elections are fought nationwide in perhaps the most irksome way possible -- by strong-arming the FEC to overrule state-level restrictions on political robocalls.
Political nonprofit American Future Fund and its associated PAC, led largely by former GOP staffers and operatives, made news this year primarily for its role in facilitating summertime anti-health care reform town hall protests. But the Fund has also been working largely under the radar to lay the groundwork for 2010 elections by discreetly helping Tea Partiers fight for the right to robocall.
Political robocalls are mostly exempt from federal regulations. Federal law requires only that they identify the party responsible for making the calls along with a phone number or snail mail address where the responsible party can be reached. There are no requirements for an expensive live operator, which is a boon to smaller, scrappier organizations with little money. But states often have stricter regulations that keep robocallers in check. For instance, Minnesota has one of the toughest anti-robocalling laws in the country. It requires that calls playing an automated recording either be accepted by the voter to indicate consent (good luck with that) or be preceded by a live operator who must get verbal consent before playing the recording.
The Fund's PAC is asking the FEC to override portions of the Minnesota law, the loss of which would ease requirements significantly for political robocalls. The Fund's lawyers are arguing that the Minnesota law unduly expands campaign finance restrictions (normally the domain of the FEC) by requiring political robocalls to incur the expense of a live operator. While the cost of a robocall averages only five to 15 cents, depending on the state, a live operator can cost anywhere from one dollar to more than two dollars.
A favorable FEC ruling would give federal law precedence over not only Minnesota law, but those of all states whose state-level robocalling restrictions are currently stronger than federal regulations.
A legal document filed last year by the Minnesota Democratic-Farm-Labor Party alleged that the Fund violated election law; the document describes the Fund as "a shadowy nonprofit organization" that "purports to be exempt from tax under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code. But its notion of 'promoting the social welfare' is to send valentines to electorally troubled Republican Senate candidates." Indeed, "shadowy" may be an apt description. When the media began asking the Fund questions last year about who was in charge, the Fund was not forthcoming with answers.
Most observers have speculated that Jill Holtzman Vogel is behind the group, a charge difficult to prove, since 501(c)(4) nonprofits aren't required to disclose information to the public. A reporter at TPM investigated the Fund last year, tracing an address of the organization to the address of Holtzman Vogel's law firm, Holtzman Vogel PLLC. A TPM blogger called the Holtzman Vogel firm and asked if they were behind the Fund, but a representative refused to comment. At the very least, Holtzman Vogel's law firm provides legal representation to the Fund.
Jill Holtzman Vogel is a Virginia State Senator with a distinctive legal repertoire: She is the former Chief Counsel to the Republican National Committee, and acted as counsel to the Bush-Cheney campaign in the Florida presidential recount. Her law firm has been accused of backing other groups, like the American Center for Voting Rights, which ironically disenfranchised poor and minority voters. The firm's address is listed in some of the Fund's corporate documents, but it is unclear whether the firm does more than represent the Fund as a client.
Nicole Schlinger is listed as the President of the Fund in the Iowa Secretary of State database (view image). According to Schlinger's LinkedIn profile, she's also the former Finance Director of the Republican Party of Iowa and now President of a political telemarketing firm. She describes herself as "Iowa's most prolific Republican fundraiser." Clients of Schlinger's telemarketing firm include Mitt Romney, Senator Charles Grassley, and former Congressman Jim Nussle.
However, the Fund's website lists Sandra Greiner as President. Greiner has a less prominent role in the Iowa Republican Party as a local farmer, activist, local party officer, and former state legislator. Other officers currently listed on the website include a retired teacher, a former Congressional aide, and a recent college graduate.
Although Eric Odom is credited with starting the Tea Party movement ,developing online organizing tools and beginning to recruit protesters on the day of CNBC reporter Rick Santelli's on-air rant, Odom was not alone that day. The Fund put up a petition just hours after Santelli's tirade inviting members to sign up if they planned to support or attend the Chicago Tea Party.
Over the summer, the Fund worked hand-in-hand with anti-health care groups like FreedomWorks, which is headed by former U.S. House Republican Majority Leader Dick Armey. The Fund provided town hall protesters with logistical information on local town halls, along with pre-prepared questions and talking points. The Fund also emailed their "tens of thousands" of members a tool that helped locate legislative town hall meetings.
In a September 14th blog posting on the Fund's website, former Communications Director Tim Albrecht wrote, "AFF Political Action will continue to educate the American public. The tea parties and town halls were no fluke -- those also took work and did not magically appear. We can and must continue our efforts. Thanks for your support of American Future Fund Political Action."
The Fund's plans for the Tea Parties goes far beyond rallies and protests, though, and they are no strangers to sleazy campaign tactics. The Fund's media strategist, Larry McCarthy, produced the infamous Willie Horton ad that is credited for helping sink the Michael Dukakis campaign in 1998. McCarthy, then a senior vice president of Ailes Communications (as in Roger Ailes, president of FOX News Channel), first cleared the Willie Horton ad with television stations, then allegedly changed it after the fact, adding a frightening-looking mug shot of murderer Willie Horton, an African-American. McCarthy reportedly called the shocking image "every mother's greatest fear."
Ben Ginsberg, the Fund's 2008 legal counsel, is remembered not for serving as legal counsel to the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign (alongside Hotzman Vogel), but for resigning that position when it came out that he had been advising the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the group that perpetuated a ruthless smear campaign designed to denigrate then-presidential candidate John Kerry's wartime military service. After leaving the Bush campaign, Ginsberg stayed on as counsel to the Swift Boaters.
Clearly some next-level political operatives are hard at work readying themselves for 2010. At the front door, the Fund is busy rousing up support through Tea Parties and town halls. At the back door, they are quietly fighting to kill restrictions on campaign robocalling in preparation for the next round of elections. Regardless of the situation on the ground, the people running the Tea Parties know how to win elections and have been remarkably successful in the past. Progressives would be wise to stop laughing at the crazies that jump in front of the cameras and start paying attention to the men and women lurking behind the curtain.
NOTE: Throughout this article, we used "the Fund" to denote both AFF (a 501(c)(4) nonprofit) and its affiliate, AFFPAC (a political action committee), interchangeably.
This article is the second in our series, Reading Tea Leaves. Read them all:
Alex Brant-Zawadzki is a writer who has studied in both the United States and abroad. He is a former contributing Writer at OC Weekly. He edited his university newspaper, The Saint, and received the honor of Best Student Newspaper in Scotland. Alex has been passionate about journalism from a young age, and is extremely proud of a reporting credit he managed to get in Time Magazine. Alex currently resides in the heart of San Francisco.
Follow Dawn Teo on Twitter: www.twitter.com/dawnteo