- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama, whose campaign has sharply criticized the role of outside political groups in the presidential race, has benefited more than any other candidate from millions of dollars in independent political expenditures, records show.

The increasing support for Mr. Obama has given him a boost from the same sort of political activity his campaign has railed against, especially when millions of dollars in union and other special-interest money backed his opponents.

The political arm of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and other independent groups have spent more than $7.1 million directly supporting the Illinois Democrat’s bid for the presidential nomination, campaign records show. By contrast, similar outside groups have spent about $5.1 million backing Sen. Hillary Clinton, New York Democrat.

Political specialists point out that Mr. Obama doesn’t have any control over those expenditures because outside groups raise and spend money independent of the presidential campaigns.

“It’s going to happen, regardless of what the candidates say,” said James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.

The Obama campaign, which had been vocal in criticizing such expenditures earlier in the race, says it asked groups not to mount independent political efforts on Mr. Obama’s behalf.

Citing money from “big interests,” Obama campaign manager David Plouffe wrote in an e-mail to supporters last year, “Outside groups are in the process of pouring more than $3.2 million into Iowa to support Hillary Clinton and John Edwards.

“Barack has repeatedly spoken out against the work of these outside groups, and this campaign does not accept any money from Washington lobbyists or PACs,” he wrote.

Mr. Plouffe also reportedly told reporters in December that Mr. Obama faced a “blizzard of outside money” from groups supporting Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina, who has since dropped out of the race.

In response to questions about the latest SEIU expenditures, the campaign released a letter from Obama campaign attorney Robert Bauer to Andy Stern, president of the 1.9-million-member union. Dated Feb. 26, the letter asks SEIU to devote its “time and energies in full partnership with the official [Obama] campaign, in place of any current or planned independent activities.”

The message went unheeded.

Since last week, the SEIU reported spending more than a quarter-million dollars supporting Mr. Obama through door-to-door canvassing and phone banks in Pennsylvania, which holds its primary April 22. Overall, the group has reported $4.9 million in independent expenditures for Mr. Obama, mostly during the past month.

A spokesman for Mrs. Clinton criticized the Obama response regarding outside money being spent on his behalf.

“The reality is, our political system allows for many different types of groups to play a role in the process, including third-party entities,” said Clinton spokesman Phil Singer. “It only becomes a problem when one candidate criticizes another candidate, but then benefits from the very same types of expenditures, as is the case with Senator Obama, or if there is illegal coordination.”

Last month, The Washington Times reported that while Mr. Obama refuses donations from federal lobbyists and paints his Democratic presidential rival as a Washington insider for accepting their contributions, he took hundreds of thousands of dollars from partners at dozens of firms that lobbied Congress in 2007.

The partners — who often share in a law firm’s overall profits — gave at least $214,000 to the Obama campaign from October through December, according to a review of Federal Election Commission records and lobbying-disclosure reports with the Senate.

The SEIU accounts for more than half of the outside political money directly supporting Mr. Obama, while a new California political group called Powerpac.org has spent more than $300,000, according to a review of late independent expenditure reports filed with the Federal Election Commission since last year.

The liberal group MoveOn.org spent more than $60,000 supporting Mr. Obama.

“The work that we do … is funded by janitors, nurses and school bus drivers, who are giving a few dollars a paycheck,” SEIU spokeswoman Stephanie Mueller said. “I don’t think that our members have ever thought Barack Obama wasn’t grateful for the support they’ve been giving him.”

Three groups, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and the pro-choice Emily’s List, have spent more than $1 million each in support of Mrs. Clinton.

The independent political expenditures are just a fraction of what groups such as SEIU and AFSCME are spending in the campaign, said Anthony Corrado, a campaign-finance specialist and professor at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

“They’re spending millions more in terms of communicating with their own members,” he said. “I think the candidates are more wary of this type of activity than is generally thought. It can produce a mixed message. Given the fact the candidates have so much money to spend, the candidates would probably rather be in control of their own message.”

So far, no groups have reported any expenditures on behalf of Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who has clinched the Republican nomination, though Mr. Corrado said that will likely change during the general election.

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