- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 1, 2001

Common Cause, the campaign finance reform advocacy group trying to eliminate soft money in politics, has seen softness in its own finances lately.
Steve Calos, who used to run the Virginia chapter of the organization, says Common Cause has contracted operations since realizing it was facing a financial crisis about a year ago — a budget hole of about $1 million. He said that since then the organization has closed several state offices, including his Virginia office, and replaced its president, chief financial officer, administrative director and fund-raising director.
Ed Davis, the director of Common Cause's state operations, said there has been "some falloff in our revenue," and the fund-raising base has eroded over the past few years. But he said the organization ended last year with a surplus of several hundred thousand dollars.
"Closing Virginia is not an indication that Common Cause is having to scale back, or is weaker, or is attempting to face funding problems by having to slash off state organizations," he said.
In the past five years a handful of state operations have closed entirely, leaving 38 state chapters — many of them without full-time staff — still in operation.
Nancy Snow, the former director of the New Hampshire chapter, said she knew going into the job in 1997 that the chapter probably would close eventually, as it did a year ago. She said membership and interest just weren't growing enough to justify her part-time job.
"I always thought it was a smart move, even though it was unpopular and you like to have a presence there," said Ms. Snow, who is now associate director of the Center for Communications and Community at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Common Cause was formed more than 30 years ago, and gained stature during Watergate. But in the past few years it has mostly been associated with campaign finance reform — in particular, banning soft money, unlimited contributions to political parties made by corporations, unions and wealthy donors.
It supports the Senate-passed bill sponsored by Sens. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, that would ban the collection of federal and state party soft money to influence federal elections. A similar bill is pending in the House.
But Mr. Calos and others say Common Cause has suffered from its singular focus on that effort. He said state organizations have taken the lead in clean-campaigning efforts, government ethics and election reform.
Common Cause officials said the problem in Virginia is that the chapter ended 2000 with a deficit of $41,982, and would have ended this year with a deficit of about $30,000. In a letter to the Virginia chapter, the national organization said the state chapter didn't send out a regular fund-raising letter and didn't have a credible plan for closing the deficit.
"In the end, there was no significant effort at fund raising locally despite a number of promises to do it," Mr. Davis said.
Mr. Calos says the national organization's allocation to Virginia — $21,060, according to the letter from the national office — is less than a fifth of the more than $100,000 that Virginians donate to the national organization. The chapter could have kept going with a larger share of that money, he said.
Mr. Calos is now co-chairman of the Virginia Network for Campaign Finance Reform, a coalition of groups pushing for campaign and electoral reform. He said he is also working on developing another group like Common Cause, with a staff and offices, to take up issues such as ethics in government.
For her part, Ms. Snow said she sees a role for Common Cause in policy debates, and she hopes they smooth things out with state chapters.
"You see this so often with progressive organizations where they end up eating their young because there's not enough money to go around," she said.

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