- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 24, 2005

An army of well-financed grass-roots organizations is operating in 32 states to build public support for President Bush’s Social Security investment accounts plan, after a slow start earlier this year.

At the heart of this stepped-up drive is a team of state field coordinators who turn out supporters, from senior citizens to union members, for town-hall meetings where Mr. Bush and other Republican officials promote the proposal.

“This effort is generating surprising support for the general thrust of Bush’s plan in nontraditional Republican constituencies,” said Dirk Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesalers, a key adviser to the administration’s lobbying drive.

The effort is staffed and bankrolled by a coalition of public advocacy associations and corporate lobbying groups such as the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Organizers, working in tandem with the White House, won’t say how much they are spending on their organizational efforts.

But Derrick Max, executive director of the Alliance for Worker Retirement Security, who is heading the drive, said, “We’ll spend whatever it takes.”

His lobbying force, called the Coalition for the Protection and Modernization of America’s Social Security, has targeted strategic states and congressional districts, with special emphasis on lawmakers who sit on each house’s tax-writing committee, which will write the Social Security reform bill.

“It’s a national effort that has involved to date about 150 town-hall meetings [and] phone banks that have generated 300,000 phone calls. We’ve done lots of talk radio, set up booths at colleges and in retirement communities,” Mr. Max said.

“It’s about turning out the silent majority. A lot of folks out there support personal accounts and think Social Security needs to be fixed, including a lot of rank-and-file union members,” said Mike Gibson, who runs the coalition’s state operations.

The advertising side of the grass-roots operation is being led by Progress for America, which intends to spend almost $20 million.

“We’ve spent $4.8 million this month. That includes television and radio ads and other elements of our campaign,” said Chris Meyers, who runs Progress for America. He said the group raises all of its money from people who back Mr. Bush’s Social Security reform proposal.

The group has purchased $1 million of time for an advertisement that compares Social Security’s midcentury bankruptcy to the Titanic. The ad has been running in 30 congressional districts in 24 states for the past three weeks. A second $1 million TV ad buy will air during the congressional Easter recess, along with two national network ads, spokeswoman Laura Dlugacz said.

Strategists for these groups say their work is coordinated with the White House and Republican officials who plan to ratchet up the lobbying drive.

“We’re working with groups like Progress for America, sharing information, to make sure we are talking about it in a smart and efficient way to activate our grass-roots supporters,” said Tracey Schmitt, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.

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