Thursday, June 2, 2005

Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus are teaming up with conservative Republicans to push for the first major changes in the 2002 campaign-finance reform bill, most admitting that they made a mistake in voting for the bill three years ago.

“If I had the chance to vote again, I wouldn’t vote the way I voted,” said Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, New York Democrat, who along with most of the CBC supported the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act after they were promised by Democratic leaders that the bill would not harm their constituents or funding bases in order to garner their support.

Three years and a failed presidential election later, black politicians saw their political grass-roots organizations starved for funds under the new rules, as so-called “527s,” private political groups so named for the Internal Revenue Service code provision under which they are organized were able to raise unlimited amounts of money for partisan purposes, subsequently siphoning off the cash.

“It definitely affected the ability of the historic system of African-American community groups to [register and mobilize black voters] the way they had always done it,” said Marc H. Morial, president of the National Urban League.

The Urban League is a principal partner of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, a group of about 80 member grass-roots groups that historically have been relied upon to promote black voter turnout.

In the 2004 presidential election, many of the black civic groups were supplanted by 527s, which attempted to turn out the black vote on their own, a strategy that Rep. Albert R. Wynn, Maryland Democrat, said had proven to be inadequate. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, who was expected to surpass his 2000 predecessor Al Gore, received 85 percent of the black vote, compared with Mr. Gore’s 90 percent.

Although the effect of the money stream on the organizations was visible, the tracking of the money is not. The two major political parties always have been secretive about how much money they spend on voter registration and get-out-the vote activities, said Steve Weissman, a researcher for the Campaign Finance Institute, a nonpartisan organization that studies money in politics.

He said black organizations may have felt left out because most of the 527s targeted their dollars toward advertising in the northern Midwest and Southwest and not in the Deep South, where the majority of blacks in the United States live.

In response, Mr. Wynn and Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican and chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, co-authored the 527 Fairness Act, a bill that removes the $101,400 aggregate limit on hard-money contributions an individual can make to federal parties and congressional candidates in a two-year election cycle.

It also would allow nonprofit social welfare and grass-roots organizations, labor unions and trade associations to receive and spend contributions from individuals on political-issue advertisements and literature without establishing a federal political action committee.

“I’m looking at the bill very carefully because I have to make sure that we are able to participate in this game, and with the campaign-finance reform the way it is, we’ve taken a lot of folks who were at the table off the table,” Mr. Meeks said. “I haven’t decided yet, but we’re reviewing it and asking questions.”

House Democratic leaders oppose the bill and sent a letter to the entire Democratic caucus expressing their displeasure with the bill.

“We are writing to urge you to oppose [the bill], which, if enacted, will enable wealthy individuals and interests to pour unlimited amounts of hard money into federal elections,” according to the letter.

Ron Walters, professor of political science at the University of Maryland, said the real fear among top Democrats is that removing the aggregate limits vastly could increase the power of Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean. Mr. Dean proved in last year’s presidential election that he can raise vast amounts of money, and passage of the bill only would enhance his standing.

Black political strategists differ on what the 43-member caucus should do.

“The time has come for African-Americans to find new sources to fund our electoral activities. With campaign-finance rules, the old well is dried up,” said Donna Brazile, former chairman of the DNC’s Voting Rights Institute. “I believe it’s time to dig for new sources to allow for more independence from the major two political parties.”

Others like Morris Reid, managing director of Westin Rinehart, a political consulting firm, said the black caucus should use other means to gain support for the Pence-Wynn bill.

“Howard Dean needs to cut a deal with the CBC and Al Wynn, or the CBC needs to approach Dean,” Mr. Reid said.

Mr. Walters said the caucus is holding back because it is concerned about the potential corrupting effect of money in politics.

“But the way the rules come down, it is penalizing African-American grass-roots organizations because they have been cut off from the meager funds they used to get … it is in their best interests to go to Dean and ask for his support on the bill,” Mr. Walters said.

Mr. Meeks said that would be “smart politics,” but said the caucus has not discussed the bill at length and that he knows of no plans to do so.

DNC spokesman Josh Earnest said the party has not taken a position on the bill.

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