Group Looks to Boost Black Turnout
By Matthew Mosk and Kevin Merida
The leading Democratic candidates for president continue to benefit substantially from spending by outside groups, though efforts have become more aggressive on behalf of the one candidate who was most outspoken against such activity, Barack Obama.
A group called PowerPAC has filed two reports with the Federal Election Committee in the past week revealing that the group spent $43,000 for phone banking efforts in California on Obama's behalf, and another $16,000 for fliers and newspaper ads in publications targeting African American voters.
The effort appears to run counter to comments Obama made earlier in the campaign, when considerable outside efforts were underway for two of his opponents, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards.
Speaking to MSNBC in December, Obama complained bitterly about spending by affiliates of the Service Employees International Union on Edwards's behalf.
"You've got these outside groups that are helping out candidates and it's a way of getting around the campaign finance laws," Obama told the news outlet. "You can't say yesterday you don't believe in 'em, and today you have three quarters of a million dollars being spent for you. You can't just talk the talk. The easiest thing in the world is to talk about change during election time."
Obama's campaign has taken issue with the notion that PowerPAC's work on his behalf is similar to the labor unions that have helped Edwards. It notes that the group backing Edwards was led by one of the candidate's former close advisers. That matters, the campaign said, because outside groups are prohibited from coordinating their efforts with a campaign.
PowerPAC is the product of Steve Phillips, a former school board president in San Francisco who worked on Jesse Jackson's presidential campaigns. Phillips said the organization was created in 2003 to fight California's Proposition 54, which would have barred the state from using racial classifications in most of its business.
He said the current effort is intended to energize and mobilize black voters during the primary season when there traditionally has not been a big push by party operations aimed at black voters. Most efforts to get black voters to the polls are saved for the general election.
Phillips says PowerPAC's campaign is concentrated in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland, Virginia and D.C., where there will be ground efforts to get out the vote as well as ads on black radio and in black newspapers. In South Carolina and Mississippi, there is advertising only. Phillips says PowerPAC plans to spend $2.4 million on the campaign, and has backing from major black donors, whom he wouldn't identify.
"Usually the black efforts are cash-starved," Phillips says, but not this one. "This can be a network that can really impact politics."
There's little question the effort will benefit Obama -- and he is identified as the intended beneficiary of the group's activities on FEC forms. Phillips acknowledges that Obama's decision to run for president was a motivator for PowerPAC. "That fact that Barack was running was going to get more people of color involved in politics."
Ben Jealous, coordinator of PowerPAC's Southeast campaign, says: "We see this as having relevance in the general, whomever the candidate." He added that people can't expect black voters to get fired up in the general election if they've been ignored in the primaries.
PowerPAC has set a goal of increasing black voter participation in the primaries by 2 percent. A key targeted demographic is church-going black women 35 and older.
Meanwhile, other groups that have been engaged since the run-up to Iowa also continue to spend heavily on Clinton's behalf.
The women's group Emily's List and the American Federation of County and Municipal Employees have filed reports indicating they have spent more than $150,000, much of it on mail to voters in New Jersey and Connecticut.
Web Politics Editor
January 26, 2008; 6:52 PM ET
Categories: Primaries , The Democrats , The Hidden Campaign
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