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Politics

Democrats Grumbling About Obama Lobbying Shop

DNC activists anticipate power struggle between president, party leaders.

Even though Obama's new advocacy group is being operated outside of the DNC, chairman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (left) says she isn't concerned.(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

photo of Beth Reinhard
January 23, 2013

Even as Democrats relish President Obama’ second inauguration, some party leaders are worried about whether the campaign’s decision to form its own advocacy group will hamstring future generations of Democratic candidates.

Several of the president’s top political advisers and the campaign’s gold mine of a voter database will be housed not at the national party, but at a tax-exempt group called Organizing for Action. It’s the next phase of the year-round campaign apparatus formed after the 2008 campaign to capitalize on Obama’s unprecedented grassroots network and help implement his agenda, only now it will be separate from the Democratic National Committee.

Some activists foresee a power struggle between the national party, which aims to elect Democrats above all else, and the new group, which aims to build the president's legacy -- and may have to pressure wavering swing-state Democrats to tow the unapologetically liberal agenda laid out in his inauguration speech.

 

But Democratic National Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said Tuesday that she was “thrilled” that the president’s campaign would continue as Organizing for Action.

“We can’t start from scratch every four years,” Wasserman Schultz said, after winning election to a second term as committee chairman. “Organizing for Action will enable us to keep those volunteers mobilized and organized and get more of those grassroots volunteers involved in campaigns so that our work at the Democratic Party can continue to be about electing Democrats up and down the ballot.

While Wasserman Schultz said the two political arms would work hand in hand, not all party leaders are convinced.

“We speak Pennsylvania,” said the Pennsylvania Democratic party chairman Jim Burns, "so if you come into Montgomery County and set up shop, you better talk to the party chairman there before you start walking in his backyard. If they don’t engage with us they will be stepping on a lot of land mines.”

Burns added that Obama, Sen. Bob Casey and three other Democrats won statewide in November “because OFA worked with us, not around us.”

Fred Hudson, vice chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party, said OFA would inevitably weaken the traditional party structure.

“We need a unified organization that will bring about victories in 2013 and 2014, and we don’t need to be splitting our efforts,” said Hudson, alluding to his state’s high-stakes race for governor this year. “It’s a recipe for how to lose an election. We’ve been told there will be no competition for fundraising, but that’s difficult for me to accept, and there will certainly be competition for staff and volunteers.”

Other Democrats say Obama’s second-term ambitious agenda, including gun control, immigration reform and climate change, demands a separate organization. “I’m thrilled there’s an activist-oriented organization that’s already developed relationships at the grassroots level that will get these issues passed,” said Cindy Lerner, a Miami-area mayor and longtime party leader.

In keeping with the spirit of the Obama campaign, Organizing for Action is been regularly blasting out e-mails and asking for input. More than one thousand people attended its first meeting on Sunday

The previous incarnation, Organizing for America, had mixed success at transitioning the volunteers who had knocked on doors, worked phone banks and registered voters into becoming lobbyists for the administration’s agenda. The challenge of sustaining the energy of a presidential campaign still exists, and it’s unclear how much voter information Organizing for Action will share with the traditional party committees.

“This is their Declaration of Independence to focus on the president’s legislative goals,” said Donna Brazile, a DNC vice chair, adding, “I’m sure the president and vice president will continue raising money for us.”

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