Unions, Hollywood open to bankrolling Obama’s advocacy arm

Labor unions and Hollywood donors are open to bankrolling Organizing for Action, the outside group that has been formed in support of President Obama’s second-term agenda.

Traditionally one of the biggest donors to Democrats, unions are considering putting their financial weight behind the group as it tries to harness the grassroots power of Obama’s reelection machine.

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“If Organizing for Action mobilizes or communicates on issues that are directly germane to or beneficial to the interests of professional firefighters, we would consider supporting the effort,” said Kevin O’Connor, head of governmental and political affairs for the International Association of Fire Fighters.

“We want to work with every partner that we can to advance the agenda of working families,” said Brandon Davis, the national political director for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). 

Organizing for Action will reportedly have access to the voter database that helped the president win the White House again in his more than $1 billion reelection bid. Jon Carson, who worked in the White House Office of Public Engagement, is the group’s executive director.

To the dismay of campaign finance reformers, Organizing for Action will operate as a 501(c)(4), a tax-exempt vehicle that was used during the 2012 campaign to evade donor disclosure while spending hundreds of millions of dollars on campaign ads. 

Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, this week said Obama should shut the group down “and remain true to the repeated warnings he has given the nation about the dangers of corporate influence-money and business as usual in Washington.”

Organizing for Action has pledged to reveal its donors to the public, and as a nonprofit group, can accept unlimited contributions from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals.

Former Rep. Bob Edgar (D-Pa.), the president of Common Cause, said Organizing for Action would be an avenue for special interests to gain access to the White House. 

“I think labor is going to give to them. Corporations are going to give to them. Huge wealthy donors are going to give to them. They have no problem with that being known and will want to call up the White House for access,” Edgar said.

Organizing for Action is likely to turn to familiar faces for financial backing as it tries to get off the ground.

Unions were generous backers of Democrats during the 2012 campaign, cutting hefty checks for the convention and Priorities USA Action, the super-PAC that supported Obama’s reelection. Labor officials also opened their wallets to help pay for Obama’s second inauguration.

But unions and Obama don’t always see eye to eye, as was in evidence most recently during the negotiations over the “fiscal cliff,” when the president offered Republicans a cut to Social Security benefits that unions strongly oppose.

While labor officials are expressing enthusiasm about Organizing for Action, they aren’t pledging unconditional financial support. 

“For those in the labor movement, it is going to depend on what that agenda is. … For example, if [Obama] agrees to have the chained CPI for Social Security, we oppose that. If the apparatus moves behind that, we would not be supporting that,” said Bob Nicklas, political action director for the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).

“The devil is in the details.”

The pledge to disclose donors could be a hindrance to Organizing for Action’s fundraising. While major companies were willing to sponsor the Democratic convention and the inauguration, it’s unlikely that others will want to go on record as fully supportive of the president’s agenda.

“There is a whole set of other corporations who like the president but who may be reluctant to give because of disclosure,” Edgar said. “Since we have had the Citizens United decision, corporations who have sensitive brand identity are reluctant to give. Instead, they turn to their executives.”

Even if corporate cash stays on the sidelines, Organizing for Action has a number of donor bases that it can tap for cash, including Hollywood stars and executives.

“While donors are still catching their breath from the election, we expect they will be very generous in support of the president’s ambitious agenda,” said Kevin Ryan with Andy Spahn & Associates, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm that works with Hollywood donors. 

The entertainment industry was a fundraising juggernaut for Obama during his reelection campaign, and has shown a willingness to make the six-figure donations that are the lifeblood of outside groups.

Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation, gave $3 million to Priorities USA Action, while Director Steven Spielberg chipped in $1.1 million.

Labor also opened its coffers for the president. SEIU gave $1 million to Priorities and another $500,000 to the Democratic Party Convention host committee, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Davis said SEIU had a “great partnership” with Priorities during the campaign and is excited about working with Organizing for Action. But he also cautioned that SEIU leaders have yet to consult with members about what groups they will support in the 2014 cycle.

Others in labor were also noncommittal about backing Organizing for Action.

“I don’t know whether we will make a financial contribution. That will be down the road where we will see what we end up with,” said Nicklas of AFGE. “In general, the development of this is very exciting. It puts a huge number of people behind the president’s agenda.”

AFGE, along with the firefighters union and others in labor, were donors to Obama’s 2013 inauguration.

It remains to be seen what role Organizing for Action will play during Obama’s second go-round in the White House.

On its website, the group has highlighted issues like the debt ceiling, healthcare, immigration reform and gun control. On Friday, the group asked members to call their lawmakers and tell them that they support Obama’s gun-control proposals, even providing them with a script.

A focus on immigration, in particular, could help the group attract support from some parts of the labor movement.

“Grassroots activists — including many UFCW members — will be at the forefront of moving President Obama’s second-term agenda, from creating jobs to expanding opportunity to finally passing comprehensive immigration reform. We welcome any apparatus that can help make these progressive goals a reality,” said Tim Schlittner, an official with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW).

Schlittner said the union has not made a decision on whether to contribute to Organizing for Action. UFCW was an inaugural donor, and also gave $250,000 to the convention host committee, according to FEC records.



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