Petite Campaign

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Another liberal child advocate is taking on the elusive task of launching and sustaining an explicitly political pro-kid organization. The taskmaster is Mike Petit, for the past 12 years a senior official at the Child Welfare League of America and a former commissioner of Maine's Department of Human Services. Now Petit is steering through the complex tax and campaign regulatory maze to establish the Children First Campaign. Its sole purpose, says Petit, "is to make children a political priority."

Petit and Maine colleague Tom La Pointe are "working 24/7" to create a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to garner grants from "progressive foundations, and a 501(c)(4) entity that will "support good policy" but, unlike the nation's 770,000 (c)(3)s, will not provide donors with a tax deduction, effectively barring foundation assistance. That (c)(4), in turn will, operate a Section 527 political action committee (PAC) modeled, says Petit, on the now 21-year-old League of Conservation Voters PAC, which in the 2000 election cycle made $4.1 million in contributions to pro-environmental candidates (or against candidates who drew their ire) for partisan political office. Petit reports considerable enthusiasm for the new venture, including from "well-heeled individuals," an essential ingredient in any PAC fund-raising strategy not joined at the hip with business or labor interests. With all the paperwork in order, the Children First Campaign will be formally announced in January. Child advocate supporters, says Petit, view CFC as "another arrow in the quiver."

Using arrows to vanquish officeholders opposed to adequate spending on kids has never had much of a role in progressive child and youth advocacy work. Better, goes the thinking, to proffer the carrot through policy research and arguments extolling eventual government savings, along with the promiscuous use of awards and honors to any politician who can pass a minimal pro-child smell test. Petit plans to adopt the common practice of groups across the political spectrum of rating federal and state officeholders. Petit hopes his Champions of Children First scorecard (and a companion Champions of Children Last list) will become a powerful political tool.

Petit is confidant that the CFC "won't be a storefront operation." But the recent past offers little reason for surging confidence.

In 1970, Jules Sugarman and others created the Children's Lobby to advance federal support for children. Wracked by disputes about its agenda, the group, down to its last $188.29 by July 1972, soon disappeared. In 1981 Bill Harris, a wealthy child advocate in Cambridge, Mass., began KidsPAC with links to an amorphous Senate Children's Caucus. Harris' PAC has raised between $60,000 and $460,000 in each two-year election cycle ever since. Harris welcomes Petit's new PAC, saying, "I think Petit could be enormously successful." But Harris notes that contributions to PACs from individuals are limited to $5,000 per year ($10,000 for a married couple).

KidsPAC's donors have more in common than wanting to help children. Its list of 42 donors for the 2002 elections have strong family ties. At least 12 are Harris', with several other wealthy families constituting the majority of contributors. So far this year KidsPAC has given $26,000 to House Democrats and $35,000 to Senate Democrats. Asked if Republicans ever got KidsPAC donations Harris says, "Sure - Jeffords."

In the 2000 congressional election PAC's made $247.9 million in contributions to all candidates, a record sure to be broken in 2002. That made KidsPAC a mighty thin arrow in flight and the arc, if the Children First Campaign is to hit its target, even steeper. Contact: CFC (202) 393-0504; KidsPAC (617) 413-5048.