Tone Deaf at CDF

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If Marian Wright Edelman and her Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) is a spent political force, then no one has informed the Democratic Party. For the first time in the 2004 campaign, all nine announced Democratic presidential candidates gathered on the same stage before a crowd of 3,500 as CDF celebrated its 30th anniversary. Almost everyone else in America was relishing the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq that very day.

On stage were the Democratic Party’s starting nine: Sens. Joseph Lieberman (Conn.), John Edwards (N.C.), Bob Graham (Fla.) and John Kerry (Mass.), Reps. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) and Dennis Kucinich (Ohio), former senator Carol Moseley Braun (Ill.), former Vermont governor Howard Dean and the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York. President Bush was invited but declined to attend. The audience, half white, half minority, harbored more Ralph Nader voters than Democratic Party campaign contributors.

Not surprisingly, Dean and Sharpton drew the loudest applause, coming from what can be described as the suicide-bomber wing of the Democratic Party.

Baghdad’s cheering crowds be damned; this was a liberal gathering of the clan looking for harsh anti-Bush rhetoric, and they got it, starting with mistress of ceremonies Edelman. She scorned Bush’s domestic policies as “leave no millionaire behind but leave millions of children behind,” and called on the candidates to endorse the CDF-crafted Dodd-Miller Act to Leave No Child Behind (S 448/HR 936). The only member of Congress on the stage to have done so was Kucinich, who told the audience of anti-poverty activists that as an impoverished child in Cleveland, he moved 38 times, not including family stints living in a car.

Iraq war switch-hitter Kerry said as president he’d “liberate our children ... instead of spending $70,000 a year to house kids in prison.” Dean – who says he’s running from the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” – joined in the considerable trashing of Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. (“Not to be confused with” Dodd’s act, said Wright Edelman). Dean called it the “No School Board Left Standing” act. The master of the one-liner was Sharpton, who said that as president he would “come up with money for the 50 states we already occupy,” rather than for Iraq.

Warming to the anti-war crowd (the candidates split 5-4 on the issue), Kucinich lobbed a “poverty is a weapon of mass destruction” catch phrase into the appreciative audience.

Edwards, the son of a mill worker, labeled Bush’s proposed changes in child welfare policies as “a shoddy fraud.” Gephardt spoke of the “abomination” of the country having 2 million people in prison. Lieberman decried “billion-dollar tax breaks on the backs of our children.” Graham denounced the president’s tax cuts.

So while most Americans were glued to their TVs, enjoying the end of Hussein’s cruel dictatorship, the CDF crowd yearned for a regime change in the White House.

If that happens, it will be in spite of – not because of – the kamikaze wing of the Democratic Party. It will happen because, as former trial lawyer Edwards told the crowd and a CNN audience, making the case against Bush will be “the easiest case I’ve ever had to argue.” But even as the candidates lavished praise on Wright Edelman, her cherished 1,500-page Act to Leave No Child Behind (and its estimated $75 billion-per-year price tag) were barely mentioned and gained no new supporters from among the candidates.

Also missing from the session was the issue of gun control, once a mainstay of the CDF national agenda. One candidate, Dean, ventured an opinion: He supports state-level gun controls but not federal ones. Before the gathering, two of the candidates – Reps. Gephardt and Kucinich – had spent their day working in the House. In its first significant vote on gun control since 1999 – when Congress debated a gun show loophole that was part of an ultimately unsuccessful reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act – the House voted 285-140 for a measure to protect gun-makers and dealers from lawsuits filed by shooting victims and their families when a gun is used in a crime.

Get Practical

Sitting in a front seat at the CDF confab was Mike Petit, a former commissioner of Maine’s Human Services department and deputy director of the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) until June 2001. Now Petit heads a flat-out political group, Every Child Matters (ECM). Petit launched the group, originally known as The Children First Campaign, in the fall of 2001. Petit’s game plan for kids is a sharp departure from the approaches favored in the past by liberal national children and youth groups.
Of CDF, CWLA and similar groups, Petit says contact is “minimal ... They’re focused on policy; we’re focused on politics.”

To that end, Petit has set up a 501(c)3, the Every Child Matters Education Fund. That corporation can solicit and receive tax-exempt contributions. Petit also launched a 501(c)4, Every Child Matters: Americans for a Family-Friendly Congress, which can raise and spend cash, but whose donors get no tax break. That group will function as what is known as a 527 Political Action Committee, raising the soft money now barred from going to organizations affiliated with political parties.

ECM’s initial foray in 2002 into campaign politics drew mixed reviews, even from liberal supporters of kids’ causes. The group spent $700,000 on TV and radio ads in Colorado attacking the voting record of Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.). Allard didn’t even support the federal school lunch program, but won easy re-election. In its other targeted state, Arkansas, ECM picked a winner: Democrat David Pryor, who defeated an incumbent for the U.S. Senate seat.

In the 2004 primary and general election campaigns, ECM has begun to roll out an ambitious and focused plan. Petit has already raised “close to a million bucks” for the 2004 election cycle and expects the total to go “substantially higher.” The group’s D.C. office now employs Petit and six staff. ECM has opened field offices in Des Moines, Iowa, and Concord, N.H. Iowa holds the nation’s first presidential caucus (next Jan. 19), and eight days later New Hampshire holds the first primary.

Running the ECM’s Iowa operations is Karen Erickson, a veteran of Iowa statewide Democratic campaigns and a graduate student at the University of Iowa. In New Hampshire, day-to-day operations are in the hands of Heather Gibson, a former staffer in the Kid’s Cabinet of former Gov. Jean Shaheen. Stefany Shaheen, daughter of the former governor and executive director of Early Learning New Hampshire, serves as an ECM part-time campaign adviser.

Each state operation will soon have five full-time staffers, Petit says. The official launchings will be on May 8 in Concord and May 14 in Des Moines. ECM plans to spend $20,000 on billboards, distribute 50,000 bumper stickers, run radio spots and have signs at airports throughout each state. The issues ECM will emphasize include child abuse prevention, after-school and preschool programs, child health care and youth services.

Petit is confident he will have “enough money to make an impact” and force (at least the Democratic candidates) to engage with rank-and-file voters on children’s issues.

In the quirky world of Democratic primaries, will CDF’s education-based strategy turn on and turn out voters next spring and in November? Or will ECM’s direct political action approach gain wide support? So far, at least among the 3 to 4 million non-teachers who work in the children and youth field, the CDF approach wins the all-important “I feel comfortable” contest over raw political engagement. While progressive foundations, such as Packard, Robert Wood Johnson and, most recently, the W.T. Grant Foundation (with $200,000) have supported ECM, few service providers or salaried advocates have written a check. For at least the 5,000 people who attended the CDF conference, a better deal was to be had spending an average of $1,000 apiece in expenses to cheer on the Democratic roster.

Contact: Children’s Defense Fund (202) 628-8787,; Every Child Matters (202) 393-0504,

Nuns’ Tale

The youth-work careers of two Roman Catholic nuns present a study in contrasting leadership styles in managing a multi-service youth agency.

One agency, Bridge Over Troubled Waters in Boston, is locally admired and nationally acclaimed by service providers working with runaway, homeless and alienated teens. Since its founding in 1970 by a group that included three Sisters of St. Joseph, the agency has stayed decidedly local with its deep community ties supporting an array of high-quality programs, ranging from an evening medical van to a single-parent residential group home.

Sister Barbara Whelan recently stepped aside after 33 years as founding director. She was succeeded by Genny Price, an up-through-the ranks youth worker at Bridge since 1977. Sister Whelan and her fellow Catholic sisters, Barbara Scanlon and Marie Kough, opened Bridge in a small basement office, a block from the state capitol and the Boston Common. Slowly, the three nuns built Bridge into a 42-person, $3.2 million cutting-edge agency. Sister Scanlon is now director of an outreach ministry at Holy Family Cathedral in Anchorage, Alaska. Sister Kough has retired.

There was no scarcity of troubled waters during Whelan’s tenure, most notably in successfully fending off the unwelcomed advances of two priests later accused of being serial molesters of young people in their care. One, the Rev. Paul Shanley, sits in a Massachusetts jail awaiting trial on three counts of child rape. In the 1970s, Shanley cultivated an image as a crusading hip street priest struggling alone to save the city’s most vulnerable teens. While Shanley garnered public kudos from church and state, the sisters and their colleagues provided real assistance.

As if one rotten priest weren’t enough, the late Father Bruce Ritter took aim at heavily Catholic Boston (and its direct-mail potential) and announced in 1983 that his Covenant House operation would open a 150-bed facility for homeless youth a few blocks from Bridge. An appalled Sister Whelan took Ritter on publicly, and soon the arrogant priest and his Covenant House staff were ignominiously banned in Boston.

Founded in 1972, Covenant House’s business strategy under Ritter was the opposite of Sister Whelan’s. Ritter craved publicity, feigned sincere piety, disparaged all other service providers and steadily built his celebrity status and direct-mail list. The results were astounding: By 1991, Covenant House had a budget of more than $100 million, with 16 programs based in the United States and six in Latin America.

But Ritter, who was singled out as an “unsung hero” in President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 State of the Union address (and served on Attorney General Ed Meese’s pornography commission with the likes of savings and loan thief Charles Keating), continued his child predatory ways until March 1991, when he resigned after tales of his exploits became public. In hindsight, few who worked closely with Ritter were surprised he got caught. What enabled Ritter’s decades-long criminal behavior was a core of loyal staff, who were either compromised by their own questionable actions or at best simply looked the other way.

By the time Sister Mary Rose McGeady was plucked from Brooklyn in late 1990 (where the veteran social worker was associate director of Catholic Charities) to run Covenant House, the place was undergoing full meltdown. Donations had dropped by one-third, says Communications Director Richard Hirsch, and its debt rose to $38 million.

Close observers expected Sister McGeady to clean house, starting with Ritter’s loyal-to-the-bitter-end deputy, Jim Harnett. Instead, only those senior staff directly implicated in the sex abuse and financial scandals were removed. To this day, some Covenant House staffers insist that Ritter’s guilt was never proven, certainly not in a court of law. A decade later, no Catholic priest accused of multiple sex attacks on children is likely to dodge prosecution as Ritter did.

After 13 years of rehabilitation work at New York-based Covenant House, Sister McGeady is slated to move on soon after she turns 75 in June. Covenant House’s bylaws specify that its CEO must be a Catholic priest, brother or sister. Her carefully orchestrated departure is in sharp contrast to the abrupt exit of Ritter.

While Ritter left behind carnage, Sister McGeady leaves Covenant House’s finances in great shape. In 2002, the group – which now operates programs in 15 U.S. cities, as well as in Canada (Toronto and Vancouver), Mexico and three Central American countries – had a budget of almost $117 million. An amazing $97 million came from Covenant House’s relentless direct-mail campaigns, while $4.8 million came from special events and $15 million from government sources. That’s twice the government support the group received in 1998. Some 800,000 donors give annually to Covenant House.

While Bridge is revered in Boston, it keeps its political distance from the ecclesiastical and temporal powers of the day. Not so Covenant House under Ritter or Sister McGeady. When President George W. Bush announced his faith-based initiative in January 2001, Sister Mary Rose was at his side.

Claims by advocates of the Bush administration’s faith-based initiative that the federal government has long discriminated against faith-based service providers are hard to prove using the funding histories of Bridge and Covenant House. Each has received direct federal funding since 1974. This year Congress, urged on by lobbyist John McMahon, earmarked almost $2 million for Covenant House, including $250,000 for its program in Los Angeles, $500,000 for Philadelphia and $1,225,000 for Washington. Bridge’s federal grants, mostly from the Family and Youth Service Bureau in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, are all competitive and totaled $647,000.

Contact: Covenant House (212) 613-0300,; Bridge Over Troubled Waters (617) 423-9575,