Blueprint for Political Action?

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So-called “527” organizations drew national attention last year for helping to torpedo the presidential candidacy of Democrat John Kerry with allegations about his military service. But few know that the only 527 organization dedicated to youth issues did the same thing to a Republican congressional candidate – in the unlikely setting of President Bush’s hometown of Crawford, Texas.

Vote Kids, a Washington-based nonprofit formed for political action, launched a campaign lambasting the Republican, a state legislator, as consistently voting against programs that help youth. Post-election polls showed that youth issues were a significant factor among those who voted for the Democratic victor, who calls kids’ issues the cornerstone of his victory.

The results show the potential for youth issues to play a central role in a campaign, under the right circumstances – and the tricky ground that activists must navigate in order to get involved in campaigns without violating federal law.

Walking that ground was Vote Kids President Michael Petit, a youth work veteran who served as deputy director of the Child Welfare League of America until 2001. That’s when he formed two organizations: Every Child Matters, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that advocates public policies favorable to youth, and Vote Kids, formed under section 527 of the federal tax code.

Organizations with 527 status exist to influence elections. If a 527 wants to support specific politicians, it can register with the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) and must adhere to campaign contribution limits. If it does not register with the FEC, it can draw unlimited funding but is limited to informing voters on issues and where candidates stand on those issues.

Vote Kids is in the latter category. Last July, Petit says, he flew to Texas, not to get involved in a campaign, but to raise money for Vote Kids.

There he learned about a race in Texas’ new 17th congressional district, between seven-term U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards (D) and state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth (R).

The 17th was one of five new districts created in Texas last year, in an effort led by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), to increase Republicans’ chances of winning seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Edwards’ old congressional district had essentially been dissolved, with two-thirds of his constituents shifted to other districts. In his new district, 62 percent of the registered voters were Republican.

Petit says people in the local youth field told him that Wohlgemuth was running advertisements “representing herself as a friend of children,” but they saw her as a foe.

Exhibit A was her authorship of state legislation to cut $1 billion from child and family services, much of it coming from the state Child Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). State Republicans said the move saved money for families by lowering state government spending. Edwards spokesman Josh Taylor, says “it just shifted the burden to local taxpayers and emergency rooms,” and that more than 147,500 children will ultimately lose SCHIP coverage because of the legislation.

Wohlgemuth did not respond to repeated calls and e-mails asking for comment for this story.

Vote Kids staff concluded that Wohlgemuth would probably win. But because the race was a hot topic, thanks to the redistricting, and was taking place in “arguably one of the reddest [most Republican] districts in the country,” Petit decided that Vote Kids should help “hold this woman accountable.”

“In area after area after area she was voting ‘no’ on kids,” he says. “She ran ads boasting about the cuts and other ads where she finishes with a strong appeal to her championing children.”

Federal law prohibited Vote Kids from actively seeking a win for Edwards or a loss for Wohlgemuth. Coordination with Edwards, Petit says, “would have been prohibited.”

That’s why he says such things as, “We never set out to beat her [Wohlgemuth], or cause her to lose,” and “We had no interest in Edwards per se.” Petit says he didn’t meet Edwards until after the election.

So what’s a 527 to do?

Getting the Message Out

Starting 45 days before the November election, Vote Kids added a section about Wohlgemuth to its website. It detailed her voting record, which Vote Kids said supported cuts in youth-related programs.

Vote Kids compiled an e-mail distribution list of several thousand activists and community leaders in the district, such as social workers, firefighters and mental health professionals, and regularly sent them information on Wohlgemuth. Vote Kids also “made sure media and op-ed page people knew what her record was,” Petit says.

Next came a direct mailing to independent and Republican women over age 50. Petit hired a direct mailer to distribute “tens of thousands” of jumbo postcards, picturing a little girl and the words, “A is for Abandoned.” The back of the postcard laid out why Wohlgemuth’s record, from Vote Kids’ point of view, had harmed the district’s children.

Petit says Vote Kids spent $50,000 publicizing Wohlgemuth’s record on youth issues.

Edwards made those issues a core of his campaign as well. His advertisements included a widowed mother whose daughter lost SCHIP coverage, followed by a quote from Wohlgemuth: “CHIP has never been one of my priorities.”

During the campaign, Wohlgemuth responded that all but 26,000 of the children removed from CHIP were picked up by Medicaid or were out of the program because their parents did not re-enroll them.

On Election Day, Edwards won by 5 percentage points, the only Democrat to win in any of the state’s five new congressional districts. A poll commissioned by Vote Kids, conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research, found that “kids’ issues” accounted for 11 percent of the difference in the vote between Edwards and Wohlgemuth.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from the campaign, Edwards says, “It’s that children’s issues resonate with voters of both parties and independents. … Youth issues were the cornerstone of my election.”

It’s impossible to measure the impact of Vote Kids, because Edwards pounded youth issues as well. But, he says, “Those direct mail pieces played a significant part in our race.” Most important, he says, was that the mailings saturated the northern part of the new congressional district, which was not part of the district that had re-elected him two years earlier.

An official with the Texas Republican Party says Vote Kids never crossed Wohlgemuth’s radar. “If they did have a big impact, I didn’t hear much about them,” the official says.

Because Vote Kids operates out of a Washington office that houses several “liberal political action groups,” says the official, the Texas GOP sees donating to the group as “just giving money to Democratic candidates to defeat an opponent.”

May as Well Play

To Petit, the results show that “voters will be responsive to politicians that are kind to kids. And they’ll be even more responsive to those who aren’t.”

Around the country, he says, “we’ve done 14 polls, and they all show the same thing: deep voter support for more investments in children. But most Americans don’t know where their politicians are on kids’ issues.”

Nevertheless, he has “a much keener appreciation for why there aren’t more people in the youth field doing this now. We were constantly in touch with our lawyers. ‘Can we say this, can we say that?’ It’s really a ‘Mother, may I?’ situation.”

Some people have called for the elimination of 527 organizations’ involvement in campaigns, which Edwards and Petit say wouldn’t bother them. “But if you want to play in federal politics right now, you have to have 527 status,” Petit says.

Most youth advocacy groups, he says, “really don’t get how the rules of game are laid out and how you’re forced to play within certain boundaries. You do it their way, or you’re weeping on the sidelines and gnashing your teeth.”

Contact: Vote Kids (202) 393-0504, www.votekids.org.