Monday, December 20, 2004

Goodbye Bedford Falls, Hello Pottersville


Action Alert & Advocacy Campaign, on-line & streets of Durham/Raleigh/Chapel Hill NC, Dec 2004 - Jan 2005

In the Christmas classic It’s A Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart’s good-hearted character George Bailey learns a valuable lesson. As shown by his guardian angel, if he had never been born, his beloved small town Bedford Falls would have become a cesspool of fast-buck commercialism. In Pottersville, named for the greedy local banker Old Man Potter, Main Street is a red light district, with liquor stores and pawn shops on every corner.

The message was clear. Pottersville stands for everything communities don’t want to be – a demoralized, despairing, hopeless place, where greed has replaced investment in long-term needs. Yet Pottersville is the kind of future America’s communities could face if changes proposed by the Bush Administration are adopted that would alter how our nation’s financial institutions are regulated.

The agency proposing this Pottersville scheme is the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS), which regulates the nation’s thrifts, aka savings & loans (S&L’s). The legislation it would affect is the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), enacted in 1977 and strengthened during the Clinton years. CRA requires banks and thrifts to provide banking services to low and middle-income neighborhoods. The OTS is accepting public comment through January 24, 2005 (regs.comments@ots.treas.gov, include No. 2004-53 in subject line) on proposed changes to how CRA is enforced, and now is the time for concerned citizens to speak out against these ill-conceived proposals.

Specifically, the OTS wants to reduce the regulatory burden on thrifts to a point where CRA would become meaningless. Earlier this fall, the OTS pushed through another change that weakened CRA. The agency exempted thrifts with less than $1 billion in assets from having to meet the most rigorous CRA tests, an increase from the previous level of $250 million. Other government agencies such as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which regulates some banks, are closely watching how much public outcry greets the proposals being floated by OTS, with an eye towards advancing their own, similar proposals to gut the CRA.

Currently, banks and thrifts are periodically graded to make sure they are fulfilling their obligations under CRA to serve low and middle income communities. The CRA exam for large thrifts includes three parts - lending, investment, and service tests. Under the OTS proposal, large thrifts will be allowed to eliminate their investment or service tests or decide how heavily they want to weight each part, as long as lending does not fall below 50% of the total test. Allowing thrifts to design their own exams makes a mockery of CRA’s intent, which is to ensure financial institutions uphold their responsibilities to serve all citizens.


Letting the thrift industry police itself would put the foxes in charge of the henhouse. And why tamper with legislation that’s widely heralded as a success? The New York Times reports that housing groups credit the CRA for funneling more than $1.5 trillion into low income neighborhoods since its inception. These investments have funded affordable housing, medical clinics, and other worthy community development projects. They have kept communities from becoming like Pottersville by nurturing small businesses and helping more Americans become homeowners.

Even Mel Martinez, President Bush’s first housing secretary and now a Republican senator-elect from Florida, has praised CRA for its role in building healthy communities and expanding home ownership. The CRA has changed banks and thrifts for the better by preventing them from discriminating against poor and minority loan applicants. If CRA is weakened, banks and thrifts will reduce their commitments to low and middle income communities. More consumers will be forced into predatory lending traps such as subprime mortgages, payday loans, and high-priced check cashing services. Old Man Potter would be proud.

Making paperwork requirements less burdensome to businesses is a worthy goal, but in this case, the Office of Thrift Supervision seems intent on throwing the baby out with the bath water. Allowing thrifts to design their own CRA exams will remove all incentives for them to comply with the law. Without proper enforcement, legislation will be gutted that has worked well for nearly three decades to channel investments into communities that need it the most.

You can take action to stop these proposed changes to CRA. This misguided proposal seeks to subvert the public interest, and counts on lack of public awareness and outrage to succeed. Express yourself by sending comment via letter or e-mail to the Office of Thrift Supervision.

Comments are due by Monday, January 24, 2005. You can e-mail the OTS at regs.comments@ots.treas.gov, and include the OTS docket number, No. 2004-53, in the subject line of your e-mail. Or fax a letter to (202) 906-6518. Or mail it to Regulation Comments, Chief Counsel's Office, Office of Thrift Supervision, 1700 G Street, NW, Washington, DC 20552, Attention: No. 2004-53. If you prefer to sign an on-line form letter, click here.

This isn’t just a Christmas story. The fight against Pottersville is a battle our nation’s communities can’t afford to lose.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Two Deaths, One America

Independent Weekly, Durham NC, 6-16-04

   
   

Last week it was hard not to notice a great American had died. There were front page newspaper stories, TV coverage, and the radio waves were filled with his voice. On Friday, every post office in the nation shut down in his honor. Well, at least we can dream the person we're talking about had been Ray Charles, and not Ronald Wilson Reagan.

They say famous deaths come in threes, but in this case, two was enough to put an ironic spin on the week's events. Repeatedly, corporate media talking heads told us why Ronnie was worthy of saintly status. They called him an enduring symbol of our nation's freedom, an optimist who ended the Cold War, and lots of other fawning superlatives. Glossed over was any mention of Reagan's legacy as a divider, a politician who spent much of the 1970's traveling the country peddling thinly veiled racism, telling white audiences made-up anecdotes about welfare queens driving Cadillacs.

While being interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air in 1998, Ray Charles reminded us that music isn't about color, and that's what makes it so beautiful. He reminisced about the integrated world of the big bands and jazz musicians of the 40's and 50's, and talked of how he'd once toured with a "hillbilly" band known as the Florida Playboys. At the same time, in Hollywood, the future 40th President of the United States was helping Joe McCarthy conduct a witch hunt in the U.S. film industry as head of the Screen Actors Guild. Instead of standing up against McCarthyism and red-baiting, Reagan was one of its cheerleaders, ruining the lives of numerous blacklisted actors, writers, and other professionals.

Both men were born poor, but only one of them remembered where he came from. As President, Reagan used his political power to curtail the opportunities available to the less fortunate by cutting social programs and giving tax cuts to the wealthy. Predictably, the rich got richer while the poor got poorer. From his bully pulpit, Reagan preached that government was the problem, not any kind of solution, and staffed federal agencies with rabid true believers who shared this limited vision. That is, when they weren't far right-wing religious zealots like Attorney General Ed Meese, the ideological ancestor of John Ashcroft, who saw pornography and pot as the biggest threats facing America. James Watt, Reagan's first Secretary of the Interior, admitted to Congress in 1981 he didn't think there was a true need to protect the environment, because "I don't know how many future generations we can count on until the Lord returns."


It should be obvious that Ray Charles' music reached across lines to touch all Americans. He pioneered the mixing of musical genres, creating a gumbo of gospel, rhythm and blues that nearly singlehandedly spawned the sound eventually known as soul music. In the early 60's, he began recording country songs, making it clear that for Ray Charles, music knew no boundaries. And at a time when controversy could have been career ending for him, Ray Charles showed the true meaning of courage by actively supporting the civil rights movement - playing benefits, contributing his money and time.

The only time Reagan ever made an attempt to reach out to black Americans was when he invited the New York City Breakers to showcase their breakdancing moves for him and Nancy at the Lincoln Center. During Reagan's first term, this country suffered through the harshest recession in two generations. Factories closed, jobs were lost, and the safety net was slashed. But as hard as times were for whites, for black Americans, it was more like another Depression. Black voters remembered how his policies had brought pain to their communities, and rewarded Reagan with just 9% of their votes in 1984.

It is likely they also remembered the numerous symbolic steps Reagan took to exploit racism among white voters, like kicking off his 1980 Presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a town infamous for the murder of three civil rights workers on June 21, 1964. While Reagan's casket was flying coast to coast last week, another memorial ceremony was coincidentally underway as a caravan of volunteers remembered the legacy of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner by embarking on a bus tour voter registration drive from New York to Mississippi, including a planned stop in Greensboro. A young congressman from Mississippi named Trent Lott was among those who urged Reagan to begin his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, and the speech Reagan gave that day called for renewed respect of "states rights," time honored code words for a return to segregation.

Above and beyond his overt support for the civil rights movement, his authorship of songs like "Hit The Road Jack" that were later adapted as freedom songs, and his personal friendship with Martin Luther King Jr., Ray Charles played a largely unrecognized role in helping end segregation forever. In the post-WWII era, black and white musicians started making music together, appearing together on stage, and borrowing from each other's musical traditions. Artists like Benny Goodman, Johnny Ray, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley paid homage to black music, while Chuck Berry, Nat Cole and Sammy Davis Jr. crossed over to whites. As musicians integrated, their audiences followed, and mixed crowds enjoying performances by mixed bands became more common. The cultural foundations of segregation were undermined, and leading the charge of this new movement in colorblind musical styles was Ray Charles.

Reagan's critics never got much mileage out of pointing out he was an actor, playing the role of the President. But today we can look back and realize Reagan's presidency was all smoke and mirrors. If, as Reagan claimed, he didn't know what Oliver North, John Poindexter and the other criminals on his National Security Council were doing while they were selling weapons to Iran and using the profits to fund an undeclared war in Nicaragua, then we see how he was truly just a figurehead. The alternative, that he was aware of Iran-Contra, and lied to the country to cover it up, would merely be more evidence of his acting skills. It's fitting that his funeral itself was meticulously staged, working from a 130-page "script" drawn up by Ronnie and Nancy in the mid-1990's, before his Alzheimer's reached the final stages.

So reflecting on the passing of these two Americans, what will be their true place in history? In the final analysis it's how they will be remembered in people's hearts and minds. Last week the national Republican Party tried hard to canonize Reagan and create a national week of mourning to rival what greeted JFK's assassination in 1963. They undoubtedly hoped a fringe benefit might be to provoke a burst of pro-Republican sentiment in the country at large and help boost George W. Bush's recently sagging poll ratings.

But the sad truth is that the crowds who turned out to honor Reagan were nearly all white, and mostly self-described Republicans to begin with. Thinking back on the two men, and what they did with their lives, it's not hard to see why in contrast, all of America mourns Ray Charles.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Apprentice to Greed


Independent Weekly, Durham NC, 4-21-04

If you've been suffering from Donald Trump overload lately, you're not alone. Maybe you caught him hosting Saturday Night Live, or heard about him trying to trademark the words "you're fired." Maybe you saw the same catch phrase on the cover of Newsweek, or in a Doonesbury cartoon, or walking down the street on somebody's t-shirt or trucker's hat. The Donald's first star turn flamed out around the time the eighties did, but since crony capitalism's back in style, brought to us by Bush, Cheney & Co., even a poster child for excessive greed and tasteless displays of wealth gets a second act.

So it makes sense that Trump's riding the wave of reality TV. He's an opportunist, and there's gold in them hills. Whether you're a Bachelorette or an Average Joe, a would-be Survivor or American Idol, there's a show out there for you. We're slowly entertaining ourselves to death, and reality TV is our current mind-numbing weapon of choice.

The Apprentice is the latest brainstorm from Mark Burnett, the creative force behind Survivor. It stars The Donald, and sixteen pumped-up young entrepreneurs who want to learn, like The Donald's new book instructs, How To Get Rich. By competing to be the last one not fired, one of them will win a job in the Trump Organization, and get to run one of The Donald's companies for a year. This should be a tip-off right away that the show's contestants aren't the brightest bulbs on the shelf. If you finish first in other reality shows, you actually win money. However, as some contestants proved through repeated acts of fawning adulation, there are Americans out there who worship Trump as an icon of business success. It's the public image he has skillfully peddled over the past two decades, and one that's often been at odds with the ups and downs of his shaky financial empire.

But no matter. This season, The Apprentice has consistently ranked among the top ten most watched network TV shows. And that brings us to the problem. Or problems, which go way beyond some common complaints about the show. Not that these complaints don't have merit. There's the issue of how the show's producers set back the cause of women's lib by fifty years in the earliest episodes, when the female contestants shamelessly used their sexual attributes to outperform the men in tasks like selling lemonade on the streets of New York and boosting alcohol sales at a restaurant. And persistent doubts about whether some of the contestants were actors, and how meaningful a job running one of The Donald's companies will turn out to be. According to reports, initially he planned to fob the winner off on an obscure division.

The show does disservice to the idea of corporate citizenship by celebrating The Donald as a model tycoon. At least Bill Gates gives away millions to improve Third World health care. With Trump, we're talking about a man whose most lasting contribution to humanity so far has been buying and redeveloping buildings in order to turn overpriced real estate in Manhattan into even more overpriced real estate. Oh, and bringing us Trump Ice, the bottled water that The Donald assures is the "purest, best tasting water you can imagine."

Let's face it, Trump has an exaggeration problem. He calls it "truthful hyperbole." That means he can say anything he likes to his show's twenty-odd million viewers, such as "I'm the biggest real estate developer in New York," when it's clear by most yardsticks, he isn't. Or that his Trump Taj Mahal casino is "The No. 1 hotel" in Atlantic City, when in reality, the casino and the rest of Trump's gambling empire is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

Even when it comes to his show's ratings numbers, which have been a bright spot for NBC all season long, Trump can't help exaggerating. While hosting Saturday Night Live on April 2nd, Trump claimed The Apprentice was atop the TV heap. Although the program has been one of the top ten most watched shows on network television, it's also been regularly beaten by Fox's American Idol and Mark Burnett's other hit reality show, Survivor, which airs on CBS. The week Donald claimed to be #1, The Apprentice clocked in at fifth in the Nielson ratings.

It's hard to know where to begin to catalog Donald's many less-than-truthful hyperboles. Trump's latest book is called How To Get Rich, but Trump was born wealthy. In fact, many observers say the majority of his personal holdings consists of the residential and commercial real estate in Brooklyn and Queens he inherited from his father, Fred Trump, who died in 1999. Most of the rest of his empire is co-owned by investors and banks. His casino and hotel business, the only publicly traded part of Trump's holdings, carries $1.8 billion in debt. Last year, its interest payments alone were $228.5 million, versus income of $139.4 million. Overall, the company lost $87.3 million in 2003, and Donald had to forgo a $1.5 million bonus. But he still earned $1.5 million as chairman and CEO of Trump Hotels & Casino, and got to use the corporate jet.

The more you look at the facts behind Trump Hotels, the more it starts to resemble a house of cards a la Enron, WorldCom, or Tyco International. The company has never turned a profit since it first went public in the mid-1990's. Its former auditor was Arthur Andersen, disgraced by its own role in recent corporate scandals. In 2002, Trump Hotels became the first company to be charged by the SEC under new regulations prohibiting abuse of "pro forma" accounting, for including an unusual one-time payment to artificially boost its quarterly results during the third quarter of 1999. Shares of the company, which trade under Trump's initials, DJT, have plunged from a high of $34 in 1996 to approximately $3 today.

Trump ducks any responsibility for the many problems with his casino business. He told the New York Times last month that "this has nothing to do with me, this has to do with a company in which I'm a major shareholder." Indeed, Trump owns 56% of Trump Hotels, but may not be majority shareholder in the company much longer. In order to receive a $400 million loan from a unit of Credit Suisse First Boston, he is being forced to restructure the company's $1.8 billion debt. If he can't reach agreement with his bondholders, which under current proposals would leave him with a 20% stake, the company might file for bankruptcy.

Unlike Trump Hotels, most of Trumps holdings remain private. So there is no accurate way to judge his exact net worth. But while he's been claiming to be a billionaire for nearly twenty years, and told ABC's Cokie Roberts in 2000 that "I made billions of dollars," it's highly improbable he's ever come close. When recently asked by the New York Times to name properties in New York which he owned outright, he listed 40 Wall Street and "many things," but declined further specifics. Again, most of his highest profile projects like high rises and golf courses are co-owned by outside investors who back him in exchange for his property management services and the Trump brand name.

Beyond the real estate he inherited, he's long championed his own development projects as examples of self-made success. Yet in developing his first major "signature" project, Trump Tower, Trump abused tax breaks granted him by New York City that were originally intended to encourage the construction of low-income housing, and instead used them to build $3 million worth of luxury condos. Have you noticed a pattern yet? Maybe Trump is the perfect host of a reality TV show after all, a ringmaster of the fake pretending to be real. It's like the funhouse of the Trump World Tower in Manhattan, which has ninety floors, according to the elevators, but only if you skip eighteen numbers on the way up.

At a time when 2.2 million jobs have been lost in this country over the past three years, The Apprentice makes a mockery of real work by glorifying a phony like Donald Trump. And in a more practical sense, the show also paints a false portrait of how the business world operates. USA Today convened a panel of real-life CEO's and corporate consultants to discuss how true to life were the tasks and problems given to the show's contestants. They mostly agreed the show was way off base.

But the show's absolutely most grievous crime has been...are you ready? Its choice of a theme song. "For The Love Of Money," by the O'Jays, originally released in 1973, is a searing indictment of the culture of greed. Lines like "Money is the root of all evil," "Some people do bad things with it...you got to do good things with it," and "People holding money, don't let money change you," are just a few of the song's socially conscious messages that made it clear which side of the coin the O'Jays were on. All of these lines, predictably, have been digitally edited out by the producers of The Apprentice, leaving instead a few toothless vocal samples singing the praises of "Dollar bills, c'mon now."

Now, I don't blame whoever sold them the rights to this song. Artists have got to eat, especially pioneering soul and funk artists whose gospel-influenced message music is too powerful to be played on today's politically whitewashed, Clear Channel-controlled, national radio airwaves. I blame The Donald, Mark Burnett, the suits at NBC, and their puppet masters at General Electric, for thrusting yet another helping of slickly produced corporate propaganda in our faces.

If we watch enough footage of would-be Apprentices being canned by The Donald in his make-believe Boardroom, we might forget about the corporate scandals still going on in real boardrooms around the country. We might forget that corporate malfeasance is causing hard working employees and investors to lose their jobs, savings, and 401(k) plans. We might forget that George W. Bush is up for re-election this year, and big businesses are salivating at the prospect of four more years of the freedom to outsource and offshore as many jobs as they can. Or the freedom to gobble up competitors in mega-mergers and achieve cost savings through massive layoffs. Or to award their executives multi-million dollar golden pay packages even while denying average workers raises and telling them they're lucky to still have a job. We might forget, in short, that what's good for Donald Trump is not good for America.

Friday, April 9, 2004

Silencing the Non-Profit Lambs

The News & Observer, Raleigh NC, 4-9-04

It must be a giddy time to be a far right-wing Republican. The Republican Party controls both houses of Congress. George W. Bush has turned out to be the most stubbornly conservative, right-wing President ever. Now, along comes the icing on the cake, and they're licking their chops like hungry wolves. Let's face it, extreme-right Republicans aren't crazy about groups devoted to causes like environmental protection, civil rights, and a woman's right to choose. Suddenly they think they've finally found a way to put America's pesky do-gooder non-profit and public interest organizations out of business. Or at least out of the business of speaking out on issues in any meaningful way.

In an ironic twist, the weapon the Republicans hope to use to silence the non-profit lambs ends up being campaign finance reform laws. Specifically, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, passed mostly by Democrats in 2002 against fierce Republican opposition. Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky actually filed suit to stop the law from taking effect, until the Supreme Court ruled against him late last year.

Like most attempts at campaign finance reform, McCain-Feingold was designed to get big money out of politics. Its main effect was a ban on so-called "soft money" donations to the national parties. Previously, the Republicans and Democrats could solicit donations of unlimited amounts from corporations, unions, interest groups, and wealthy donors, and spend soft money on anything defined as "party-building" activities, from issue-oriented TV ads to get-out-the-vote drives. During the 2000 election cycle, Republicans raised $250 million in soft money, and the Democrats, $245 million. Now, the parties must raise "hard money," in contributions from individuals that are regulated and limited in size.

But McCain-Feingold also had another, largely unintended consequence. It included a directive Republicans are now trying hard to exploit. The law contains language that says any group trying to "influence" federal elections must register as a political committee. Can you see them drooling yet? Following the Supreme Court decision upholding McCain-Feingold, in February the Federal Election Commission (FEC) proposed additional rules for enforcing its provisions. The rules they are now considering, and accepting public comments on through April 9th
mailto:politicalcommitteestatus@fec.gov, are strongly supported by the Republican National Committee. The FEC will hold public hearings on the rules April 14-15, and a final decision could come by mid-May, with the rules to take effect as early as July, 2004.

News coverage of these proposed changes has primarily focused on the threat they pose to the voter mobilization activities of 527 groups like the MoveOn.org Voter Fund or Americans Coming Together. These groups get their name from section 527 of the tax code, which covers groups that engage in politics, while not expressly advocating the election or defeat of individual candidates. Less noticed have been the potential these rules have to affect the ability of a broad range of other non-profit groups to communicate with the public. If adopted, they would have a chilling effect on the activities of many established non-profit and public interest groups.

One rule would expand the definition of a "political committee" to include many non-profits who take positions on public policy issues yet do not consider electoral politics their primary mission. A group would be forced to become a "political committee" and allowed to raise only hard money if it spends $50,000 or more in the current year or any one of the past four years on any public communication that "promotes, supports, attacks or opposes" any federal candidate, or on nonpartisan voter registration or get out the vote programs.

What kind of campaign finance reform declares nonpartisan voter registration a partisan political activity that can no longer be funded by ordinary charitable donations? In an era when half of all eligible U.S. voters don't participate in elections, why is the FEC considering making it harder for non-profit groups to conduct nonpartisan voter registration and voter turnout programs?

It gets worse, and again, the devil's in the definitions. Another proposed rule would expand the definition of a federally regulated "expenditure" to include communications that “promote, support, attack, or oppose” not only federal candidates, but their policy positions. So according to the FEC, commenting on a candidate's position statements won't be covered by something called the First Amendment. This is a radical departure from established campaign regulations that have worked well for years. FEC guidelines already restrict non-profits from engaging in "political speech." To suddenly expand this definition to include all speech about all candidates for federal office would be ludicrous.

There's also a retroactive clause thrown in for good measure. If the proposed rules pass, the FEC will "look back" at a non-profit group's activities over the past four years, to determine whether the group should be re-classified as a political committee. Never mind that McCain-Feingold only passed in 2002, and the FEC only proposed these rules this year. Even if a group played by the rules in the past, they'll be penalized tomorrow. If non-profit groups are re-classified as political committees, the FEC will require them to raise hard money to repay old expenses now covered by the new rules. Their activities will be forcibly halted until they've paid in full for supposed soft money sins of the past.

Theoretically, under these proposed rules, groups like the League of Women Voters would be re-classified as political committees if they spent more than $50,000 in 2004 sending letters urging community members to vote because it was their "civic duty." Advocacy groups such as NARAL would be prevented from contacting activists and urging them to call their members of Congress to oppose a bill banning all abortions. Rock The Vote, which works to boost nonpartisan youth voter turnout, would be forced to stop accepting money from traditional charitable sources, including corporations and foundations. A policy oriented group like the Concord Coalition that advocates a balanced budget would be banned from using records of corporate contributions to elected officials to let the public know how candidates stand on budget issues.

It's not just the liberal non-profit lambs who are endangered. In a February letter to the FEC, conservative interest groups including the National Right To Life Committee and the Club For Growth also spoke out against the FEC's proposed rules, claiming that "the issue is democracy, not political or ideological advantage," and "as a matter of principle, all voices should be heard and not reduced to silence by overly burdensome restrictions." All kinds of non-profits are threatened by these new rules, including educational groups, charities, churches, and trade associations.

But on this question, the far right-wing in control of the national Republican party is content to sacrifice its own ideological supporters. They figure there's more liberal non-profits than conservative ones doing troublesome things like nonpartisan voter registration and providing the public with useful information about public policy issues.

It's yet another example of how the old, established rules of civility in political combat no longer apply if you're a right-wing Republican in 2004 desperately seeking to hold onto political power. Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay masterminded the passage of a blatantly partisan redistricting plan in Texas solely designed to elect more Republicans to Congress and help make him Speaker of the House. George W. Bush has used recess appointments to elevate unqualified, right-wing ideologues to the Federal judiciary who couldn't get confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Now the far right hopes to bully the FEC into silencing non-profit groups and calling it campaign finance reform. Concerned Americans of all political persuasions should call it an outrage.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Confessions of a John Edwards for President Volunteer

E-mail to friend of Elizabeth Edwards, 2-10-04

Get somebody, anybody to answer the Edwards campaign’s phones!

"In most ways, the day to day operations are run in an extremely professional manner. I think the campaign has adjusted remarkably well to the reversal of fortune John's surprise second showing in Iowa afforded them. However, it's a hard thing to run a national campaign for the first time, especially after the entire staff's spent a year working as hard as they could only to feel like they were running in place, and hearing pundits count their candidate out before the first votes were cast. So growing pains are still obvious.

One area that’s lacking is local volunteer recruitment and retention. The reality is that right now, there's no one person responsible for making sure there's a full regiment of local volunteers on hand AT ALL TIMES, for phonebanking, letter writing, envelope stuffing, mailings, whatever. The staff members who are responsible for volunteer coordination are amazing, but (a) they're responsible for coordinating volunteers all over the country, not just in Raleigh, and (b) they're not from here themselves, which diminishes their effectiveness when it comes to knowing where to look to find untapped sources of local folks.

The reason this is such an important issue is because volunteer efforts like phonebanking, centralized and coordinated at campaign HQ, can make the difference in a tight race. Assuming enough people are in the seats to do the dialing. For example, John narrowly lost Oklahoma by 1,300 votes on Feb. 3. We placed GOTV calls to South Carolina voters all day long that Tuesday, and switched to Oklahoma around 4 pm EST, once the exit polls showed John winning by a comfortable margin in S.C. but struggling to pull out a victory in OK. We placed over 4,000 calls in four hours. With an hour to go before the polls closed, it was chaos, we were grabbing any staff member in the office who was available and giving them numbers to dial from the phones on their desks.

Hindsight is 20/20, but that Monday, one day earlier, we didn't have enough volunteers on hand to make hardly any calls. And sure, lots of folks helping with the campaign had gone to South Carolina for the weekend, but there are plenty of volunteers in the Triangle who can't travel out of state, but who are more than willing to drive to Raleigh and make phone calls for a few hours. If the callers had been there, more calls would have been made, and at least there might have been a chance to make a difference in the race.

So for this past weekend, we set up four days of phonebanking, from Saturday through today. The result? John placed second in both Tennessee and Virginia, edging Clark, and forcing him out of the race. In the most important contest, Tennessee, he beat Clark by over 12,000 votes.

Obviously, GOTV calls were only one piece in the winning puzzle. But when I walked into the office on Friday, we'd scheduled four days of phonebanking and had virtually nobody on the schedule to come in and make the calls. So I sat down, and got commitments from nearly 30 callers before the afternoon was over. If I hadn't been there, what would have happened? Would those calls have been made? Somebody else would have done it, but when? Everyone else had other, equally pressing projects to deal with. As a further sign that we're not doing a good job of tapping into local folks, one of the people I called and asked to come in actually worked for John in the past, she served as volunteer coordinator during his '98 Senate race! She said she had been wondering if anyone was ever going to call her, and that she had just been rounding up folks to help out with two other charitable volunteer efforts that day. Why haven't we reached out to people like this and gotten them more involved with the campaign?

That's another systemic problem, the constraints that being low on funds have placed on daily operations. People have been forced to double and triple up their workload, because the dollars aren't there to hire more staff. That's probably the biggest problem the campaign faces, aside from Kerry's overwhelming momentum. Final case in point, the campaign really needs to hire a second person full time to handle inbound calls instead of what we're doing now, which is relying on one full time person supplemented by volunteers. There's six lines, when it gets busy they're stacked up with calls, callers dropping like flies, with one full time person on the job. They do the best they can, but how can you run a national campaign with only one person answering the phones? It's penny wise but pound foolish, because every call dropped is a potential financial contribution lost. Just get somebody, anybody, to help pick up those phones!"

(UPDATE 8/15/08: The full background story behind this e-mail is HERE.)

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