Political Groups Fund Education Messages

‘527’ Groups, Including School-Related Ones, Make Election Mark

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A young girl in dark-brown pigtails stares out from the television screen as a voice claims President Bush broke his education promises to Hispanic voters.

“George Bush promised to be a friend of the Latino community and do what’s best for our children,” the voice says. “But he has not kept his promises.”

The ad was part of a $6 million campaign that the New Democrat Network, a political advocacy group known as a “527,” ran in the last few months in a bid to sway voters leading up to the elections this week.

Regardless of the results Nov. 2, political analysts will remember the 2004 elections in part for the ubiquitous—and controversial—role played by such 527 groups, named after a section of the federal tax code. Some of the groups deal principally with education and children’s issues and sought to influence voters on those subjects. Others, while not focused solely on education, produced education-related advertising.

The centrist New Democrat Network, based in Washington, used polling to determine that education was a top concern for Hispanic voters. The ads—both in English and Spanish—hit home, said Guillermo A. Meneses, a spokesman for the group. Follow-up polling showed that after the spots aired, including the one featuring the pigtailed girl, Democratic Party identification among Hispanics in targeted areas like Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico shot up.

“It was one of our most successful ads,” Mr. Meneses said.

The 527s are not governed by Federal Election Commission, answering instead to the Internal Revenue Service. They’re permitted to collect unlimited donations and expend unlimited amounts on efforts such as television advertising and get-out-the-vote activities. The key restrictions are that they can’t explicitly endorse or advocate the defeat of a candidate and can’t coordinate their efforts with candidates’ campaigns.

According to an Oct. 18 report by the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington-based group that tracks campaign money, 527 committees raised at least $391 million during the 2003-04 election cycle.

The 527 committees, which have gained prominence through a loophole in the 2002 federal campaign-finance law known as McCain-Feingold, can be large or small and target elections from the federal level down to the local school board.

Although left-leaning 527 committees raised more money than their conservative counterparts, toward the end of the election season groups sympathetic to President Bush increased their flow of dollars, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

The largest rightward-tilting groups, such as the Washington-based Progress for America Voter Fund and the Alexandria, Va.-based Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, focused their efforts on promoting President Bush’s handling of terrorism and the war in Iraq or on the Vietnam War service of Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential nominee.

Because they are more loosely regulated, 527s can push the boundaries when it comes to campaign activities. Colorado voters got to see that freedom up close.

‘A Big Splash’

In September, a 527 group called Coloradans for Plain Talk paid for several ads attacking Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, a Republican and a former school board member, in her race for re-election to Congress against Democratic challenger Stan Matsunaka.

One ad showed a Musgrave look-alike wearing a pink suit picking the pocket of a soldier in battle, while describing a vote by Ms. Musgrave to cut veterans’ benefits.

Coloradans for Plain Talk, formerly named Colorado Families First, raised at least $400,000, and was bankrolled in part by Jared Polis, a state board of education member, and Pat Stryker, a medical-equipment heiress who in 2002 contributed $3 million to help defeat a ballot initiative that would have scrapped bilingual education programs there.

The 411 on 527s

Groups known as 527s can accept contributions from any source in any amount, but they are not permitted to coordinate activities with a federal campaign or advocate the election or defeat of a specific federal candidate. Some examples of education-related 527 groups are:

Coloradans for Plain Talk: This group ran negative ads about two Republican congressional candidates. The group is financed in part by a state school board member and by a medical-equipment heiress who in 2002 helped defeat a ballot initative to gut bilingual education programs in the state.

Vote Kids: This group, affiliated with the national nonprofit organization Every Child Matters, is interested in issues including child abuse, early-childhood education, after-school programs, and children's health. The Democratic-leaning group worked to promote children's issues in the presidential race in Iowa and a Texas congressional district.

Arizona Wins Education Committee: This group was formed four years ago to work on education-related legislative issues in Arizona. It was not active in the general election this year.

SOURCE: Education Week

“These ads have sparked a huge firestorm,” said Robert J. Duffy, an associate professor of political science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. “It has raised the issue of 527s in the election in this state in a big way.”

Other 527s have used their money differently. Vote Kids is a small, Washington-based 527 formed in 2002 with a goal of raising children’s issues. The group, affiliated with the nonprofit Every Child Matters Education Fund, spent about $100,000 for the 2004 elections, said spokeswoman Angela Blake Madnick.

The group was active in Iowa in the presidential race, sending out letters that raised questions about President Bush’s record on children’s issues.

But it has also had a significant role in a Texas congressional election, where state Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, a Republican, was competing with an incumbent, Democratic Rep. Chet Edwards

Vote Kids didn’t like Ms. Wohlgemuth’s legislative record, particularly when it came to legislation she wrote that the group says would have cut thousands of children from a state health-insurance program for children. Vote Kids sent out a letter to voters highlighting that issue and other child-related concerns.

“There’s no question the issue over the Children’s Health Insurance Program is now a central issue in that race,” Ms. Madnick said shortly before the election, in part due to her group’s efforts.

“We’ve seen how effective these groups can be in the presidential race, and they can be even more effective on a state or local level simply because of the lack of restrictions to donations to these groups,” said Derek Willis, a writer and database specialist for the Center for Public Integrity. “They can make a big splash in a very small pond.”

The 2.7 million-member National Education Association has for years had both a federal political action committee and a 527 committee to influence races, make donations to individual candidates, and pay for advertising. Though for financial-accounting purposes the two committees operate as one Fund for Children and Public Education, the 527 portion of the fund allows for more leeway on the size of donations the union can make.

Traditional Players

Political action committees can donate only up to $5,000 per candidate per election or give that maximum to another PAC. PACS can also give up to $15,000 to a political party.

However, the NEA political fund is governed by laws specific to labor-union activity, which place some limits on its 527. For example, the NEA can only seek donations to its political fund through its membership, said Joel Packer, a senior lobbyist for the union.

The 1.3 million-member American Federation of Teachers does not use a 527, though it does have a political action committee, said spokesman Alex Wohl. Instead, the AFT PAC made hefty donations to some 527s, he said. In the past year, the PAC gave $1 million to the Media Fund, a liberal group sympathetic to Sen. Kerry, and $250,000 to America Coming Together, a liberal get-out-the-vote group. Instead of forming its own 527, the AFT “contributed to these two groups we felt had a message that resonated with our members,” Mr. Wohl said.

Not every 527 took an active role this fall. The Arizona Wins Education Committee was formed four years ago to work on education issues in the state legislature, said co-founder Rick DeGraw. Earlier this year, the committee advertised heavily in favor of all-day kindergarten, which state lawmakers ultimately passed. But the fund kept quiet during the fall election season, he said.

“Most of the 527s were created to hide corporate dollars for political campaigns,” he said. “But we created ourselves with the aim of really educating folks about what’s going on in the governmental process.”

Vol. 24, Issue 10, Pages 29, 31

Published in Print: November 3, 2004, as Political Groups Fund Education Messages
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