Out of the Ashes
Marti Rosenberg was skeptical when she heard about plans for a new national progressive organization. As executive director of Ocean State Action, a coalition in Rhode Island, she doubted that her group would benefit much from joining. She had no previous working relationship with the organizers, who had been part of Citizen Action, a once-influential national federation of statewide, multi-issue citizen groups. Founded in 1979 and once claiming to represent millions of people through its door-to-door canvassing, Citizen Action collapsed two years ago after it was tainted by the campaign fundraising scandal that brought down Teamsters President Ron Carey.In September 1998, at a meeting of 100 citizen movement leaders, the new group's organizers explained that they needed groups like Ocean State to grow beyond the limits of the old Citizen Action and to learn from its mistakes. Rosenberg was impressed when the organizers trusted these leaders to develop the mission statement for the proposed organization. She liked their commitment to racial diversity. And as director of a statewide group, she was reassured that the new national organization would not pressure her to take on issues that her members in Rhode Island didn't want to pursue. The slow, deliberative process of creating the new group won her over. "All right," she decided at the end of the meeting, "I'm in."After a year and a half of systematic organizing, 39 statewide groups decided they also wanted to be in the new organization -- U.S. Action. Sixteen of them came from the old Citizen Action network, and the organization reflects all parts of the country (though crucial California still has no representative). The national member organizations of U.S. Action, which held its founding convention in suburban Chicago in mid-November, also include the Service Employees Union (SEIU), AFSCME (public employees) and the United States Student Association, as well as a half dozen support groups, including the Midwest Academy (a training center) and Progressive Action Network (door-to-door canvassers). Although the numbers aren't firm, the state groups represent more than 700,000 members (mainly people who contribute some money), more than 100 full-time staff and annual combined budgets of $15 to $20 million.The individual state groups-probably strongest in Wisconsin, New Jersey, Illinois and New York-have tackled a wide variety of issues, including "clean money" campaign finance reform, utility rate reductions, an HMO patient bill of rights, living wage ordinances and protection against lead poisoning. They have fought corporate farming, school vouchers and cuts in Social Security and Medicare. Although individual states will continue to pursue their own programs, the national organization will coordinate two major campaigns: one for universal health care on the single-payer model and a second advocating high-quality public education for every child (including opposing vouchers for private schools). U.S. Action will also take part in electoral politics, ranging from campaign finance reform to supporting progressive candidates.The decision to launch a national campaign for good public education reflects a contrast with Citizen Action, which favored populist, anti-corporate politics and issues with a strong national focus. But in its efforts to attract more black and Latino community organizations, U.S. Action recruited minority group leaders and asked what issues were important to them. Fighting for good public schools was at the top of the list. U.S. Action executive director Jeff Blum says the group has taken great pains to give voice to groups that are often left out, especially people of color. "The issue of race is so pernicious, so divisive, that we're not at a place where we can't make eradicating racism front and center," argues Rosenberg, who was elected U.S. Action treasurer. "It's too deep to say we can't deal with it or should ignore it."Among the top six elected leaders, there isn't a single white male, and there are "representative population councils" for African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, gays and lesbians, women, the disabled, youth and senior citizens. This might sound like a case of identity politics run amok. However, these councils are envisioned not as fragmenting caucuses but rather as ways to recruit different constituencies into a common program. William McNary, an African-American organizer who also will be co- chairman of Citizen Action of Illinois, says U.S. Action will "fight the fights that have to be fought so we don't spend time fighting each other."For nearly two decades, the old Citizen Action fought for national health insurance, natural gas price controls, protection of Medicaid and other causes. It provided ground troops and a citizen group vehicle for many Democratic campaigns, and it nurtured members to be candidates, including two members of Congress who addressed the U.S. Action founding conference, Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky and Wisconsin Rep. Tammy Baldwin.Initially, Citizen Action raised money from canvassing and contributions from unions, trial lawyers and other groups. But as canvassing became less and less lucrative, Citizen Action was put at the mercy of its funders (surely accounting in part for why the group so vigorously fought conservative "tort reform"). The national organization gained power, which some say was abused, particularly when it came to dealing with finances, sharing information and listening to state and local leaders. Very few Citizen Action contributors were members in any active or meaningful way.Citizen Action came under investigation after Carey campaign aides arranged a Teamsters contribution to the group, then solicited campaign contributions from deep-pocketed Citizen Action backers. Former Teamsters political director William Hamilton was convicted in federal court in November on charges that he was part of the corrupt scheme, but no Citizen Action staff have been charged. Yet the investigation exacerbated internal tensions and prompted financial backers to pull out. "It shows what happens when you don't have internal democracy that builds confidence in the leaders," says John Cameron, who rebuilt Citizen Action of Illinois after it suffered its own financial crisis around the same time."Citizen Action was not a participatory democracy at all," agrees David Desiderato, associate director of Northeast Action. "It was controlled. You couldn't ask questions." While many of the old Citizen Action leaders still strongly defend the organization, Blum insists that U.S. Action will be far more democratic, accountable and transparent. No more of the old budget sleight of hand that made Citizen Action so vulnerable. "I won't do it," he says. "None of us will do it. We're trying to make this an organization characterized by learning lessons."One lesson is that U.S. Action needs to devote attention to expanding the abilities of state organizations as well as pushing issue campaigns. Another is that U.S. Action can't simply be a conduit for other people's money and messages. In Citizen Action, McNary says, "instead of having a partnership with the people who gave us money, we were looked at as employees." But to be a partner, the U.S. Action groups will have to generate funds independently of unions, foundations and lawyers, and they must have their own organized members, beyond those brought in by unions and others in their coalitions. As a first step, U.S. Action is insisting that all its state affiliates be substantial, citizen-based organizations. "It's important to be grounded in the state-based members," McNary says. "We ought to have a door-to-door canvass for our political presence, even if it doesn't make a dime. That's what separates us from a paper coalition or a think tank."For all its shortcomings, Citizen Action made significant contributions to building a broad progressive movement that could influence mainstream politics at a time of conservative retrenchment. U.S. Action leaders hope the political terrain will be more fertile in the future. "Our political opportunities have been a lot more positive in recent years," says Richard Kersh, executive director of Citizen Action of New York. "I have a sense the tide is turning. The electorate is more open."Some U.S. Action affiliates have already started working with SEIU on health care issues, and, at the founding convention, delegates pumped up their spirits with a lively protest at the district office of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, delivering empty pill bottles and demanding Medicare prescription coverage. SEIU executive board member Anna Burger, formerly president of a Citizen Action affiliate in Pennsylvania, is optimistic: "This is an organization that's going to make a difference."