The Campaign for Economic Democracy, an organization with a reputation for espousing such radical causes as redistribution of the nation's wealth, is recasting its agenda to win new followers and strengthen its statewide political base.
Director Jack Nicholl said the CED plans to focus more attention on statewide issues and traditional electoral politics. By identifying and working for causes that appeal to a broad range of people, Nicholl said, the organization also hopes to shed its "negative" image.
CED members, who once were encouraged to wave placards and chant slogans at local rent control hearings and at toxic dump sites, now are being told that they can accomplish more by backing Democratic candidates and working to shape the party agenda.
The plans call for the CED to concentrate its scattered operation in four urban areas: Santa Monica-Los Angeles, San Jose, San Francisco and Sacramento. The organization also will dramatically step up its door-to-door canvassing and direct mailing, establish a citizen's lobby to promote progressive legislation and work to increase its membership from 12,000 to 20,000,
Organizers said that the CED will continue to champion traditional causes such as rent control, environmental protection and abortion rights at the statewide level. But they added that the organization also will embrace new causes such as tax reform, child care and automobile insurance rates.
"We're interested in shaping a message that people respond to," said Craig Merrilees, CED's San Francisco-based regional director. "CED is one organization on the left that understands power, practical politics and a pragmatic approach to social change. These are not the golden years of the new left. We've been forced to ask tough questions and undertake new debates."
The CED's chairman and founder, Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), is chief architect of the new plan. Hayden turns aside speculation that he is compromising the CED's radicalism to further his own political career. But he is concerned that, unless the CED adopts new issues and tactics, it will continue to be co-opted by the state's well-heeled political action committees.
Hayden, who recently wrote a position paper for the Democratic Party called "Going West," said that the CED should be a promoter of "cutting edge" issues in Democratic circles.
"The CED has to evolve along with other groups," Hayden said. "It has to come to terms with the new technology that has eclipsed the local grass-roots organization. . . . Politics has been taken away from grass-roots groups and we're searching for ways to bring it back."
Nicholl said that the CED's membership, which tends to be mostly white and over 30, is stable. But he called the last year a "very difficult time," explaining that the group has had trouble setting an agenda that balances social concerns with political goals.
Nicholl said that the CED has been unable to focus on "one strong issue" other than rent control since Hayden's 1982 election. In addition, Nicholl said, the organization was jarred by the departure of Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., whose Administration had been friendly. With a Republican Administration in Sacramento and Hayden preoccupied with legislative matters, the CED lost much of its fire, Nicholl said.
The problems were acknowledged by Nicholl in a recent CED newsletter. Seeking to reassure people who have been asking whether the group is "out of business," he wrote, "Well, it's easy to think that, isn't it?. . . Except, it isn't so."
Another signal of the CED's change in direction came at last month's state Democratic convention, when the organization canceled the breakfast it traditionally hosts to provide a forum for speakers to rail against social injustices. Instead, the CED hosted a discussion by a star-studded panel on the future of the Democratic Party.
It is a future in which the CED wants to play a bigger role, and that could mean significant changes for the political organization that Hayden created after his unsuccessful 1976 bid for the U.S. Senate.
The CED, which is funded mostly by profits from the exercise empire of Hayden's actress wife, Jane Fonda, has been vilified in the past for promoting radical policies. In two of its most controversial stands, it advocated redistribution of the nation's wealth and called for corporate boards to include citizen "watchdogs."
Its current views on economic democracy are harder to define. Hayden, who not long ago was characterizing big business as "the monstrous corporate state," now offers no apologies when he says that corporations play a "vital role in the market economy."
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