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Obama campaign will retain assets as new group launches

January 18, 2013|By Matea Gold
  • Volunteers make phone calls to re-elect President Obama at the campaign's Field Office in Chicago.
Volunteers make phone calls to re-elect President Obama at the campaign's… (Daniel Acker / Bloomberg )

WASHINGTON — A new advocacy organization launched by aides to President Obama on Friday will lease the database developed by his reelection campaign, which plans to hold onto such valuable assets for the foreseeable future.

The arrangement will give Obama aides tight control over the use of the voter files, software and email lists assembled for his reelection bid, which are coveted by other Democratic candidates and interest groups. While the new group, Organizing for Action, does not have an exclusive deal to use those tools, the campaign has not yet made any decisions about who else will get access to them, according to a campaign official.

The decision about how – and if – the campaign’s infrastructure will be shared is one of the most pressing questions in Democratic circles in the wake of Friday’s launch of Organizing for Action.

Those assets could give other candidates a strong edge, and party strategists warn of a backlash if the Obama campaign does not share it resources. But deciding who would get to use them could be tricky – particularly in the fight for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, which could see Vice President Joe Biden competing against Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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The arrangement raises many questions, including whether the campaign will have the funds for the costly project of keeping the files current.

“They are a hot commodity right now, but these lists quickly become like stinky cheese,” said Steve Rosenthal, a veteran Democratic organizer. “If you don’t keep updating them, they have pretty limited value.”

And it is unclear what will happen to the campaign’s intellectual and technological assets in the long run. The campaign committee, which is run by Jim Messina, could remain in existence for several years while it settles its books and winds down its operations, but eventually will close its doors. At that point, officials would need to decide where to house the campaign apparatus.

For now, access to the databases and software is a great advantage for Organizing for Action, which is seeking to channel the grassroots energy that powered Obama’s campaigns into support for his second-term agenda.

On Friday, Obama and the first lady urged their supporters to rally around the group, which the president vowed would be “an unparalleled force in American politics.”

“It will work to turn our shared values into legislative action – and it'll empower the next generation of leaders in our movement,” Obama wrote in an email.

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In a video, Michelle Obama exhorted volunteers to continue the work they began during the campaign.

“If we want to finish what we started and truly make that change we believe in, we can’t stop now,” she said, adding: “The relationships you’ve made, the tools you’ve built, and the lessons you’ve learned have already begun to change our politics. And in the coming years, they can change our country.”

Organizing for Action, which was set up under the tax code’s section 501(c)4 as a social welfare organization, cannot have politics as its primary purpose. The group will accept unlimited individual and corporate donations but not contributions from lobbyists, similar to the self-imposed rules governing the 2013 Presidential Inaugural Committee, an official said.

The organization will voluntarily disclose its donors, as the inaugural committee does, even though tax-exempt advocacy groups are not required to do so. But it remains to be seen how regularly Organizing for Action will share that information, and whether it will reveal the size of the donations.

Campaign finance reform advocates have sharply criticized the inaugural committee for accepting corporate money this year, a reversal from four years ago. And they have complained about the limited disclosure on donors, with no information provided about the size of the donations.

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Organizing for Action will be run by former White House official Jon Carson, who stepped down from his administration post Thursday to take over the new group. Based in Chicago and Washington, the organization will be guided by a board stocked with veteran Obama aides Robert Gibbs, Stephanie Cutter, Jennifer O’Malley-Dillon, Erik Smith and Julianna Smoot, as well as technology entrepreneur Frank White, a top campaign fundraiser.

Messina will chair the board, and longtime Obama advisor David Axelrod will serve as a consultant. David Plouffe, Obama’s top political advisor, will also have a role when he leaves the White House, a move expected shortly.

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matea.gold@latimes.com

Twitter: @mateagold

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