Voter turnout group focuses on Ohio

America Coming Together puts hundreds of employees into Buckeye State

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America Coming Together, a political non-profit group opposing the re-election of President Bush, spent more than $1.1 million and deployed at least 700 people in Ohio in the six months ending in April, heavily focusing its early efforts on that battleground state, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of federal records.

Bush himself made his 18th trip as president to Ohio in mid-June, just days after Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, his likely Democratic opponent in November, visited the state. But the candidates are just a part of the political activity in Ohio, which has seen get-out-the-vote operations for months.

Groups like ACT, known as 527 organizations after the section of the tax code that governs political committees, have raised nearly $184 million since the end of 2002 to use for get-out-the-vote operations, political advertising and contributions to state and local candidates. Many of the largest such committees oppose Bush's re-election, although conservatives have a handful of 527 organizations, too.

Perhaps the best-known of the 527s focused on the ground game, ACT has raised more than $19 million during 2003 and 2004, the third-largest amount of any 527 organization (the largest, the Joint Victory Campaign 2004, splits its money between ACT and the Media Fund, a related committee).

ACT has paid out $778,829 in salaries in Ohio, accounting for about seven of every ten dollars it spent in the state. Although a majority of the nearly $10 million spent so far by ACT came in the Washington, D.C., area, it has spent more on salaries in Ohio than on any other state in the nation. Excluding the capital area, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Florida have the next largest contingent of paid ACT employees, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Although 527 committees like ACT mainly file with the Internal Revenue Service, ACT also has a federal political action committee through which it does most of its spending, mixing federal "hard" money — donations limited by federal law — and money raised by its 527 account.

ACT's role in registering and turning out voters could be crucial to Democratic candidates up and down the ballot in November, but especially to Kerry's chances in swing states like Ohio. The combination of Republicans boosting their get-out-the-vote efforts in key states in 2002, along with a federal campaign finance law that banned national political parties from raising and spending unlimited "soft money" donations, led some Democrats to form groups like ACT to help candidates, particularly the party's eventual presidential nominee.

"ACT's goal is to beat George W. Bush and elect Democrats up and down the ticket," said Sarah Leonard, a national spokeswoman for the group. "Based on our research and other variables, it looks like Ohio could be the deciding factor in the general election."

ACT began paying employees in Ohio on Oct. 15, 2003, according to FEC records, about two months after it set up operations in Washington. Ohio was the first state outside the Beltway area with ACT workers and more than 700 individuals have drawn salaries or consulting payments from the organization since last fall. A number of ACT's workers have come from an earlier voter turnout program funded by labor unions, but others have come from local organizations. To date, the group has registered more than 55,000 Ohio voters, Leonard said.

A small group of about 15 individuals in Ohio who work for ACT have each been paid more than $10,000 by ACT, and independent consultant Jill Harris received $49,494. More than 100 people received less than $100. Jess R. Goode, a former Democratic congressional aide who serves as ACT's Ohio spokesman, earned the most of the salaried employees, $28,460.

At least three of the ACT workers appear to have received payments from the Ohio Democratic Party or a state legislative caucus committee during the 2001-02 election cycle, according to records compiled by the Center. Although federal law prohibits coordination between 527 committees and federal candidates, including sharing staffers, there is no such prohibition for state party employees.

Nearly 50 of ACT's workers in Ohio also received payments from the Partnership for America's Families, a labor union affiliated 527 group run by Steve Rosenthal, ACT's CEO and the former political director of the AFL-CIO from 1996-2002.

In all, the group has paid workers in 27 states and the District of Columbia, although several states, including Kansas, Nebraska and New York, have seen little paid in wages. ACT paid less than $1,200 in salaries to workers in Colorado, which could be a key electoral state in November.

ACT has paid at least $228,520 for canvassing in Missouri, $116,222 in Pennsylvania and $91,061 in Florida. All three states are considered vital to the presidential election, and Florida also has an open U.S. Senate seat.

The largest individual donors to ACT are financier George Soros, who has given $5 million; insurance executive Peter B. Lewis, who has contributed nearly $3 million, and RealNetworks Inc. founder Rob Glaser, who has given $745,000. (The Center for Public Integrity has received funding from Soros' Open Society Institute, although not for its 527 project.)

Although ACT is primarily recognized as a 527 committee, it does the bulk of its spending through its affiliated federal PAC, mixing federal and non-federal money. To do so, ACT must declare a spending ratio of federal to non-federal money, which the group has set at 2 percent federal and 98 percent non-federal — because the group claims that its work will benefit federal and state candidates. ACT has reported spending $205,366 in federal "hard" money and more than $10 million in non-federal money transferred from its 527 committee.

On June 22, Democracy 21, The Campaign Legal Center and the Center for Responsive Politics filed a complaint against ACT with the FEC, charging that the group's spending ratio "has resulted in ACT spending more nonfederal funds than is permitted by law to fund its voter drive activities, its administrative overhead and its other allocable disbursements."

ACT isn't alone among 527s in focusing on Ohio. The Partnership for America's Families, a group backed by the Service Employees International Union and other AFL-CIO unions, has also been active in Ohio, but its 2003-04 cycle activities have focused on Pennsylvania, where the group registered thousands of voters for last year's mayoral race in Philadelphia. The Partnership spent nearly $600,000 in Pennsylvania in 2003, and through the first three months of 2004 has spent about $44,300 in Florida and another $5,030 in Ohio.

Another labor-backed 527 committee, Voices for Working Families, has spent tens of thousands in New York, Florida and New Jersey since the end of 2002, but just $21,389 in Ohio this year. The AFL-CIO and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees are major donors to Voices for Working Families.

America Votes, an umbrella voter turnout organization for groups supporting Democratic candidates in November, has spent smaller amounts on staff in Florida and Ohio. America Votes, Voices for Working Families and the Partnership for America's Families do not have federal accounts.

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