It's hot; sticky, disgusting, mind-numbingly hot. The kind of dense, humid hot that makes you thank God you work in an air-conditioned office, and makes you realize wearing jeans was a mistake. I'm canvassing a cookie-cutter east Orange County neighborhood, and I'm soaked in sweat after all of 20 minutes.
The two workers I'm shadowing twentysomethings wisely adorned in shorts and light, white T-shirts bearing the "ACT" logo, carrying small silver Palm Pilots and bottled water are a little better adjusted to the conditions. This is their job. A week later I'll be back in my office writing this story, and they'll be walking the pavement of another Central Florida neighborhood, looking over their shoulders and wondering when the dark clouds to the west will bring yet another torrential downpour.
Ashley Lascelles, 21, and David Allen, 23, work for America Coming Together, one of a handful of liberal activist groups known as "527s" after the section of the tax code that enables them to raise and spend money outside of federal campaign limits. To date, ACT has raised more than $19 million nationally, thanks to donations that can range into the millions, including a $5 million gift from billionaire George Soros. For their work canvassing neighborhoods across Central Florida from now until election day, Lascelles and Allen earn $8 an hour.
There's nothing random about their job, or about ACT in general. The Palm Pilots they carry contain a database comprising information about the doors they're supposed to knock on, gained from elections records that are only accessible to candidates, political parties and political groups. These canvassers are part of ACT's persuasion team ACT has a second Orlando office that focuses on voter registration but today's mission is less about the ultimate goal, persuading voters to vote against George Bush, than it is to gather information, which will be entered into the Palm Pilots and, later that evening, transferred to ACT's computers.
They visit only "targeted households," mainly registered independents and "lazy Democrats" registered Dems who don't vote often in swing precincts. They skip lots of houses. When they come upon a targeted house, they knock. More often than not, it goes unanswered.
"This is the worst hour," Allen tells me. "It's hotter, and the least amount of people."
If there's no answer, they leave a pamphlet on the door that emphasizes the damage conservatives in Washington and Tallahassee have done to the working class.
When they do get an answer, they'll ask two questions: "What is the most important issue to you in the upcoming election?" and "Do you know who you are planning to vote for?"
Question one gets a variety of answers, from health care to the economy to the war in Iraq. Question two splits evenly down the middle, between Bush and John Kerry. This is, truly, a swing neighborhood.
Over the next five months, ACT canvassers across the country will knock on millions of doors in 17 swing states. They'll register hundreds of thousands of voters. Their partners, including MoveOn.org and The Media Fund, will spend millions of dollars on TV blasting Bush's record. And, if all goes according to plan, they'll play a pivotal role in ensuring that the Bush administration doesn't get a second term.
There are limits to what they can say. They can't explicitly endorse John Kerry, for example, or any other Democrat. But that doesn't mean they aren't taking sides.
"People say we're nonpartisan," says Tait Sye, ACT's state communications director. "That's a misnomer. We're a progressive organization. John Kerry is obviously more progressive than George W. Bush."
Welcome to the shadow campaign for president of the United States of America.
SHADOW WAR BEGINS
I was actually supposed to canvass a day earlier, but that fell on the same day that President Ronald Reagan's body was moved into the Capitol rotunda, and Sye wasn't sure what kind of response they'd get, if they'd be seen as insensitive. They went out anyway, and Patti Sharp, ACT Central Florida's executive director, says their fears were unfounded.
"We were prepared if folks saw it as an issue that we would, we'd stop," she says. But it didn't happen. "You're talking about issues. I'm sure President Reagan wanted people participating in government."
I first heard about ACT in December, at a conference of progressive activists called Camp Wellstone, after the late Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone, inside a Disney hotel. We were told about ACT's impressive, unprecedented technology, how information on swing voters would be stored in a database and, thus, enable canvassers to only visit homes where they could make a difference, as opposed to the crapshoot of traditional canvassing. We were told that ACT would be opening an office in Florida in early 2004.
On Feb. 5, ACT opened its first Orlando office, called ACT Orlando. Helmed by two transplants from the Service Employees International Union in New York, ACT settled into an office on West Central Avenue, in the heart of Parramore. Its mission is voter registration namely, registering voters in decidedly Democratic precincts and making sure they get out to vote. They have been remarkably successful.
In the central Florida media market, which extends from Orlando to Brevard County to Ocala, ACT Orlando has turned in 18,000 voter registration forms. Statewide, that number is 27,000, including ACT's offices in Miami and Jacksonville. By election day, the goal is 100,000.
ACT Central Florida, the persuasion-based office out of which Allen, Lascelles and 16 other canvassers work, opened in May in a south Orlando strip mall owned by former Orange County commissioner Fran Pignone, which also served as the headquarters for the failed Mobility 20/20 campaign a few years back. Run by Sharp who ran Buddy Dyer's most recent campaign for mayor, which is currently under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for allegedly paying firefighters to campaign for Dyer on the taxpayers' dime the office focuses on Orange, Brevard and parts of Osceola County.
Nationally, ACT is one of 32 liberal organizations under the umbrella of America Votes, which operates as a sort of field general, making sure the various groups share their information and coordinate with each other. Like ACT, America Votes is also a 527, which means it can raise and spend unlimited amounts of soft money legally, so long as it doesn't officially tie itself to one candidate or party.
"We are a new organization," says America Votes president Cecile Richards. (It started last summer.) "But the concept `of 527s` has been around for a long time."
Indeed, Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code was added in 1974, exempting political organizations from paying federal income taxes. In 1996, the Internal Revenue Service ruled that issue-advocacy organizations could qualify for 527 status, along with already accepted groups such as political-action committees. But this led to the rise of so-called "stealth PACs," anonymous groups that would slam or praise candidates, but omit the key words "vote for" or "vote against." So in 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a law obligating 527 organizations to disclose their contributions and expenditures.
In the wake of campaign-finance reform, however, soft money contributions to political parties were banned, and issue-advocacy groups were prevented from running ads just before an election. But in the last year, predominantly liberal groups aiming to defeat Bush figured out that this loophole in the reform bill could enable them to raise millions of dollars in soft money. As long as they played by the rules and stayed ostensibly independent, they were free to use it on behalf of supporting progressive and liberal issues.
The net result, at least so far in the presidential election, is that groups like MoveOn.org and The Media Fund have purchased negative ads lambasting Bush for everything from health care to the economy to Iraq. Kerry, meanwhile, has kept to the high ground and stayed positive in his ads, essentially allowing the 527s to do his dirty work for him.
"The right was not prepared for the 527 loophole," says Matthew Felling, media director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs.
"I know Republicans were behind the power curve," says Orange County Republican Executive Committee chairman Lew Oliver, "but conservatives are not known for being stupid."
Republicans, in fact, pressed the Federal Elections Commission to declare soft-money spending by 527s illegal, a proposal the FEC rejected May 13. So, a little late in the game, Republicans began to form their own 527s. The most notable is Progress for America, a group closely tied to the Bush administration.
More immediately, according to a recent New York Times story, the Bush team is beseeching conservative preachers most notably Southern Baptists to do "everything short of losing their tax-exempt status" to help Bush win. Indeed, 100 pastors signed a pledge to do just that, the Times reported. (In a subsequent development, the 30 million-member National Association of Evangelicals recommended that its members shouldn't be so closely affiliated with political parties, lest the politics water down the religious message.)
Felling isn't a big fan of the 527s. "They have no accountability whatsoever," he says. More directly, the 527s subvert the spirit of the recently enacted campaign-finance reform law, which bans unlimited soft money donations in an effort to reduce the influence the rich have on elections. Indeed, George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire, likens Bush's with-us-or-against-us rhetoric to Nazi Germany, and has called the president a "danger to the world." He's given more than $15 million to anti-Bush causes so far, and has pledged to spend more if needed.
As Republican National Committee spokeswoman Christine Iverson told the Washington Post in November: "It's incredibly ironic that George Soros is trying to create a more open society by using an unregulated, under-the-radar-screen, shadowy, soft-money group to do it. George Soros has purchased the Democratic Party."
It's also ironic, though, that the same Republicans who tried, and failed, to shut down the campaign-finance law in federal court are now calling soft-money groups "shadowy." But is soft money itself so bad?
"The thinking is, the soft money is really detrimental to the process," says Holly Brasher, a political science professor at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and co-author of Organized Interests and American Government. "Soft money really gets a bad rap. With the growth of the 527s, `they promote` an issue agenda the parties might ignore, and that's not necessarily a bad thing."
The windows of ACT Central Florida's offices are lined with white paper, which suggests to the outsider some veil of secrecy. Orange County Democratic party chairman Doug Head jokes, "This operation does not exist. But it's huge."
In reality, it's not terribly covert. The coverings the reverse side of blown-up maps outlining various central Florida voting precincts are indeed there to prevent onlookers from staring. But they are also there to prevent potential thieves from being tempted by all the high-tech gadgetry inside, Sharp tells me.
The employees at the two ACT offices couldn't be more different. The persuasion team is nearly all young and white, mostly college kids on their summer jobs. The voter-registration team is almost uniformly African-American, and spans age groups. "We have canvassers that were dietitians, secretaries, waitresses, city workers, that haven't been able to find a job," says ACT Orlando director Katherine Taylor. That includes several canvassers who were living in homeless shelters.
For $8 an hour, the voter registration team has roughed it a bit more than their counterparts. They go into mostly poor neighborhoods; they have been chased by dogs and even, in some cases, had guns pulled on them.
But there are rewards. This is, after all, more than a job; it's a mission. "You see that we're very close to what we're trying to do," ACT Orlando field director Carlos Quiles told his canvassers in a recent Wednesday afternoon pep talk. "Let's give our all and a little bit more. It's up to you to make sure we get the turnout we know how to get."
"I was looking for something in the campaign," Allen tells me about an hour before we go canvassing, as we're seated on a couch in the ACT Central Florida office. "And I heard about this job from a friend."
It's his first politically oriented job, and despite only a day of training on how to canvass, he's not flustered. "I have a feel for a lot of the issues," he says. "Some days are really good. On Tuesday, I had 25 or 30 responses. Yesterday I had 10 in four or five hours."
Lascelles, his canvassing partner, is a University of Central Florida undergrad who is also volunteering for a Seminole County commission candidate. She'll be leaving at the end of July, when school begins.
"These kids are so highly motivated," Sharp says. It's a different ballgame than running an election campaign, she says.
And because ACT isn't knocking on doors on behalf of a particular candidate (at least, officially), the people answering the doors are more willing to talk.
"People are more open to talking about the issues," Sye says. "We talk about the economy or health care rather than Bush this or Kerry that."
If you talk to ACT's local organizers, the national debate on whether or not 527s are merely the newest way for the rich to dominate political discourse is secondary. Sure, they're well-funded, as the gadgetry around the offices testifies. But for all the big money, this is still a campaign being run one house at a time.
Says America Votes' Richards: "Our goal is to have the largest possible turnout of voters in history. We focus less on TV and media and more on engaging voters. That's really the goal. Millions of Americans who are eligible to vote don't. There are a lot of people who would like to get involved in politics but haven't had a way to do it. This is the year of the volunteer in elections."