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Upcoming Weeks Will Test Organizing for Action's Influence

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Monday, April 8 2013

Sharing stories: OFA has built pages with thousands of individuals' stories sortable by state, and media type

As President Barack Obama's White House turns its attention to immigration reform, the federal budget, and gun control, the outcome of those efforts will be an early opportunity to judge the effectiveness of Organizing for Action, the successor to his campaign operation.

It's not clear whether Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has the 60 votes he needs to pass proposed legislation to make gun trafficking a federal crime and to approve requiring universal background checks for all gun purchases.

The Washington Post reports that Democrats up for re-election in red states — like Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Max Baucus of Montana, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Warner of Virginia — are keeping their cards close to their vest on those pieces of legislation.

OfA is not alone in entering this field, with outside groups like Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Mayors Against Illegal Guns running television ads intended to build public pressure and former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' Americans for Responsible Solutions, which she runs with her husband, Mark, also advocating for more gun control. But OfA is unique among participants in the policy debate for its approach — meant to include grassroots advocacy around the country — and for its work as the explicit outgrowth of a sitting president's re-election campaign.

Partnered with both of those, OfA held a "national day of action" in 29 states on March 29. It reported last week that 130 events took place across the country, including petition drives and rallies, all meant to draw their members of Congress' attention to the support for the legislation while they were back in their districts for Easter recess. The group has also solicited thousands of stories from supporters to share with the public on its website, and crafted messages to be spread across Twitter and Facebook. When the Senate Judiciary Committee held its first hearings on the pieces of legislation that are now before the full Senate, featuring Giffords, two OfA volunteers from Maryland were the first in line to attend the hearing.

As recently as Friday, OFA volunteer Marsha Fishman delivered more than 13,000 signatures gathered through OfA's Web site supporting the background check legislation to Texas Republican John Cornyn.

"We were trying to get him to understand that yes, even Texans are sick and tired of the violence, and we need him to do the right thing, and to support universal background checks," she said. "It's overwhelming how many Americans, including Texans, are supportive of universal background checks -- over 90 percent, and I don't know how our senators can ignore the will of the people."

Friday's petition delivery is the second action that Fishman has taken in the past couple of months. In February, Fishman led another group of people to deliver letters to Sen. Ted Cruz's (R-Texas) office expressing support for the Democrats' legislative gun control proposals.

OfA's grassroots efforts are set to get an upgrade. Last week, software company NGP VAN and OfA announced that they had struck a deal so that volunteers can access the DNC's voter database. Access will be rolled out on a state by state basis and provided to regional team leaders who were trained to use the software during the 2012 campaign. OfA staff haven't figured out which states are going to go first.

Fishman, the Dallas-area OFA volunteer and former Obama for America team leader, said Friday that access will better enable her to encourage volunteers to contact their representatives in Congress.

She plans to use access to the VAN to organize phone banks to ask her fellow Texans to call their other representatives to persuade them to support gun control legislation.

"We've used it for social issues [such as the Affordable Care Act] in the past, and it's been extremely effective," she said.

Creating the link to voter file software was, itself, a test of OfA's abilities. As a 501(c)(4), there are things it can't do — like get involved in electoral campaigns the way a 527 might. Yet the campaign's voter file, and the @BarackObama Twitter account, began as campaign assets.

"I think that there's a legitimate argument to be made that Organizing for America, the social welfare organization, could be the beneficiary of the list, or other resources from the campaign. The campaign would have to argue that by promoting a progressive agenda, it enhances the electability of Democratic candidates, or Democratic candidates that Obama likes," said John Pomeranz, an attorney at the law firm of Harmon, Curran, Spielberg & Eisenberg, LLP in Washington, D.C.

Election lawyers discussing OFA online have said that what OFA is doing isn't new. After all, the conservative Christian media mogul and leader Pat Robertson used his presidential campaign resources in 1988 to start the Christian Coalition. What does stir controversy among campaign finance watchdogs however, is the idea that large donors to OFA get some kind of special access to the president, a charge that OFA representatives have refuted.

As Congress reconvenes, Senate lawmakers could start considering the Democrats' gun control proposals this week.