Busy Season Just Starting For Social Advocates

September 15, 2008       Eleanor Clift      

This election season is for social justice groups what tax season is for accountants — their busiest time ever. Name the cause, they’re revving up visibility, registering voters and drawing up wish lists for the next president’s first hundred days. The federal budget is tight but there are executive orders to issue, regulations to lift or impose, and appointments to be made. The stakes are high and the jockeying is fierce.

“Every group is trolling for opportunities,” says Nan Aron, president of Alliance for Justice, an association of public interest and civil rights groups. We met for lunch at Levante’s, a Middle Eastern restaurant off Dupont Circle in Washington. Over salad and flat bread, Aron told me that with almost every progressive issue under assault during President Bush’s eight years, and with only a small window to influence the outcome of the election, tax lawyers on her staff are getting bombarded daily with questions from nonprofits all over the country on how far they can go as an aggressive advocate without stepping over the line and risking their C-3 tax status.

Groups promoting social justice issues are generally more at home in the Democratic Party, but if they want to preserve their tax status, they’ve got to have a presence at both political conventions. “We’ve never seen so many organizations holding events,” says Aron. She ticks them off. Pro-choice groups, environmental groups, human rights, gay rights, peace groups, the American Association for Justice, which used to be ALTA, the Association of Trial Lawyers, civil-rights, women’s groups. They’re all in the political arena drawing attention to their issue. Score cards, listing how people vote, are popular because they deliver the goods while steering clear of any partisan blowback that could alert the IRS regarding inappropriate electioneering by charities. On most issues, there are good guys and bad guys on both sides of the aisle, and singling them out is an effective tactic.

Another way to elevate your issue, says Aron, is to get it on the agenda for the fall debates. Three presidential debates and one vice-presidential face-off are scheduled between late September and mid-October. Unlike past years where a panel of journalists posed questions, each event will have a single moderator. “We’re going to be working on the people preparing to moderate the debates to get them to ask a question about the Supreme Court,” says Aron. Political activists understand that key rulings like Roe v Wade hang in the balance depending on who wins in November. Educating the broader public about the election’s impact on the Supreme Court is Aron’s goal.

While the national media focuses on the presidential election, state ballot initiatives consume a lot of the time and energy of progressive groups. Dismantling affirmative action is on the ballot in Arizona. California’s Proposition 8 would ban gay marriage and reverse the ruling of the state’s Republican-dominated Supreme Court legalizing gay unions. In South Dakota, pro-life groups have rewritten a measure banning abortion that failed in 2006 to include an exception for rape and the health of the mother, giving it broader appeal.

A number of nonprofits are involved in voter registration particularly among immigrant groups, raising the hackles of Republicans who suspect fraud in any large-scale effort to bring in new voters. Civil rights groups are doing “election protection work” to head off any replay of Florida 2000 or Ohio 2004.

The next president will face at least three big ticket items – the Iraq war, the economy and healthcare. That means social-justice groups with their pent-up agendas will have to scale down their sights. Getting an executive order signed or getting a toehold in an agency might not sound like much, but it’s how you change the direction of government, says Aron. Mastering the bureaucracy is the predicate to everything in Washington, and there’s an army of groups getting ready for the transition to a new administration.

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This article is from NPT Weekly, a publication of The NonProfit Times.

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