NEW YORK (Reuters) - On Wednesday, some of President Barack Obama’s most dedicated donors will fly to Washington and pony up $50,000 to attend a fundraiser for Organizing for Action, a progressive new kid on the block trying to counter the likes of Karl Rove and the Koch brothers.
Obama will give a speech to the group, an independent non-profit that is trying to use the data, know-how, and connections of the president’s campaign to improve the chances of passing new gun laws and immigration reform.
Their host will be Jon Carson, a soft-spoken political operative who trained as a civil engineer. As the group’s executive director, he has been given the task of reviving one of the most successful campaign machines in history, and providing a counterweight to the multimillion-dollar empires managed by Republican strategist Rove and conservative billionaire activists David and Charles Koch.
On the face of it, Carson, a former Peace Corps volunteer, seems an odd fit for the snarling world of deep-pocketed, partisan organizations that came into their own in the 2012 campaign, unbridled by a Supreme Court decision allowing unrestricted amounts of money to flood into U.S. politics.
A survey of colleagues and even political rivals tends to bring back one word for Carson: “nice,” not necessarily the most desirable trait in politics today.
Compared to other top campaign advisers, Carson, 37, has maintained a low profile throughout the last four years working at the White House as an environmental adviser and then as director of the Office for Public Engagement.
Through a spokeswoman, Carson declined a request for an interview.
While the White House describes the organization as independent, Obama will dine with the group’s donors and give a speech at Wednesday’s event, billed as the “Founders’ Summit” for the two-month-old organization.
If the president is able to pass meaningful reform to gun laws, increase taxes on the wealthy, or squeeze new immigration laws through Congress, it will be thanks in part to Carson.
Raised in small-town, western Wisconsin, Carson grew up in a place proud of its organic farms and hockey games where lawyers skated with firemen. In high school, Carson spent summers wading through swamps to assist geography professor Stanley Trimble in his research of the Mississippi River.
“He was really into streams,” said Trimble, who later taught Carson when the young man moved west to pursue a master’s degree at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Carson was into Democratic politics too, volunteering for a state assembly race while attending University of Wisconsin-Platteville. The insurgent candidate Mark Kastel said his 1996 campaign was centered on attacking the influence of special interest money in politics — just the sort of charges Carson now faces at Organizing for Action.
From there, with detours to graduate school and building water systems in Choluteca, Honduras while in the Peace Corps, Carson hopscotched from one campaign to the next. Managing Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth’s losing congressional campaign in 2006, Carson connected with Obama advisers, which led to a role in the Illinois senator’s presidential campaign the next year.
In 2008, Carson was appointed national field director for Obama, charged with leading the 770 volunteer offices. He earned a reputation as a numbers geek like Obama senior adviser David Plouffe. In his memoir about the campaign, Plouffe wrote that he once flirted with the idea of leaving his post as campaign manager and wanted Carson to be his replacement.
After the Obama campaign, Carson joined the White House where colleagues said he was ribbed for ill-fitting suits and speaking Spanish with the prairie twang of his native Wisconsin.
Eventually becoming director of the White House’s public outreach effort, Carson and his colleagues were best known for responding to online petitions addressed to the White House. In January, Carson replied to hundreds of thousands of petitioners from Texas and other states, saying the Obama administration would not let the states secede from the United States.
‘ORGANIZING FOR ACCESS’
Organizing for Action has been dogged by accusations from campaign finance reform advocates and Republican organizations that the group was fundraising on the promise that it could grant access to the president.
American Crossroads, the group led by Rove, a former top aide to President George W. Bush, mocked its new rival as “Organizing for Access” in a web video.
As a non-profit focused on social welfare issues rather than political campaigns, Organizing for Action is not obliged to disclose its funding. But in response to the criticism, the group announced last week that it would voluntarily declare the source of any donations above $250. While open to donations from unions, the group said it would bar corporate money.
It has yet to release the names of early donors. Some events at Wednesday’s conference will be open to the media, giving a first indication of which bold-faced names from the Obama campaign have signed up to support the new group.
For the most part, Democratic donors have brushed off the criticism as mock outrage.
“Oh my god! A president is helping raise money for something where you might be able to meet him?” said Dick Harpootlian, a money bundler for the president, who hired Carson a decade ago to assist with turnout efforts for the South Carolina Democratic Party. “C‘mon, guys. This is the real world. I don’t know who the hell out there thinks that people who raise money don’t get to meet the president.”
‘NO ONE HAS EVER TRIED TO DO THIS’
On a daily basis, representatives from the group send out emails to millions of Obama supporters, a list that the group says is the largest in political history, encouraging volunteers to knock on doors and call Republican lawmakers to promote Obama’s program, especially on immigration and tax reform.
“We have one simple goal which is to advocate for the passage of the president’s legislation,” said Jim Messina, Obama’s former campaign manager and the chair of Organizing for Action.
In its first advertising campaign launched last month, the group targeted a dozen Republican lawmakers with online messages encouraging them to support universal background checks for potential gun owners.
Conservative activists say they are not intimidated.
“History would suggest that Obama’s brand is much stronger in a campaign context,” said Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for American Crossroads. “It’s unclear that he would be able to sign up volunteers and donors in support of a policy initiative like gun control.”
Mitch Stewart, the Obama campaign’s 2012 battleground state director, led Organizing for America, a similar group started in 2009 that tried to rally support for the president’s health care proposals. He said the new group could have a very large impact on legislation, while cautioning that the enthusiasm around a campaign is difficult to match in a legislative fight.
His group’s troubles may be a cautionary tale. In 2010, a report in Politico described Organizing for America as “a soulless, top-down machine that’s alienating the base, even as some state party officials complain that the group is stepping on their toes.”
If the new group does succeed, the next question will be whether an organization managed by Obama’s allies and founded on Obama’s campaign apparatus can outlast Obama’s presidency.
The fashionable term among current and former Obama aides about Organizing for Action is that it will be “sustainable.”
One former Obama organizer picked an unlikely precedent for the group: the National Rifle Association, arguing that Carson could stand up a group for the left that has the power to cajole lawmakers into toeing the progressive line.
“We’re figuring this out as we are going along,” Messina said. “No one has ever tried to do this.”
Reporting By Samuel P. Jacobs; Editing by Claudia Parsons