Monday, July 21, 2008

Some thoughts on the NOW conference

As always, there were great speakers and informative workshops. However, I have some concerns I would like to share: problems with the process of passing resolutions about political candidates and concerns about the stand NOW seems to be taking with respect to the Obama campaign.

From what I heard at the conference, it appears that the strategy is to focus on the evils of McCain (and the man is truly scary) without saying much good about Barack Obama. In one session I attended, Kim Gandy noted briefly that Obama had called her and that they had a conversation. She said that he was aware that the NOW conference was taking place, and sent his regards to our members. That was it.

At a session on the upcoming presidential election, I was able to stay for two of the speakers who stressed the importance of getting rid of the Republicans. Ellie Smeal, as always, gave an impassioned, informative speech which focused exclusively on the horrors of McCain. I did not hear Kim Gandy’s speech but it appears that in this session, as one of our members said to me, “Obama was the invisible man.”

The subtext here (although I assume not the intended one) is that our motivation to vote is a solely a negative one—defeating Mc Cain.

I do not see Barack Obama as the lesser of two evils and I know that Ellie Smeal and many others NOW members do not view him this way. He has an excellent voting record on our issues, has done an amazing job of bring young people into the political process and has been way ahead of other political leaders in foreign policy matters (the folly of the Iraq war, the greater danger posed by Afghanistan). He is a strong candidate with much to offer. This needs to be part of the message as much as the nightmare of a McCain presidency.

In a presidential election, most voters want to vote FOR someone—not just vote against a horrible candidate. There are so many reasons to vote FOR Barack Obama. We need to weave these pro-Obama points into our message about the evils of Mc Cain.

With regard to the process, it is unclear how members are to have input into political decisions. Philadelphia NOW had intended to introduce a resolution that National NOWPAC endorse Barack Obama. The resolution was ruled out of order, as was the resolution from another group, that National NOWPAC sponsor a write-in campaign for Hillary Clinton. The argument was that 501c4 organizations can not in any way support or urge support for a political candidate.

I am surprised by this because the National NOW Board, a 501c4, had urged the National NOWPAC to endorse Hillary Clinton.

The organizing manual I refer to when I have questions about election law (Organizing for Social Change, published by Midwest Academy) states that “Unlike a 501c3, a 501c4 may carry out some partisan political activities without jeopardizing its tax-exempt status as long as such activities do not become the primary activity of the organization.” The section on the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) states that a 501c4 “may endorse a candidate to its members and announce that enforcement through its usual press channels.”

In view of this, I question why these two resolutions were deemed to be in violation of FECA. (I am not a specialist in election law and of course may be missing something here.)

It may be that National NOW for its own internal reasons (as opposed to being required to do so by election code) wants to prohibit any political activity by the 501c4 and to have all such political action handled by the NOWPAC.

Whatever the reason, banning all resolutions involving partisan political activity leaves members with no avenue for input.

The PAC is not a membership organization. I have never had experience with a PAC which is a membership organization, although most progressive PACs I have dealt with are affiliated with membership organizations. However, a PAC probably could be constituted as a membership organization.

Right now the subset of NOW (NOWPAC) which handles political activity is not a membership organization, and recommendations from the membership of the 501c4 organization to the PAC are ruled as in violation of election law. So how are ordinary grassroots members to have input regarding political candidates??? This is a serious issue which needs to be addressed.