The Kerry Politburo's Meetup Purge
On seeing “Kerry Legal Team Updates” on the Thursday, June 24, Cleveland, Ohio Volunteer Meeting Agenda I was initially encouraged. Good to see the Kerry campaign gearing up for potential election day shenanigans, I thought.
Boy, was I wrong.
Apparently, the “Kerry Legal Team” held a national conference call with all 68 field staff in the Kerry campaign to deliver instructions on certain “well meaning people and groups” engaging in activities on behalf of John Kerry that were illegal.
Activities like selling John Kerry bumper stickers at house parties or “meetings”, or selling homemade John Kerry bumper stickers, anywhere, like at parades. Soliciting funds for the Kerry campaign. Passing the hat at a Kerry house party to raise funds for local party or candidate activities. “Representing yourself” as part of the Kerry campaign while engaging in such activities. All illegal.
Unless, of course, you are doing it under the direction of the “official” Kerry staff, for the “official” Kerry campaign. Phone banks at your house? Illegal. Phone banks at the friendly local law firms who we know and love, who we funnel people to all the time? Perfectly fine; in fact we’d like you all to volunteer for those phone banks.
The room of about 50 volunteers seemed a bit confused. Anxious. Wondering what the hell these people were talking about.
The Kerry staff continued, asserting that anyone running a Kerry operation on their own, opening an office, or running their own phone bank, risked legal action. In fact, the Kerry Legal Team in DC was preparing to shut many such operations down.
Realizing that this recently condemned illegal activity sounded a lot like what the Kerry Campaign Internet Meetups have been doing for the last year and a half, some volunteers present who were active in the Meetups asked in humorous futility, “Is it o.k. to go the Meetups? They’re ‘unauthorized’, does that make them illegal?”
The Kerry staff instructed that it would be o.k. to go to the Meetup, take some forms, and sign them up to work for the “official” campaign.
Meetup regulars started getting restless.
“What is the campaign?” one asked in frustration. “I’ve filled out numerous volunteer forms, and have yet to hear from anyone with the ‘official’ campaign.”
“You’re here tonight, aren’t you?” the top staffer responded. “We direct the campaign from here.”
“We’ve had a house party structure in place for over a year,” shot back the volunteer. “Are we supposed to stop that operation?”
“We welcome that into this group, here,” replied the staffer.
“You have to understand,” half joked the other staffer, “we don’t want to go to jail.”
After all of this discussion about illegal in-kind contributions or activities from “unauthorized” groups or people, the staffers then issued a blanket call for in-kind donations of office equipment; tables, chairs, phones, laptops.
That probably made the confusion unanimous.
I’ve been working in campaigns for many years, as volunteer and staff, at many levels. I have never seen a volunteer meeting so thoroughly dominated by a rambling, hamfisted, and mostly ignorant discussion of federal campaign finance laws and their dire consequences for volunteers.
Issuing such threats seemed to be the number one priority of the Cleveland Kerry staff. Everything else was an afterthought...recruiting, organizing, targeting...all of it took a back seat. Out of an hour long meeting, more than half of it was devoted to a legal debate that no one in the room was qualified to hold, but that the Kerry staff was eager to pound home with the gracefulness of a soviet politburo member pounding his shoe on the table.
Let's clear up one thing. Campaign finance laws are complicated, yes. They do not result in volunteers ending up in jail, ever.
It is important to make volunteers aware of the rules they must follow when campaigning. But that does not appear to be the intention of this new found, suddenly top-of-the-agenda emphasis on the FEC and how lawyers are about to hunt down “unauthorized” or “illegal” campaign activities.
Whether or not there is an intentional, national effort within the Kerry campaign to squash Meetups and the organizations they’ve built, it is certainly manifesting itself as such on the ground.
What may have been a legitimate conference call on minor legalities is being used, at least in Cleveland, Ohio (read – top targeted state) as a weapon in a petty turf battle over who controls the campaign.
It’s ugly, counterproductive, and likely to scare off a lot of the new people brought into the party by the unprecedented use of the Internet to re-energize the party through Meetups...which may be the intention of the “authorized” campaign.
Whatever the intention, the Meetup crowd carries on. After the 5.30 pm meeting on Thursday, at 7 p.m. a far more organized Kerry Meetup was held just across town, where the confused discussion of what might or might not be legal was continued reluctantly.
Amazing, isn't it? Let's go after GW. But first, let's get after each other.