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Richardson, Hispanic Members Lead Effort to Influence 527 Rulemaking

Once belittled as a toothless tiger, the Federal Election Commission seems more like the king of the jungle this election cycle as the watchdog agency prepares to weigh in on the fate of so-called 527 groups.

Last week, thousands of Americans flooded the agency with comments and advice on its plans for dealing with the independent groups that have proliferated in the aftermath of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.

As the agency plans to convene two days of hearings on the thorny subject Wednesday and Thursday, FEC commissioners have publicly disclosed the substance of telephone conversations with prominent public officials who have much to gain, or lose, depending on how the FEC comes down on the 527 issue.

On the ides of March, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) called Danny McDonald, a Democratic commissioner, and asked a few questions about the FEC’s proposed plans.

Richardson “then expressed concern about the political committee rulemaking, indicating he hoped the Commission would not do anything that would become effective during the height of this election cycle,” according to McDonald’s summation of the phone call.

Richardson, who has been mentioned frequently as a potential running mate to join Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) on the Democratic presidential ticket, has been active in the 527 arena, which at present appears to be dominated by Democrats.

Richardson is the vice president of an initiative called Voices for Working Families, a sustained voter mobilization effort aiming to increase voter participation by as much as 26 percent in target states, according to the group’s Web site. The governor, who also served as Energy secretary during the Clinton administration, is also a founder of Moving America Forward, a 527 group based in Albuquerque that is attempting to raise between $3 million and $5 million to help mobilize Hispanic voters to help Democrats in the 2004 election cycle.

The FEC’s anticipated decision — which is supposed to settle the controversial question of whether groups registered under Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code should have to register as federal political committees — could effectively shut down operations like those being conducted by Richardson, and in doing so change the money equation for the 2004 presidential election.

Fifteen Hispanic Members of Congress penned their concerns in an April 1 letter to FEC Chairman Brad Smith, a Republican, and Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat.

“We are writing to express our deep concerns about the pending Notice of Proposed rulemaking on ‘political committee status’ and the potential impact your Commission’s decision may have on the Hispanic vote in our country,” wrote Reps. Ciro Rodriguez (D-Texas), José Serrano (D-N.Y.), Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.) and 11 others.

The lawmakers noted that while there are more than 13.2 million Latinos of legal voting age, only 7.5 million were registered to vote in 2000 and only 5.9 million actually cast ballots. The group argued that voter registration and mobilization efforts are vital to helping Latinos increase their participation in the elections.

“Thus we are extremely opposed to the proposed rule that seeks to address ‘soft money’ in the context of grassroots activity to increase voter participation,” they wrote. “While all Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus at the time voted for the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, we strongly object to mid-cycle changes to the rules that govern political activity through a regulatory process.”

The FEC has yet to make publicly available the tens of thousands of comments it received on its rulemaking through Friday. The unprecedented level of e-mail was prompted by grassroots outreach by groups on both sides of the argument.

The Bush-Cheney campaign sent out e-mail alerts last week to thousands of supporters asking them to support the FEC in its efforts to curb the activities of 527s.

“As you know, special interest groups called ‘527s’ have been spending millions in unregulated soft money to defeat President Bush,” Bush-Cheney ’04 Chairman Marc Racicot wrote. “We need you to write a letter TODAY to the Federal Election Commission asking that John Kerry’s soft money special interest groups obey the law.”

At the same time, the AFL-CIO issued e-mail alerts to its Working Families e-Activist Network asking them to write the agency to oppose such action.

“The FEC now is proposing to redefine and broaden the scope of political organization definitions,” the April 7 AFL-CIO e-mail warned. “For example, any union, group, corporation, advocacy group, charity or nonfederal ‘527’ political organization that spends money on issue advocacy and nonpartisan voter outreach and says anything that might lead the FEC to conclude that the purpose is to influence the election could fall under these new regulations.”

“This is an outrageous assault on your free speech because under these new rules, the AFL-CIO and our unions would have to stop our campaign work on overtime pay, good jobs, health care and other issues,” the e-mail continued.

The FEC hearings this week will feature testimony Wednesday morning from attorney Jan Baran, representing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; Laurence Gold, associate general counsel for the AFL-CIO; lawyer Don Simon, who is representing Democracy 21; Alliance for Justice President Nan Aron; Richard Clair, the corporate counsel for the National right to Work Committee; and Craig Holman, legislative counsel for Public Citizen.

For a complete list of testimony and witnesses go

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