Equinox, a linen tablecloth restaurant frequented by Washington power brokers, is an unlikely spot to hatch a progressive revolution.
But a group of liberal lawmakers and Congressional candidates gathered there late last month for a dinner hosted by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a young liberal political action committee, hoping to turn the energy of the Occupy Wall Street protests into electoral and legislative victories.
So far this year, the group — part political consulting firm, part lobby shop — has raised more than $1 million for its advocacy and campaign work, according to federal filings, and has raised nearly $600,000 for five Democrats running for Congress in 2012.
On the trail, they shape candidates’ messages, produce advertisements and staff campaigns, hoping that when the candidates get to Washington, they will support the PCCC agenda.
Two lobbyists work on behalf of PCCC’s nonprofit advocacy arm, P Street Project, and like others on K Street, make financial contributions to lawmakers who advance their cause. When Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.) introduced a bill to make it easier for customers to switch banks, PCCC helped raise $10,000 for his campaign. When Democratic Reps. Jared Polis (Colo.) and Chellie Pingree (Maine) wrote a letter in support of the public option during the health care debate, PCCC rewarded each with a $30,000 check.
“When candidates are in election mode, we try to teach them how to work with progressives,” said Adam Green, who co-founded the group in December 2008. “Then when they’re in governing mode, we say, ‘Hey, there’s an entire movement waiting to get your back,’ and it’s not a foreign concept to them. … The effectiveness of our efforts goes up exponentially if we have one or two partners inside Congress.”
As tech-savvy and nimble as the young group is — most of its 16 staffers are in their mid-20s — its lobbyists have struggled to maintain momentum with Democrats out of power in the House. In addition, Democratic campaign officials and lawmakers who have worked with PCCC have criticized the group for flying off message and hogging the spotlight.
“A lot of puffery and promoting and grandstanding. … They come with baggage,” said one Democratic consultant whose candidates have worked with PCCC. “We don’t want them on camera at all. We want their money … [but] them going on camera and contradicting our message is very bad.”
The concerns also extend to PCCC’s lobbying activities on the Hill.
As tent cities of the Occupy protests sprang up in cities around the country and outrage flared over Bank of America’s decision to charge $5 a month for debit cards, PCCC lobbyists launched an aggressive campaign for Miller’s bank legislation. In 24 hours, the group got more than 52,000 signatures on a petition displayed on its website under the banner “Stand up to Bank of America and Support Brad Miller’s bill”
“It was a little uncomfortable for me that they made it so much about Bank of America,” Miller told Roll Call. “They saw it as a political organizing tool, an issue that people understand.”
The group spent more than $2 million in the last cycle and has already raised more than $435,000 for Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren (D), who is challenging Sen. Scott Brown (R) for his Massachusetts seat. PCCC has also raised more than $86,000 for State Sen. Eric Griego, who is running for Congress in New Mexico’s 1st district, according to the group’s latest internal tally.
Other groups have raised a lot more — MoveOn.org spent $29 million last cycle — but Green said inexperienced campaigners often waste that money on expensive pollsters and media consultants.
PCCC tries to defray those costs. It produced an ad for former Arkansas Lt Gov. Bill Halter, who tried to oust former Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the 2010 Democratic primary, splitting the cost with four other organizations so they would not exceed the $5,000 in-kind contribution limit. This year, the group helped hire two of the four staffers for the Griego campaign.
“They talk with us all the time to bounce around ideas and to discuss staffing issues,” said Ed Yoon, Griego’s campaign manager. “How should we message this particular issue — for example, the super committee.”
“Some of their employees came down and became essentially part of my team,” Halter said. “The challenge of that is making sure that everyone is on the same page.”
Green said the group is also developing its own polling software that it will offer to candidates as an alternative to professional pollsters, who can charge as much as $25,000 for a survey.
During the health care fight, the group solicited its members to create a full-page advertisement that would run in the New York Times. A 24-year-old graphic designer who responded to the plea designed an ad for the group costing just $2,500; it was published and recognized as the best newspaper public affairs ad of the year by the American Association of Political Consultants.
The synergy between PCCC’s electoral and legislative missions should, at least theoretically, lay the groundwork for the kind of relationship that conservative groups such as FreedomWorks have established with conservative members of the Republican Party.
But liberal activists said PCCC is bumping up against a cultural obstacle.
“The rank-and-file mass grass-roots Republican Party has learned and is aware of the idea that party does not trump principle,” said David Sirota, a Denver-based operative who created the Center for American Progress’ “Progress Report.” “Among rank-and-file Democratic activists, there is this notion that if we pressure Democrats, we will hurt them and they will lose the election.”
PCCC hired its first full-time lobbyist in April 2010, but she left a year later because she said she couldn’t get traction after Democrats lost the majority in the House. PCCC reported spending $60,000 on lobbying during that period.
“In 2011, it became impossible to make serious impacts on policy issues,” said Shaunna Thomas, the group’s former lobbyist. “For the most part, our allies were still in office, but it seemed to me that they were getting very clear directives that this was about party solidarity. … They were done challenging leadership. They were done indulging their bosses in these policy fantasies that weren’t going to be politically viable.”
Green said he’s hired two new lobbyists who are in the process of registering with the federal government, but even the most liberal Members are skeptical of what progressive lobbyists can accomplish.
“It is pretty hard for advocacy groups on the left to make a difference, ” said Pingree, one of PCCC’s allies in Congress.
“The only real agenda, in a way, is fighting off the bad stuff.”