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Obama Volunteers Chart Future of Grass-Roots Group

Organizing for Action, the nonprofit that officially launches Tuesday, will immediately begin pressing lawmakers to support the Obama administration’s proposals on gun control and a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws, the group’s leaders said Sunday.

But the grass-roots organization that helped propel President Barack Obama to a second term with 2.2 million volunteers and more than 1 million donors also seems likely to play a key role in the 2014 midterm elections.

Campaign staffers and volunteers who gathered in Washington, D.C., on Sunday to chart the group’s future said Democrats could have avoided critical losses in the 2010 midterm elections had they activated the Obama campaign machine. They pledged not to make that mistake again.

By operating outside the confines of the Democratic Party, the group, which is converting to a tax-free social welfare status, has leverage over Democratic members of Congress who don’t support its agenda. While it is not clear whether the organization will play kingmaker in primaries, organizers hope the possibility will keep lawmakers in line.

“The best way to utilize OFA is to help other Democratic candidates get elected who push the issues that the president supports,” said Lauren Elder, a Colorado volunteer who traveled to Washington for the conference. “It’s not just a national movement. It’s a local movement.”

The proposed structure — a network of local chapters — closely resembles that of the powerful conservative group Americans for Prosperity. AFP, also a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organization, has been criticized for abusing its tax status with hard-hitting advertisements and door-knocking that appeared to be more like campaigning than social welfare work.

OFA officials have said they will make donor names public, but because disclosure is not required by law, the organization can choose how much information it will reveal. The Presidential Inaugural Committee, for example, provided a bare-bones list of names without addresses, making it difficult to determine donor identities.

While some liberals see the move as hypocritical, others say it’s the price of politicking in the era of unrestricted political spending.

“Why would we single out one organization over another to hold them to a higher standard,” said David Donnelly, executive director of Public Campaign Action Fund.

Volunteers who expressed concerns Sunday about how the organization will be funded seemed more worried about raising enough money to sustain the operation than where that money would come from. As of late November, the organization, which raised more than $717 million during the campaign, had just less than $5.4 million in cash on hand, according to the most recent Federal Election Committee filings.

Jon Carson, director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, who will run the organization’s headquarters in Chicago, said that the each chapter would be responsible for raising money for its operations and local battles, while the national office would manage funding for issue campaigns.

“We are going to challenge you to lead it. We are going to challenge you to organize it, and we are going to challenge you to pay for it,” Carson said. “We are going to give you ownership at the local level.”

But the complications of redefining the sprawling operation were on display Sunday.

One OFA team leader who identified herself as Reno took to an open microphone to lambaste the organization for suspending access to its massive volunteer database, which is thought to be one of the group’s most valuable assets.

“We can’t find our people because VoteBuilder isn’t available. And that’s a problem,” Reno said.

The database of volunteers will be exclusive to Organizing for Action, but its voter lists remain available to the DNC and state parties, according to a source familiar with the plans.

Carson left little doubt that the organization will work in lockstep with the White House, a reality that some liberals say will weaken the movement.

“If OFA is an independent political force that represents Obama volunteers, that is a very exciting thing,” said Becky Bond, the political director at Credo Mobile, a progressive phone company. “If it is a set of tools and a pot of money that just ends up manufacturing grass-roots support for the presidents’ weak compromises with Republicans, that’s a bad thing.”

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