Big GOP Names Aim for the Grass Roots
Empower America calls for less regulation, less taxation, less government, but it is hurt by perception it is a Kemp-for-president body
SETTING up a government-in-exile isn't easy. Just ask the folks at Empower America.Skip to next paragraph
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Launched just as the Clinton administration was taking office, Empower America is a conglomeration of leading Republicans, including Jack Kemp, William Bennett, and Jeane Kirkpatrick. Their goal is to rally ordinary Americans behind a conservative Republican alternative to the administration's policies. But even the basic logistics of the task are daunting.
Months after Empower America's start-up, for instance, the large metal display in the group's lobby still read: "1st Chicago - the First National Bank of Chicago." Underneath, there was a small, handwritten sign spelling out the name of the office's new tenant. The bank sign has come down recently, but, says spokesman Dan Cohen, "We're still not in full gear yet."
"We have just about all of our staff in here, but they're not in offices yet. Painting is going on," Mr. Cohen reports. "I'm in the conference room now with four to five colleagues and moving boxes. We're making do, coexisting. It's a campaign atmosphere."
No wonder Empower America has had trouble getting up to speed: It's sailing into uncharted waters. The closest parallel is the Democratic Leadership Council, set up in the 1980s by centrist Democratic officeholders, including a young Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton, to nudge their party rightward. Like the DLC, Empower America aims to combine practical politicking - holding meetings, raising money, staging press conferences - with theorizing about the best ways to solve America's problems.
One big difference: The DLC was an unabashedly one-party organization, whereas Empower America's tax-exempt status allows it to get involved in issues-organizing but not in endorsing political candidates. "We're political, but not a Republican Party organ. Otherwise, we would be called the Republican Leadership Council," says former Rep. Vin Weber (R) of Minnesota, who is the group's president.
Sitting in a bare conference room, the balding and bespectacled Mr. Weber argues that the group has an important role to play. "Neither party does a good job of grass-roots organizing," Weber says. "But the Perot campaign showed that people want to get involved in nonpartisan, grass-roots organizations that concentrate on a broad range of issues."
Thus, Empower America pitches itself as an alternative - right down to the similar name - to United We Stand America Inc., Ross Perot's grass-roots organ. It even has Orson Swindle, Mr. Perot's former spokesman, as a member. But one thing it lacks is the Texan's big bucks.
Empower America was set up with roughly $800,000 in seed money, much of it donated by such major contributors as investment banker Theodore Forstmann and publisher Steve Forbes. It hopes to raise a total of $4 million this year. The group has now launched a direct-mail appeal that will generate small individual donations and a long mailing list - a prerequisite for success in modern political organizing.