THE sun is out and a slight breeze ripples through still-bare trees as a small crowd gathers near the Boston waterfront in early spring. The festivities begin with loudspeakers blaring patriotic music and organizers passing out T-shirts. Then a group of men dressed as colonial militiamen let off a thunderous volley with their muskets. The rally is under way.
This could be any political meeting anywhere, except for a few odd facts. First, it is happening this year, with no major election in sight. Second, the featured speaker is former Sen. Paul Tsongas, who says he does not plan to run for any public office again. And, finally, the speechifying focuses on only one concern: reducing the federal budget deficit.
That is the raison dtre of the Concord Coalition, a national grass-roots group whose Massachusetts chapter organized this kickoff rally.
The coalition was formed in September 1992 by Mr. Tsongas, a candidate for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination; Warren Rudman, a New Hampshire Republican who quit the Senate last year; and Peter Peterson, a Wall Street investment banker. That the Concord Coalition formed at all "was almost an accident," Mr. Rudman says. Message struck chord
On April 10, 1992, Rudman and Tsongas appeared together from Concord, Mass., on CBS News's "Face the Nation." During the program, the two veteran politicians found themselves agreeing that a bipartisan, grass-roots organization could do a lot to pressure the nation's politicians to reduce the deficit. That message struck a responsive chord with the public, and half a year later, Rudman, Tsongas, and Mr. Peterson were standing in front of a "deficit clock" in New York City to announce the formation of the
Concord Coalition. "It didn't happen by design or plan, but it couldn't have worked out much better," Rudman says.
The coalition aims to reduce the deficit through a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. Among the steps the Concord Coalition advocates is a cap on entitlement programs, such as Social Security. While Tsongas and Rudman are less than happy with Clintonomics, they direct their real fire at Congress. Their former colleagues are reluctant to make the "hard choices" needed to drive down the deficit, they contend.
"Congress is the perfect weather vane," Tsongas says. "The way you change a weather vane is not by asking it to point in a different direction. You change a weather vane by changing the direction of the wind. That's why this has to be a grass-roots effort." Encouraging response
Tsongas admits that he may not be able to convince most Americans to go along with his stern solutions, but he has been cheered by the response to his group's message so far.
The coalition's toll-free telephone number has been flooded by more than 120,000 calls, says field director Kitty Kurth. And each TV appearance by Tsongas or Rudman generates another flurry: 14,000 calls after they were on C-SPAN, 10,000 calls after PBS.
The Concord Coalition now has about 16,000 members who pay at least $25 each. But only about half of its $600,000 budget for 1993 comes from small donations; the rest is chipped in by wealthy donors. Among the businessmen who have donated heavily to the group: Eugene Friedman of Coopers & Lybrand, an accounting firm; George Hetsopoulos of Thermo Electron, a Massachusetts high-tech firm; and New York takeover artist Henry Kravis.
Their donations finance a small core of paid staff members. The national coalition has eight full-time people distributed among offices in Washington, D.C., Massachusetts, and Arizona. The national staff supervises coordinators in about 40 states, many of them working full time.
In Massachusetts, for example, the state coordinator is Jonathan Edwards, a Democratic political consultant who worked on Tsongas's presidential campaign. He now works full time for the coalition (he refuses to disclose his salary). Much of Mr. Edwards's time is spent raising money from wealthy individuals and corporations because, he says, "To get grass-roots participation going you need an influx of large donations."
In building its grass-roots base, the Concord Coalition has a natural constituency among voters who supported Tsongas in last year's Democratic primaries or who backed Ross Perot in the general election. Both campaigns focused heavily on the need to reduce the deficit and drew voters who were disaffected with business as usual in Washington.
But Tsongas is careful to disassociate himself from Mr. Perot. The former Bay State senator says he agrees with Perot's economic message but the Texan has not shown "his emotional preparedness to be president." In some ways, the Concord Coalition represents Perotism without Perot.
Like Perot's group, the Concord Coalition seems to draw its support mainly from middle-of-the-road, white, middle-class, rural or suburban voters. Ms. Kurth, the coalition's field director, says: "We're very conscious of the fact that our three founders are white men from the Northeast. We try to overcompensate for that by reaching into states and getting `real people' involved."
But if the April 19 rally in Boston was any indication, the coalition has had only limited success in broadening its base. What the white, middle-class participants lacked in diversity, however, they made up for in enthusiasm.
John Gallant came from East Hampstead, N.H., to attend the Boston event because, he says, "It's time we did something to stop government from ruining us." The computer-firm employee, holding a coffee cup in one hand and a Boston Celtics hat in the other, says he is a former Republican who voted for Perot in the 1992 election. But he is concerned that the Texas billionaire may have ulterior motives for his political activity. By contrast, he says, "I like Mr. Tsongas. I think he's honest." Legacy for future
Sitting nearby is Jim O'Connell, an airline pilot from Peabody, Mass. A Democrat who also voted for Perot last year, he joined the Concord Coalition in October 1992 after seeing Tsongas and Rudman on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. Like many coalition members, he says that he is in the group because, "When my kid grows up I want to look him in the eye and say I tried to build a fair chance for his future."
Mr. O'Connell, who also belongs to Perot's United We Stand America, displays the kind of enthusiasm for deficit reduction that other people around here normally reserve for the Boston Red Sox.
"I've never been involved in politics before.... But I got my whole family involved in this," he says.
His wife, listening intently, pipes in: "He gets a little carried away sometimes."