Politics & Policy

Who “We”?

A stealth political opponent takes on Tom DeLay and the GOP.

Across the nation at least 42 House Republicans from 14 states are being targeted in their home districts by phone calls issuing an “ethics alert” regarding their member’s association with former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. The calls are not coming from the usual suspects, though: MoveOn.org or the Democratic party. In fact, no one seems to know from just where they originate.

Arizona voters in Jim Kolbe’s district received the following prerecorded message last weekend:

This is an ethics alert from “We the People” regarding Congressman Jim Kolbe. On Wednesday, Jim Kolbe’s close associate and political ally, Republican Leader Tom DeLay, was indicted on felony conspiracy charges for campaign money laundering. Jim Kolbe has voted twice to shield Tom Delay from investigation. Call Congressman Jim Kolbe and tell him to stop protecting Tom DeLay and demand DeLay’s immediate resignation from Congress. Let’s cut out the cancer of corruption in Congress.

In addition, National Review Online has received an audio file of the same message targeting Kentucky House Republican Ann Northup.

When call recipients attempted to trace the number, they were either forwarded to the targeted congressional member’s office, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, or the national Democratic-party headquarters in Washington.

DeLay spokesman Kevin Madden tells NRO, “It’s a campaign that will wither and die. The Democratic party is now wholly defined as a party that is out of ideas and intent only on peddling anger and obstruction to voters. What does it say about them that they have a stealth group attacking Tom DeLay, yet they haven’t produced one idea or solution on the economy, the war on terror, energy prices, or Social Security reform? It says they are intellectually and politically bankrupt.”

Kentucky Republican Congressman Geoff Davis added in a statement:

Political committees are required to include legal disclaimers on paid recorded telephone calls. It really shows the caliber of the people who are behind this that they invent a shadow organization that has no phone number to make harassing phone calls with no disclaimer. They are so dishonest and these attacks so ridiculous that they have to hide behind fake organizations and illegal phone calls.

While the agenda of “We the People” certainly seems to be anti-Republican, there is no known proof they are coordinating with Democrats. In fact, representatives from state Democratic parties Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania officially denied any knowledge of or connection with the group when contacted by NRO.

After hearing about the calls, I did a records search to see what information I could find on this self-described group, “We the People.” There is no such group listed as an active 527 organization with the IRS. The only groups bearing similar titles ceased to be politically active in 2001 and 2002. The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics went through all of their search methods before concluding, “There just doesn’t seem to be an active listing for any group like this.”

There are several active organizations who share the “We the People” moniker, some on the Left, some on the Right and at least one claiming to be independent. Former California governor and current Oakland mayor Jerry Brown founded one. But its focus is more on arts and cultural issues. Another is an anti-tax organization. Not exactly prime fodder for attacking Republican lawmakers up for reelection. None of the known groups owns any connection to the “We the People” phone campaign.

No one is perfect at researching political organizations and their spending habits. But the Center for Responsive Politics is widely the most-knowledgeable organization on such matters. Nonetheless, I figured if they didn’t have a listing for the group, perhaps those actually being targeted by “We the People” might know more. Unfortunately, they do not. One of the first places I went to looking for answers was the National Republican Congressional Committee. NRCC spokesman Carl Forti told NRO, “We haven’t been able to track them down yet. We’ve felt we were close a few times, but then it didn’t come together. All the places you’ve been searching, we’ve been there too – hopefully first.”

A number of congressional offices tell NRO they have received multiple complaint calls from their constituents. J. D. Hayworth spokesman Larry VanHoose says, “We received several calls over the weekend form constituents. They received a call back number at the end of the message, but that just took them back to our office number. Several of them went online looking for the organization but nothing turned up.”

Beyond the constituent complaints themselves, a number of House Republican offices say this isn’t the first time they have been targeted by such a group. For instance, “We the People” targeted Ohio Republican Bob Ney earlier this year for his support of the war in Iraq.

There is no shortage of irony in the efforts of “We the People.” After all, they are targeting a member of Congress on ethics charges by campaigning in a potentially illegal manner against elected officials under the pretense of a legitimate organization. What’s more, some of their targets just don’t make sense.

Connecticut Republican Chris Shays has long been a vocal opponent of Tom DeLay. Months before DeLay’s indictment, Shays called for him to step down as Majority Leader. Shays has even publicly lamented that Tom DeLay is the reason he will never been House Speaker. However, Shays is also in the midst of a challenging re-election bid for a seat in a district becoming less solidly conservative.

Chris Shays even received his own unique attack ad from the group that reads as follows:

From “We the people”–a nonpartisan, organization fighting against political corruption in Washington, D.C. Last week, Congressman Christopher Shays voted once again to protect House leader Tom DeLay from an investigation into charges of ethical misconduct. House Republicans have again forced the ethics committee to shut down after operating for only 1 day this year. Call Christopher Shays at NUMBER and tell him to stop blocking the investigations of the house ethics committee.”

Shays’s reelection campaign spokesman Michael Sohn tells NRO, “This negative hit group must be joking with its ridiculous attacks. Anyone who follows politics knows that no one has been more outspoken against Tom DeLay’s ethics and agenda than Chris Shays. In fact, in April, Chris called for DeLay to step down as majority leader … These ROBO calls are not only a nuisance for residents in Southwest Connecticut, they are just plain lies.”

Democrats in Congress and their liberal supporters make no secret of their disdain for Tom DeLay. In fact, many organizations such as MoveOn.org make DeLay an open subject for their fundraising efforts. So, why would a stealth group like “We the People” even be needed to target the embattled Republican leader? A group like “We the People” can target DeLay with an array of allegations without fear of political fallout for liberals. Another advantage is that those funding the phone campaign are able to operate outside the federal campaign finance laws. What remains unknown is the actual impact of the campaign. At most, they seem to be irritating the same voters they are trying to convert. At the same time, they are espousing views on political morality while violating the very laws designed to shepherd the ethics of advocacy.

Eric Pfeiffer writes the daily political “Buzz” feature on NRO.

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