Politics & Policy

Barack’s PIRG Past

Obama learned the community organizing trade from Ralph Nader's shady outfit.

There’s been a lot of talk about Barack Obama’s time as a community organizer and whether it’s a relevant qualification for someone who wants to be leader of the free world. Everyone has heard how Obama turned down a cushy Wall Street job to work as a community organizer in Chicago housing projects. After three years, Obama’s major accomplishments were removing some asbestos from the projects and opening a job office.

That experience has been held up either as an example of Obama’s altruism or as evidence of an inexperienced candidate’s résumé padding. So the jury’s still out on what Barack Obama’s community organizing experience means.

But few if any people have considered that Barack’s time in Chicago’s housing projects is not his only experience as a community organizer. A year after graduating from Columbia University, an idealistic Obama spent a year as an organizer for the New York Public Interest Group (NYPIRG) at the City College of New York in Harlem. According to the New York Times, “The job required winning over students on the political left, who would normally disdain a group inspired by Ralph Nader as insufficiently radical, as well as students on the right and those who were not active at all.” [That is a laughably generous description — Ralph Nader is “insufficiently radical” for The New York Times?]

As it happens, I am intimately familiar with PIRG organizing, and I know from firsthand experience that — aside from their radical politics — PIRGs are often corrupt, morally bankrupt, lacking in transparency, and frequently decried as such even by their fellow travelers on the Left. That a young Obama would be involved in it suggests that the young Obama was either very naïve or had very radical politics, or both.

First some background: Originally envisioned and founded by Ralph Nader, PIRGs are grassroots lobbying groups for progressive legislation. Originally started in Washington D.C., the groups spread to college campuses and started numerous state chapters around the country in the 1970s.

As it happens, the oldest college PIRG chapter in the country belongs to my alma mater, the University of Oregon. As undergrad involved in campus journalism who served in student government, most of my time outside of class was spent railing against the openly corrupt Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG). PIRGs claimed to be fighting for legislation to benefit students in their campus community. The reality was a total scam.

Since the early 1970s, OSPIRG would receive funding — hundreds of thousand of dollars’ worth, which made it the best-funded student group on campus — through a student-body vote every two years. That vote would take place during student-government elections, in which only 5 to 10 percent of U of O’s 17,000 students typically vote. So OSPIRG needed only about 800 votes to get a big fat check.

What do they do with the money? Your guess is as good as mine. Unlike every other student group on campus — which have line-item budgets and have to use a purchase order for expenditures in order to account for every dime of funding — OSPIRG gets a straight cash disbursement. That’s it as far as accountability goes. The mandatory student-activity fee at U of O was so bloated that paying for extracurricular student groups amounted to about one-seventh the cost of my in-state tuition at the time. To have so much of that student-fee money being allocated by so few votes and being spent with so little reckoning is a first-rate scandal.

Once they have the U of O students’ money, the public-university PIRG funnels (or launders) it to PIRG’s state lobbying organization in the form of ridiculous consulting fees, rent on offices they don’t use, etc. Because there is no fiscal accountability, it is impossible to demonstrate that even a single dime is spent on campus. The flow of funds between Oregon Student PIRG and Oregon State PIRG — both called OSPIRG, which often share personnel — is deliberately confusing. This is crucial because the two organizations have different tax statuses. The student PIRG is a 501(c)3 that can accept public funds but can’t lobby, but the state PIRG is 501(c)4 meaning it can’t accept public funds but can lobby.

No one ever knew what OSPIRG was doing with all that student-fee money. Students involved in the organization were usually deluded hippies (and anyone who’s ever visited Eugene knows that that phrase is more descriptive than derogatory). For traveling around the state canvassing door-to-door, these patchouli packers were paid near-starvation wages. PIRGs use byzantine incentive structures that mean that canvassers are often paid far below minimum wage — pretty shocking for a “progressive” organization. In any case, it’s safe to say OSPIRG wasn’t spending the money on salaries.

What they were doing was lobbying for Naderite, far-left legislation with which the students whose money they were using might not have agreed — but who had no choice in the matter. And what really made me indignant was how the scam continued year after year. The state PIRG was active and effective in getting the students who worked for PIRG elected into student government, thus ensuring that the scam continued in perpetuity. That’s right — PIRGs flood student-government elections with thousands of dollars of special-interest money to ensure they get the bigger pot of money.

In 1998, the student body for the first time voted down OSPIRGs subsidy after 20-something years of constant funding. What happened? Unfortunately, students voted the campus OSPIRG president as the new student-body president in the same election. A dutiful Naderite, the new president immediately held an illegal special election to get OSPIRG’s money back. (Who calls a special election in student politics?!). With even fewer people voting than normal in their typically abysmal election turnout, OSPIRG’s funding was restored.

When corporations fund politicians in order to have friends in public office, an outraged Ralph Nader howls. But when his lobbying organizations do it — the self-designated guardians of the “public interest” — to keep the publicly funded gravy-train rolling, it’s a perfectly acceptable practice.

Now PIRG tactics may vary across the country, so I’m not suggesting that Obama was caught up in any corrupt activity. (Then again, NYPIRG runs a similarly questionable funding scheme at CUNY schools like CCNY.) But it is fair to say that PIRG organizing everywhere has a shady reputation, even among those who would otherwise be the ideological compatriots of PIRGs. Left wing blogs run lengthy, detailed exposes of PIRG scams. And over the years, I’ve found the most rabid PIRG haters are former employees who are dedicated to exposing PIRG lies. (See this account of one former PIRG employee.) And more to the point, grassroots PIRG organizing is regarded as being of dubious value — even the lefty magazine The American Prospect endorses the view that PIRG is “strangling progressive politics in America.”

Moreover, according to the New York Times, when USPIRG head Gene Karpinski met Obama in 2004 at the Democratic convention, Obama reportedly confessed to Karpinski, “I used to be a PIRG guy. You guys trained me well.” The fact that Obama still felt that way 25 years after he was a young and impressionable PIRG organizer is a terrifying statement that speaks directly to Obama’s competency and character.

– Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.


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