While wandering through a maze of displays and tables at this year’s Pennsylvania Leadership Conference — a sort of mini-CPAC in Harrisburg — I met Skip Salvesen and Matt Balazik, the founders of a new and unique grassroots group in Pennsylvania.
Today, we sat down to talk about their group, the Pennsylvania Commercial Action Network, and the work they’re doing as we near election day.
Battle ‘10: What is the Pennsylvania Commercial Action Network, and what do you see as its potential for impact in the Commonwealth?
PaCAN is a non-partisan, non-profit group founded to organize small- and medium-sized businesses, their owners, and employees to educate the general public on the benefits of a free market and advocate small-business interests in the political arena. Previous attempts at organizing this constituent group — through the political parties — have been unsuccessful because most small business owners are hesitant about taking sides publicly. They fear reprisal or loss of business.
We have spoken to many business owners who are desperate to get involved in the political process, but fear alienating customers and making themselves a target of intimidation like Target INC. With PaCAN, business owners can confidentially donate funds that can be used for activism aligned with their interests.
PaCAN also contracts and professionalizes pro-business activists in communities around the Commonwealth, paying them to defend local small businesses by raising money and organizing business voices within their congressional district. As individuals start to relate the Pennsylvania business climate with their job, their votes better reflect their job’s best interest.
Battle ‘10: The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee will be pumping more than $4 million into Joe Sestak’s race against Pat Toomey in an effort to close the gap in poll numbers. What are some of the opportunities and challenges your group faces in a situation like this?
The DSCC is a well established fundraising organization. They have established donors and can raise money nationwide. PaCAN is a relatively new organization and fundraises primarily in Pennsylvania, but has already declared Joe Sestak as unfit for higher office.
We are organizing people all over the state to oppose Joe Sestak and his liberal policies. Like a business, we evaluate our return on our investment for every initiative we pursue. While the DSCC will be running television ads, PaCAN will be building strong, professionally organized, grassroots networks to turn out voters against Joe Sestak. These are neighbors talking to neighbors, friends talking to friends, and business owners engaging their employees. This message is trusted more than any attack ad paid for by the DSCC.
Battle ‘10: Are you finding support and interest mainly from Pennsylvanians or out of state interests? Without divulging confidential information, can you paint us a picture of what your base of support looks like?
Our primary support comes from business owners, employees and supporters of the free market. (PaCAN can’t accept money from corporations until the FEC responds to Citizens United.) We are finding that as people learn we exist, our support is building quickly. PaCAN hasn’t yet made any serious attempt to raise money outside of Pennsylvania, although, an out-of-state fundraising drive begins next month.
Our supporters are mostly local business owners, too small to have a government relations representative, who realizes that they must get involved to survive. More than six in ten business owners responding to the (unscientific) survey on our homepage say that they would not start their business over again given the present business climate in Pennsylvania. That’s stunning!
They have trusted us enough to defend their livelihood to make a monetary investment in us. We take their confidentiality very seriously. We know that they fear a radical group like MoveOn.org or ACORN targeting them for expressing their First Amendment rights.
Battle ‘10: What’s the difference between your group and a typical political action committee? How do you differ from all the other funds and groups that exist?
PaCAN has spent the better part of the year working with our attorneys to design internal policies that thread a needle through Supreme Court cases, non-profit and election law, and IRS and FEC regulations. We wanted to know from the beginning exactly where the law was so that we could take full advantage our rights. What we ended up with was a complicated set of firewalls, but we we’re able to raise funds for political purposes confidentially and in unlimited amounts.
Regular political action committees have to disclose to the government who their donors are and how much they donated. This makes these donors susceptible to intimidation, threats, destruction of property and boycotts. Those who think this is an overstatement need only to look at the case of Target Inc. and its attempt to exercise its first amendment rights. With PaCAN, those radical groups and community organizers who seek to shakedown and attack businesses are left only to wonder who our donors may be and how much they have donated.
We can do these things because we have a multi-faceted program that includes legislative advocacy, economic education and grassroots mobilization. While PaCAN is one of the few non-profits that can engage in express advocacy, we cannot coordinate with parties or candidates like a PAC can. PaCAN may, however, fund PACs, including its own, for coordinated activities.
Battle ‘10: What’s the long term vision or strategy for PA-CAN and Pennsylvania, politically?
The long term vision of PaCAN is to create center-right leverage systems that move legislators and bureaucrats toward a pro-job growth, pro-business growth environment in Pennsylvania that protects the American Dream. Once the PaCAN model has been proven, and we are very close to proving it successful, we would like to see it replicated in other states.
Battle ‘10 : Final thoughts?
Liberal groups have been building non-profits that take advantage of the organizational opportunities outside of any political party structure. They have incrementally marched public policy for decades. We intend to do the same from the the other side.
We currently have field representatives organizing seven congressional districts and are looking to train new people looking to protect the businesses in their community.
At its core we do things: create the opportunity for permanent, professional grassroots activists to build residuals and continually grow a network that represent fiscally conservative, small business friendly policies, and allow individuals who care about free enterprise to get involved without fear of reprisal.