Citizen Action is Back, Sort of

The once powerful, far-left Citizen Action virtually committed suicide in 1996 when it became a key player in the Teamsters’ money-laundering scandal. According to court records, Citizen Action took two “donations” of $475,000 and $150,000 and routed $110,000 and $100,000, respectively, back to Carey’s reelection campaign.

But now, according to recent report in the far-left publication In These Times, this former federation of statewide leftist groups is attempting to resuscitate its network under the name U.S.  Action.  At a September 1998 meeting, the new group’s operatives pitched about 100 leftist leaders.  They claimed the new group would “grow beyond the limits of the old Citizen Action and learn from its mistakes.” Today, 39 statewide leftist groups have joined – only 16 of which came from Citizen Action.

U.S.  Action held its founding convention near Chicago in November 1999. Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) both spoke.  Both were Citizen Action members who were allegedly “nurtured” into candidates by Citizen Action.  Attendees at the founding also included two militant unions: Service Employees Int’l Union and Am. Fed’n of State, County & Mun. Employees (AFSCME), as well as other prominent leftist organizations such as the U.S.  Student Association, Midwest Academy and Progressive Action Network.  U.S.  Action’s statewide groups claim 700,000 members, more than 100 full-time staff and combined annual budgets of $15 million to $20 million.

The convention provided an opportunity for many to vent and brood over Citizen Action’s debacle.  “Citizen Action was not a participatory democracy at all,” complained David Desiderato, associate director of Northeast Action.  “It was controlled.  You couldn’t ask questions.” Some criticized Citizen Action for abusing its power, especially in terms of finances.  Citizen Action originally raised money from door-to-door canvassing as well as contributions from unions and trial lawyers.  But canvassing became less lucrative, and it was “put at the mercy” of its contributors.  Reportedly, the Teamsters scandal only exacerbated preexisting internal tensions and led to massive fallout among contributors.  “It shows what happens when you don’t have internal democracy,” complained John Cameron of Citizen Action of Illinois.
 Many of the old guard still strongly defend Citizen Action.  But even U.S. Action Executive Director Jeff Blum insisted that the new group would be more democratic and accountable.  Blum was Citizen Action’s transportation lobbyist; he is also currently head of Maryland Citizen Action, and before that he headed Pennsylvania Citizen Action, which he founded in 1979.  Blum said there would be no more of the old budget sleight-of-hand.  “I won’t do it,” Blum said.  “We’re trying to make this an organization characterized by learning lessons.”

William McNary of Citizen Action of Illinois said U.S.  Action must avoid Citizen Action’s mistake of becoming a conduit for unions and trial lawyers’ money and messages.  He said of Citizen Action: “Instead of having a partnership with the people who gave us money, we were looked at as employees.”

SEIU executive board member and former head of Pennsylvania Citizen Action Anna Burger predicted, “This is an organization that’s going to make a difference.”  [In These Times 12/26/99; Wash. Times 1/13/00]