Want Your Voice To Be Heard? Form A PAC And Do It The American Way: With Cash

Grass-roots activists turning to political action committees.

If someone's going to plunk down $110 for noodle pudding, the money had better be going to a good cause.

On May 12, a new political organization called CitizenChange held its first fund-raiser, benefiting the John Kerry campaign, the Democratic National Committee, and Swing State Summer Break, an organization that sends college students to register voters in the states expected to be the most hotly contested in the upcoming election.

The live auction and concert, held at a club in Brooklyn, New York, featured performances from Nada Surf, Northern State and the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, and the auction's donated items ranged from private yoga lessons to tattoo work to that pricey noodle pudding, which was baked by the mom of one of CitizenChange's founders.

The organization even overcame the last-minute realization that Kerry, in an effort to symbolize his support of campaign-finance reform, refuses to accept PAC donations by giving auction bidders the option of writing their checks directly to his campaign. (The Bush campaign, however, does accept PAC donations.)

A lot of work went into the event, but by divvying up all the tasks, the 12 members found the planning went pretty smoothly. At the end of the night, CitizenChange was thrilled to find that it had packed the house with more than 400 people and netted around $12,000.

It's a long way from a group of friends getting together to chat about politics in a living room — which is how CitizenChange got their start.

Back in 2000, writer Suzanne Snider and some of her left-leaning friends — teachers, fashion designers, small-business owners — formed a political-brunch club, gathering occasionally in her apartment to debate the Nader vs. Gore issue over bagels and coffee. But four years later, talk seemed insufficient and Snider's club craved action. They decided that despite their differences, the objective they shared was "regime change" — getting President Bush out of office.

"We realized that every issue we were interested in was affected by the presidential election, and we wanted to be involved," Snider recalled. "We didn't know what we were looking for in terms of officially incorporating, but we wanted to be recognized as a political entity." Some of the members researched their options and found the answer: The group would become a political action committee. CitizenChange was born.

While much of the recent media attention on grass-roots activism has focused on new forms involving the Internet, old-school methods of organizing — like political action committees — are thriving, too. PACs are groups of people with common concerns who pool their resources to help elect candidates or engage in other types of political activity. PACs are often associated with powerful special interests: For instance, drug manufacturers, unions, trial lawyers, and advocacy groups like the National Rifle Association and the National Education Association all have PACs that rake in millions. But smaller PACs formed by people like Snider and her friends aren't uncommon, according to Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "There are a lot of them this year," Sabato said. "People are energized, whether they're pro- or anti-Bush. It's the war, the economy, gay marriage — you name it. The plate is full in this election."

There are currently around 4,000 PACs registered with the Federal Election Commission, the agency that governs election financing. The main reason to form a PAC is that under campaign finance law, PACs can make larger political donations than individuals can. "You have to form a PAC in order to give contributions that are sizable," Sabato said. "With a PAC you can also pool your individual contributions to make them more noticeable to the candidates." And being noticed — having an impact that went beyond their individual interests — was exactly what Snider and her friends had in mind.

CitizenChange are now planning an art auction and other actions. "We were all pretty amazed by the success of this event," one of the members said, "and that gives us incentive. As a PAC, we have the legitimacy and the infrastructure to do more things like this in the future. We feel a little like an institution — we have a bank account, and we have checks in our name."

If you're interested in forming a PAC of your own, you have to hook up with two government agencies, the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Election Commission. The IRS will give you an employee identification number for the bank account your PAC will use, ensuring that you won't be taxed for the money your PAC brings in. Call (800) TAX-FORM for more information. The necessary FEC forms are available at www.fec.gov. Click on "reporting forms and filing information," and you'll find the information you need to get started. Some of the forms are tedious — this is the government, after all. But form your PAC, come up with your idea — bake sales for Bush? karaoke for Kerry? — and in no time you'll be making your voice heard the American way: with money.