Gingrich scaring money to liberal interest groups


November 28, 1994|By Neil A. Lewis bTC | Neil A. Lewis bTC,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- In an unusual consequence of Election Day's vast conservative shift, liberal interest groups are anticipating a period of prosperity. The main reason, their leaders say, is that Newt Gingrich, in line to be the speaker of the House, is an ideal fund-raising tool.

Such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union, Ralph Nader's Public Citizen and assorted environmental lobbying organizations say they are almost certain to receive sharp increases in donations as a result of the shift in Congress that will give the Republicans majorities in both chambers for the first time since the 1950s.

The liberal groups expect increases in their membership as well.

It may be a profound paradox, say the group's leaders, but one that is wholly understandable.

"The mood of the liberal groups is hardly gleeful right now," said Michael Pertschuk, director of the Advocacy Institute, which trains and nurtures liberal interest groups. "But the silver lining in this disaster is that the ability to alarm and motivate contributors has grown enormously."

Pertschuk, a chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Jimmy Carter, said that he had already gotten offers of increased financing from some of the foundations that support his organization.

Nan Aron, director of the Alliance for Justice, said that issue-oriented groups thrive on threats by "being able to point to a monster, so to speak." Ms. Aron, whose coalition focuses on legal affairs, said Gingrich would fill that role.

Other liberal advocacy groups have taken a similar view. In a mailing to members and potential donors just after the election, for example, the American Civil Liberties Union included a flier with a stark warning about Gingrich's call for a constitutional amendment to permit prayer in schools.

Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a group founded by Nader, said that her organization planned to motivate its membership by running a "Newt-Watch" feature in its publications.

The current situation for the left-of-center advocates highlights the awkward situation that many of these groups found themselves in after President Clinton was elected.

With a presumed ally in charge of the federal government, many liberal groups saw donations diminish. That was especially so for environmental lobbies, which now hope that the Republican ascendancy in Congress will serve to stimulate contributions.

Something similar happened during the administration of Ronald Reagan, when environmental groups used James Watt, a combative interior secretary, as a fund-raising tool.

Meanwhile, such conservative groups as the American Enterprise Institute occasionally found themselves struggling for cash, talent and, most of all, a rationale for existing.

Nader said that Gingrich would be "like James Watt on steroids" in terms of serving the fund-raising efforts of the speaker-in-waiting's opponents. Pertschuk said that because Gingrich's agenda seemed so broad, he would serve as "an all-purpose villain" for a variety of interest groups.

Since the 1992 presidential election, liberal groups have also been hampered by the loss of some of their brightest and most energetic staff members, who left to take jobs in the government. (Much the same happened with conservative groups after the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.)

Moreover, since groups that lobby on public policy thrive on their ability to oppose the government, that role becomes uncomfortable when allies are in senior policy positions.

"When the power structure seems to be on your side, it's more difficult," said Ms. Claybrook, who served as an official in the Carter administration.

The rising expectations by liberal groups also highlight how much of the center of attention has shifted away from Clinton to Gingrich.

Ira Glasser, the executive director of the civil liberties union in New York, said that he had told his constituents that even though there was a Democrat in the White House they could not count on him to wage the fight for civil liberties causes. That is because, Glasser said, Clinton has proven unreliable.

Several leaders of liberal groups said they hoped to experience a surge in donations in the next few weeks. Much like the retail world, advocacy organizations, both right and left, regard December as a pivotal month because that is when they do their most intense fund-raising.

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