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Washington Examiner


Obama's Ascent Heralded By Government-Funded Activists

October 04, 2010

By Steven Malanga

Part one of a five-part series

In vaulting from Chicago precinct and ward politics into the White House, President Obama represented the first appearance in a presidential race of a relatively new political type: the community organizer.

Obama’s ascendance was no anomaly, but testament to the rise of a powerful political coalition in America made up of those who benefit from expanding government, including public-sector employees and their unions; activists at organizations that survive on government money; and recipients of government benefits.

Obama’s election in 2008 was merely the clearest indicator of the extent to which this coalition has successfully amassed power in the last 50 years.

President Lyndon Johnson’s ambitious plan to end poverty through massive federal spending fueled the creation of the coalition. Starting in the mid-1960s, the federal government directed billions of dollars to neighborhood groups, convinced that they knew better than Washington what their respective communities needed.

The federal funds, eventually supplemented by state and local tax dollars, helped conjure a universe of government-funded community groups that ran everything from job-training programs to voter-registration drives to subsidized housing programs to mortgage counseling efforts.

Leaders of these social-services groups became advocates, unsurprisingly, for government-funded solutions to social problems. To defend and expand their turf, organizers began heading into the political arena, wielding the influence they had accumulated in neighborhoods to build bases of political support.

Soon, in cities from New York to Chicago to Cleveland to Los Angeles, the road to electoral success increasingly ran through the government-funded social-services sector.

“The nonprofit service sector has never been richer, more powerful,” former welfare recipient Theresa Funiciello wrote in her 1993 book “Tyranny of Kindness”. “Except to the poor, poverty is a mega-business.”

Over time, the advocates became expert at turning the machinery of government in their favor. In 1977, Congress passed the Community Reinvestment Act at the urging of advocacy groups that claimed banks were redlining -- that is, refusing to do business in -- many low-income neighborhoods.

To short-circuit such accusations from community groups, banks shoveled money into programs administered by community activists like the controversial Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). In 2000, a Senate subcommittee estimated that CRA-related deals between banks and community groups pumped nearly $10 billion into the nonprofit sector.

Gradually, the advocacy groups aligned with another rising player in the big-government coalition -- public employee unions, whose path to power began slowly in the late 1950s.

The key moment occurred when the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) persuaded New York City mayor Robert Wagner, who saw the federation’s members as potential political allies, to give municipal workers collective bargaining rights. Other states and cities quickly followed, as did the federal government in 1962.

These deals precipitated an era of turmoil resulting first in strikes and later in a concentrated effort by unions in state capitals and municipal council chambers, and in grassroots efforts in local elections, to select political leaders sympathetic to their aims. These unions were almost invariably advocates of bigger government and higher taxes, which swelled their union rolls and increased their power, and soon they joined forces with advocacy groups seeking the same kind of expanding government.

For a long time the power that these groups were gathering in cities and states was largely overlooked or dismissed as ’local’ politics. But by the dawn of the 21st century it became clear that this coalition is more than just a local political movement.

Politicians loyal to it had seized power in once-prosperous states like California and New York. And then in 2008 this coalition captured the ultimate prize when one of its own won the White House.

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