ORLANDO - A worn screen door opened amid the barracks-style apartments in Lake Mann Homes. From the stoop Immacula Nezier launched into her pitch with a sleek Palm device in one hand and a clipboard in the other.
"Hi, I'm with ACT, America Coming Together," she said in a soft Haitian accent, while 30 colleagues fanned out through the public housing complex in Orlando. "We're going through the community to help people register to vote."
Velma Washington confessed she hadn't voted in years, but gratefully accepted the offer.
"It's been quite a rough time with Bush," she said, declaring herself a Democrat and asking Nezier to help her mother register too. "I definitely will vote this year."
The scene is repeated five hours a day, six days a week in predominantly minority neighborhoods in the Orlando area. The group is about to get started in Tampa Bay and almost every other urban area of Florida.
It's the gathering before the storm.
This is no aggressive early effort by the Democratic Party or the John Kerry presidential campaign. Rather, it's an unprecedented voter mobilization campaign under way by a host of well-funded, left-leaning political groups ostensibly operating on their own.
By mid May, six months before Election Day, hundreds of full-time and part-time paid staffers will be spread across Florida mobilizing Democratic voters to beat President Bush. By several accounts, the ranks will grow to more than 1,000 by late June and continue swelling from there.
Bypassing campaign finance restrictions on unlimited campaign donations to the national parties, the groups are aiming to raise more than $200-million to unseat the president. They're focusing mainly on Florida and a handful of other battleground states, such as Ohio and Missouri.
"This hasn't been done before, certainly not this early," said Suzy Ballantyne, executive director of another liberal political group, Voices for American Families.
The group has registered more than 12,000 new voters in Miami-Dade since mid November and expects to spend at least $1-million in Florida between now and November.
The growing Democratic ground operation in Florida is operating largely out of sight. A similarly aggressive campaign by independent political groups has been visible for months on the TV airwaves in Florida and other key swing states.
The Media Fund began running ads attacking Bush's economic record in Florida and 16 other states on March 10. It will spend nearly $340,000 in Florida - mostly in Tampa Bay - through Tuesday, more than in any other state.
Another Internet-based group, MoveOn.org, has used Florida's airwaves to bash Bush for dubious justifications for invading Iraq and for swelling the federal deficit. MoveOn, which also plans to use many of its more than 60,000 Florida members to mobilize voters, has spent $2.5-million on hard-hitting ads in Florida, more than any other state.
Air wars are nothing new in political campaigns. What's unparalleled this year is the face-to-face contact and shoe leather planned by Republicans and Democrats alike, as both parties have recognized that they've come to rely on TV ads at the expense of personal outreach with voters.
Republicans are doing it through traditional channels, and Democrats through controversial new avenues. But both sides are promising grass roots campaigns on scales never before seen.
The front line runs through Florida.
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In 2002, some of the nation's most prominent and shrewdest Democratic operatives gazed ominously toward the future.
The campaign finance reform law known as McCain-Feingold, publicly embraced by Democrats, stood to deal a mighty blow to their party. Gone would be the huge campaign donations from unions and progressive millionaires that the party had come to depend on much more than Republicans.
They saw a grim scenario: A Democratic presidential nominee would emerge from a nominating contest, battered and broke by the spring of 2004. He would then face an onslaught of ads from a Bush-Cheney campaign flush with money to define the nominee, who would be virtually helpless to respond until their national convention.
So top strategists, including former AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal and former Clinton deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes, devised a way to circumvent McCain-Feingold and help fight back against Bush during the spring and summer. They created independent groups apparently unbound by new campaign finance restrictions that could take in the six-figure checks now off-limits to the national party committees.
Called "527s" after a section of the Internal Revenue Service Code, such groups raise unlimited amounts of money and spend it on almost any election-related activity so long as they don't explicitly endorse a candidate or coordinate with a campaign or party. Florida has become a 527 magnet.
"There are so many people working in Florida, a big challenge is to try not to bump into each other," Karin Johanson, a former Democratic Congressional Committee political director now heading ACT in Florida, said the other day.
Johanson was overseeing renovations for a new office a few hundreds yards from the strip clubs on Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa.
A host of Democratic-leaning interest groups, from unions to environmental advocates to abortion rights activists, are coordinating their political efforts with newly formed independent political organizations of various sizes.
"We're all sharing strategies and research and information," said Aimee Christensen, executive director of Environment2004, a 527 expecting to spend the lion's share of its targeted $3-million to $5-million budget in Florida.
Some money for these independent groups comes in small donations, but much of it flows from the unions and other of deep-pocketed sources that used to fill the coffers of the Democratic National Committee.
Billionaire financier George Soros has given more than $6.5-million to liberal 527 groups; insurance executive Peter Lewis has given more than $3.8-million; Linda Pritzker of the Hyatt family and her Sustainable World Corp. have donated $4-million.
Republicans and other campaign finance reform advocates are attacking 527s for evading campaign finance restrictions, and the Federal Election Commission could rule next month on their legitimacy.
But the groups already have helped Kerry compete against Bush's $160-million and ultimately could even the playing field.
* * *
Up the street from a homeless mission in a seedy strip near downtown Orlando, a stream of mostly young African-American and Hispanic residents filed into an unmarked office one afternoon last week. The ACT canvassers, most earning $8 an hour, gathered in a room plastered with precinct maps for what sounded more like a self-empowerment session than a marching orders meeting.
Cheers erupted when leader Carlos Quiles announced more than 6,000 people had been registered since January. "You guys have done an incredible job at registering the people of Orlando and educating the people of Orlando, and we're just beginning," said Quiles, a nursing student and one of 1,000 members of the Service Employees International Union 1199 in New York on leave to organize in battleground states. "Now let's go do what we do best!"
The canvassers for now are mainly just registering voters, but later will home in on issues specific to each voters and their likelihood of voting. They will follow up with phone calls, mailings, and repeat visits. They don't mention Bush or Kerry, but their goal is clear: Every home receives a pamphlet detailing grim economic statistics for minorities under the Bush administration.
It's no accident the canvassers are local and mostly minorities. Union organizers saw years ago that the most effective outreach is personal.
Now organizers are taking lessons learned from energizing voters in workplaces - co-worker to co-worker - and expanding it into the broader electorate.
ACT's first test was Philadelphia's heated mayoral election last year. The group registered 85,000 new voters, and 38,000 turned out to vote. Democrat John Street won by 85,000 votes.
Republicans have seized on the Democrats' traditional grass roots emphasis with a vengeance.
They're promising an unprecedented grass roots campaign that will end up with 75,000 new registered Republicans in Florida and an 80 percent turnout among Republican voters. In 2002 their stepped-up efforts to drive up voter turnout helped them sweep races across the country - and prompted Democrats to take stock of their own campaign focus.
"We wrote the book on how to do this," said Katherine Taylor, another New York SEIU activist organizing canvassers in Orlando. "I think for a couple of years we did not exercise and read our own book, but now we are."
A host of independent political groups are mobilizing to energize Democratic voters in Florida with the goal of beating George W. Bush. Among the players concentrating on the Sunshine State:
AMERICA COMING TOGETHER: Led by top Democratic operatives, including former AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal and Emily's List president Ellen Malcolm, ACT aims to raise and spend $95-million driving up Democratic turnout in 17 battleground states. Its primary targets: Florida, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Iowa. Offices are open or are in the midst of opening in Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville; others are expected soon in north Broward County and Miami-Dade. Major donors include financier George Soros and Progressive Insurance chairman Peter Lewis.
MEDIA FUND: Closely connected to ACT, Media Fund is focused on mounting a TV "issue ad" campaign that is already bashing Bush's record while avoiding direct advocacy of John Kerry. It is led by former Clinton deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes, who hopes to raise and spend $50-million. Big donors include Hollywood producer Steve Bing.
MOVEON.ORG: Started in 1998 out of anger over the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, the Internet-based MoveOn.org has emerged as a major political player. It has produced tough ads against Bush, including one banned from the Super Bowl that showed children working on assembly lines. "Guess who's going to pay off President Bush's $1-trillion deficit," the spot said. MoveOn has spent more in Florida than any other state. Major donors include Soros and Lewis.
VOICES FOR WORKING FAMILIES: Led by several top AFL-CIO strategists, the group is focused on minority and female voter registration and outreach in battleground states. It has been working in Miami-Dade since mid November. It shares office space in Miami with Moving America Forward, another 527 concentrating on registering Hispanic voters in key states. Big donors to Voices for Working Families include the AFL-CIO.
ENVIRONMENT2004: Led by, among others, former Clinton Environment Protection Agency head Carol Browner of Florida, the group is concentrating on attacking Bush's environmental record in Florida, Minnesota and New Hampshire. Much of the effort will be through "earned media" - free publicity generated with the help of prominent environmental leaders. The group has a targeted budget of $3-million to $5-million, and its political action committee also expects to employ direct mail and phone banks in Florida.
NEW DEMOCRAT NETWORK: An 8-year-old organization that used to focus on direct contributions to candidates, it now concentrates on "issue ads" targeting Hispanic voters in Florida, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada. It expects to spend $5-million this election, more in Florida than any other states. The ad campaign began March 10 on Spanish-language TV stations in the Tampa Bay area and Orlando; it will soon add Miami and continue until November.