OFA Pressed On Keystone XL Silence By Progressive Activists At Netroots Nation

An environmental activist holds a sign in Bryant Park, protesting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, May 13, 2013 in New York
An environmental activist holds a sign in Bryant Park, protesting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, May 13, 2013 in New York. The group marched through midtown to rally outside the Waldorf Astoria hotel where President Obama was attending a fundraiser. AFP PHOTO/Don Emmert (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Progressive activists frustrated with Organizing for Action's silence on the Keystone XL pipeline took their concerns to the group's top officials on Thursday, pressing them on whether the advocacy organization will ever pressure President Barack Obama on that or any other issue.

"I wouldn't claim for a second that we are defining [what we do] as the progressive agenda," OFA executive director Jon Carson said during a roundtable discussion at the annual Netroots Nation conference.

Carson and several other OFA staffers said the group is focusing on seven issues: budget and economic development, comprehensive immigration reform, reducing gun violence, climate change and the environment, women's issues, Obamacare and local issues (such as marriage equality and fair elections).

As far as environmental issues go, progressives are passionately opposed to the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. The 1,700-mile pipeline would move heavy crude from the Canadian tar sands to the Gulf, and the president has delayed a decision on whether it will be constructed until later this year or even into 2014.

OFA, an advocacy nonprofit group that grew out of Obama's campaign arm, has repeatedly said it will not pressure the White House on the matter. That decision -- and the decision to avoid criticizing Obama more generally -- was the focus of conference participants' questions on Thursday.

"For domestic spying, warrantless spying on us or deportations or Keystone, if the administration is the problem or standing in the way, you're not touching it?" asked Robin Beck, executive director of Citizen Engagement Lab. "For me, it's a little tricky to wrap my head around a partnership that ends if it's one part of government versus another."

"I wouldn't rule it out," replied Carson, opening the door slightly but declining to provide specifics.

"As as an issue organizer, I'm agnostic as to whom I pressure and how I pressure, because it's about getting them to make the decision to stop the pain that's happening on the ground," said Liz Baker, a senior fellow at Movement Strategy Center. "So how does that fit with you guys having come out of the administration? Because sometimes, it's them that we have to push."

Carson replied that OFA is "defined simply by what we do." He acknowledged the group's volunteers and partners may not agree on every issue, but he hoped they could work together when they do.

Indeed, opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline seems to be high even among loyal Obama backers. Nearly 150 former Obama campaign staffers have signed a letter calling on the president to reject the construction of the pipeline.

Carson also acknowledged this opposition on Thursday.

"I was in Palo Alto last night with a group of 65 of our volunteers, and we talked all this through as a group. I would say 95 percent of them there want the president to deny the Keystone pipeline," he said, adding that OFA supported these individuals joining other groups that oppose Keystone XL. They just wouldn't be able to start a campaign against it through OFA.

In a similar vein, Kyle de Beausset, a senior campaigner at Presente.org, asked Carson whether OFA would help stop deportations by the Obama administration.

"Look, we wouldn't be fighting the comprehensive immigration reform battle if we didn't want to end that," said Carson.

"It's just helpful for me to know that when people are getting deported in our community, you can't help," de Beausset replied. "It's helpful to know."

"We're going to change the law," said Carson. "Then we'll all work together, just like with health care implementation."

While the frustration was palpable, the tone remained respectful the entire time. The only protest was when a man with a sign reading "Surveillance! Obama = Cheney" appeared and stood silently in the doorway. After less than a minute, he left.

This article was updated to include the name of the activist who asked a question about deportation.

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