WASHINGTON -- Top officials from President Barack Obama's campaign arm, which was recently rechristened as Organizing for Action, are working to dampen the passionate grassroots opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, just as the organization launches its campaign against climate change, according to donors and OFA members.
Leaders of the group have on multiple occasions told gatherings of activists and donors that OFA will not pressure the White House on Keystone regardless of its members' interest in the project, a 1,700-mile pipeline that would move heavy crude from the Canadian tar sands to the Gulf. The administration recently pushed back a decision on approving the pipeline to November, December or even 2014. OFA's refusal to press the administration on the controversial Keystone project is reminiscent of its decision not to pressure Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) on gun purchase background checks, despite -- or perhaps because of -- OFA Chairman Jim Messina's close relationship with him. Baucus voted against the president and subsequently announced his retirement.
The reticence worries those who hoped that the Obama campaign's legacy would be a strong, independent grassroots movement that could bring outside pressure on Washington, rather than continuing to act as an arm of the president. Instead of a new organization that will push the White House from a progressive flank, on Keystone, OFA is in effect pushing grassroots activists in the opposite direction. Its approach to the pipeline indicates it is shaping up to be little more than another element of the administration that activists must lobby.
OFA was born during the 2008 presidential campaign as Obama for America, then became Organizing for America during his first term, working with the Democratic National Committee to push the Obama agenda and reelect the president. It has since been transformed into Organizing for Action. Liberals had high hopes that the new incarnation of OFA would turn its efficient and powerful campaign organization into something that would boost the progressive movement.
"I was hoping to see those tools and that amazing development skill set applied to something that was going to be responsive to bottom-up energy on issues that members are excited to say something about," said Farhad Ebrahimi, a major progressive donor. "But it seems like they're still just running it like electoral campaigners and saying, this is the menu you can order off of. But it's not a potluck."
OFA spokeswoman Katie Hogan said that the organization's job is to back the president's agenda. "OFA was founded to support the President's agenda, an agenda a majority of the american people voted for in 2012," she said in a statement. "It has been made clear since our first day as an organization that we support the President's plans from comprehensive immigration reform, to reducing gun violence to climate change, including the completion of the state department review. Just this week OFA held almost 100 action planning sessions on climate change in communities across the country to talk about the action that can be taken right now to call out members of congress for denying that climate change is a man-made problem."
Becky Bond, the head of CREDO, an online progressive group with some three million members, said she asked people who lived nearby to attend the OFA meetings Wednesday and press the case for taking on Keystone. "If the model works the way OFA leadership says the model will work, it's a grassroots driven organization. We want to strengthen that part of it," she said.
Behind the scenes, several major donors have been pressing OFA to take on the issue. OFA executive director Jon Carson, a former White House official whose job had been to coordinate with outside progressive groups, attended a recent Climate and Energy Funders meeting in San Francisco and pitched the wealthy attendees on contributing to OFA, which as a 501(c)(4) can accept unlimited secret contributions. Ebrahimi, who attended the gathering, told HuffPost that Carson was clear that OFA would not be working against Keystone.
"In the Q&A a bunch of funders and donors start asking about the pipeline and saying, 'It's the biggest thing going on in the national level in terms of environmental issues,' and the answer everybody kept on getting from him is, 'Well, we're not engaged on that,'" Ebrahimi said of the April meeting. "He really seemed, when he was on stage, that he just wished he didn't have to talk about it."
Carson shared the stage in San Francisco with Kathleen Welch, who advises wealthy donors and is a highly influential figure in Democratic fundraising circles, playing a central role in steering money to environmental and climate coalitions. She was a key player in Clean Energy Works, a massive green coalition that blew through tens of millions of dollars in a failed attempt to push climate change legislation. Ivan Frishberg, who ran the political operations for Clean Energy Works and is close with Welch, is now running the climate campaign for OFA. OFA initially offered to make Frishberg available to discuss Keystone, but later stopped responding to queries. Welch declined to comment to The Huffington Post for this article.
"The community that tried to move a climate bill fundamentally lacks political power and doesn't have the ability to either deliver punishment or reward to members of Congress who don't vote for us," Welch said on a 2011 post-mortem conference call. "Unless we're really willing to play hardball, I don't think we can win on big issues like this."
That tough talk clashed with Welch's appearance on the stage with Carson, where she encouraged donors to get behind OFA, according to Ebrahimi.
Welch recently joined the Democracy Alliance, a network of wealthy liberals who attempt to coordinate their political giving, through her organization Corridor Partners, and advises a number of donors connected to it.
Carson, after the event with Welch, traveled from San Francisco down to Laguna Beach, where he pitched the Democracy Alliance donors. Despite skepticism from Keystone opponents, Carson persuaded the network to name OFA a central part of its portfolio, meaning that donors would be encouraged to steer money its way. OFA is in desperate need of the cash infusion: Despite setting a goal of $50 million, it raised under $5 million in the first quarter of this year. The news of OFA's elevation by the Democracy Alliance was leaked to the Los Angeles Times, the paper of record for wealthy West Coast donors. The normally secretive organization made its chairman Rob McKay available to the Times for an interview, as well as press-shy Carson.
"They care about progressive infrastructure, but they also want to maintain a close relationship with the president," said one source involved with the Keystone and Democracy Alliance fight, who wanted to remain anonymous so as not to alienate the administration. "The White House is watching very closely who gives to OFA."
A White House official emphasized to HuffPost that OFA is an independent organization, and that on Keystone, "in line with long standing precedent the State Department is conducting the review."
McKay, in a statement to HuffPost, said that his network doesn't take policy positions. "The Democracy Alliance has built a community of progressive funders with a range of perspectives on policy issues, and while the organization doesn't take policy positions, we encourage and facilitate healthy discussion on the issues," he said. "Our primary focus is on identifying and recommending for our members those organizations that can collaborate with one another as part of the progressive infrastructure and work together to strengthen our democracy and create a future where every American has the opportunity to succeed."
But at the same time they are elevating OFA, McKay and other wealthy donors are putting public pressure on the White House to reject the pipeline project, arguing it has "comparable urgency and importance" to the fight to end slavery. In an aggressive move, a group of some 150 Democratic donors sent a letter to Obama last week urging him to reject the pipeline's permit, and leaked it to Washington Post White House correspondent, Juliet Eilperin. (Its existence was first reported in HuffPost Hill.)
"He made one of the most important decisions of his presidency and for our nation when he decided that he would fight for the 13th Amendment to end slavery even if it took every ounce of his political capital," the funders wrote in their letter, which was organized by Betsy Taylor, an advisor to some of the top climate-focused donors. "Your decision on Keystone may not be so weighty, but we believe it holds a comparable urgency and importance, not strictly as a pipeline decision but as a presidential choice that will signal a fundamentally new direction for our nation."
The signatories, who pledged to support Obama's climate campaign "in every possible way," include business leaders, celebrities and clean energy philanthropists. Along with McKay and his wife Anna Hawken, a number of Democracy Alliance donors signed the letter: Faye Straus and Sandor Straus, John Hunting, Nick Hanauer, Jeff Clements, Anne Bartley, Judith Avery and Brian Arbogast.
The letter sends a conflicting message: If you approve the pipeline, we'll stop funding you. Meanwhile, we'll fund your organization which refuses to take a stand on the pipeline.
Acknowledging that the donor community is "not monolithic," Taylor said that people she's spoken to are already withholding money from OFA because of its reluctance to take on Keystone. "I do think OFA has already paid the price of remaining neutral. How can you remain neutral when the earth is hotter than it's ever been? I want them to succeed, but I don't think they should have high expectations from climate-focused donors," she said. "Many of [the donors] are deeply troubled by the president's failure on Keystone and they're not writing checks."
The refusal to take a position would be less significant if OFA hadn't decided to make climate change its first major priority. "They're set up not to get ahead of the president, but it's a deep problem, because it's the most pressing climate issue and they're sitting it out," Taylor said.
The group kicked off its climate change effort with an April email blast to 20 million subscribers featuring a video compilation of Republican climate deniers in Congress. "We are tracking a set of folks who are sitting there ... who have said goofy things about climate denial that play well to some small set of folks but are really out of step with the science and the facts," OFA's climate change campaign manager Frishberg told HuffPost at the time. "We are going to start to organize in a set of districts to hold those folks accountable for the fact that they deny climate change."
Such messaging is straight from the administration's playbook. Delivering a commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania on Monday, Vice President Joe Biden ribbed his Republican colleagues who deny climate change, questioning whether they'd even received an education.
"Today," said Biden, "you're all graduating in another world that has changed equally and profoundly. Different dangers, and different possibilities. Climate change left unattended by people with whom I work, and I marvel at whether they got an education. No, I'm serious. To deny climate change today? As my brother Jim would say, 'Go figure!'"
Biden drove home his climate-change talking points in an interview with Rolling Stone earlier this month. "We've been dealing with a Congress where a significant portion of the other party thinks there's no such thing as global warming," he said in an interview with historian Douglas Brinkley. "If we had a different Congress," he added, "I think you'd see a more aggressive emissions legislation."
CREDO's Bond said that focusing on denialist Republicans hints at a "cynical election strategy" that misses the reality that executive action is the best hope for the climate during Obama's second term. "As terrible as it is to have Republican serving in Congress, and even on the Science Committee, who deny the science … they really don't have anything to do with real action on climate change at this point," she said.
On Monday CREDO helped organize hundreds of Keystone protesters in a rally outside Obama's fundraiser at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Before that CREDO helped organize a rally in San Francisco, during the president's April fundraising trip there, designed to pressure the president on Keystone. The demonstration drew hundreds.
Grassroots pressure has yet to move OFA. On a conference call with local activists earlier this year, OFA acknowledged the elephant in the room. Carson, according to audio of the call provided to HuffPost by an activist, volunteered that while OFA is "going to be very respectful" of people's opinions on the pipeline, they won't be taking a stand on it or organizing around it in either direction.
Carson's comments didn't comfort fellow conference call participant and local OFA activist Lee Diamond, who expressed concern about the president's "all-of-the-above" energy approach, particularly as it pertains to Keystone. "We’re still going to have a problem in June or July if, you know, if the administration says Keystone is going to go ahead," Diamond said on the conference call with Carson. "Because Keystone is just like cutting the legs out from under our efforts. And it is the one thing -- we talk about a carbon tax -- but this is the one thing that he can do, you know, as the president, with leadership, [to] move us into the future that we need to be in."
OFA's Frishberg, the climate change campaign manager, told Diamond on the call that the advocacy group's only position on Keystone is that they want the review process to continue, which is in line with the president. "OFA hasn’t had a position with Keystone at all," he told Diamond. "In the email that was sent out, the only reference was to preserving the president’s authority in the State Department process to make that decision, and I don’t think anybody here has a sense one way or the other about what the president’s position on the State Department recommendation will be on this."
As a resident of Jersey Shore, Diamond, 52, observed firsthand the kind of havoc a shifting climate can wreak in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which severely damaged or destroyed 46,000 New Jersey homes, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In a Friday interview with The Huffington Post, Diamond said OFA's silence on Keystone puts him in an uncomfortable position, especially since he's already dissatisfied with the president's climate policies.
"He's good on a lot of issues but he's terrible on this issue," said Diamond, who organized for Obama in five states in 2008 and in Virginia in 2012. "He's better than a lot of other politicians but we need more. I think that climate change is the central environmental issue of our time … if we don't have a climate then we don't have anything." If the president supports Keystone, Diamond adds, he's "done with Obama."
In early April, more than 1,000 activists protested the president's fundraiser in San Francisco. February brought the largest environmental rally in U.S. history outside the White House. In a petition organized by CREDO, The Other 98% and Rainforest Action Network, more than 50,000 people pledged to commit civil disobedience if Keystone is approved -- with some vowing to get arrested in front of OFA offices.
Climate activists were initially heartened by OFA's decision to tackle their issue, which has remained in the background in Washington since Congress failed to pass cap-and-trade legislation in 2009. But the organization's failures to address Keystone, an issue that's been at the core of the environmental advocacy movement for years now, signals an identity crisis for OFA as it seeks to emphasize its grassroots credentials.
"OFA can't keep ignoring the pipeline in the room," said Jamie Henn, a spokesman for the climate advocacy group 350.org. "Environmentalists, young people, and progressives have made it very clear that Keystone XL is their top climate priority for the president, because it's a decision that he gets to make all by himself. OFA working on climate without advocating against Keystone XL would be like the president campaigning for LGBT rights without taking a position on gay marriage."
"If President Obama rejects the pipeline, I'm sure that thousands of environmentalists would be glad to volunteer for OFA and support much of the president's agenda," he added. "But those people aren't going to knock on a single door or make a single phone call if the president sells them out to Big Oil."
These donors and activists are wondering why OFA won't take a position on Keystone. Ebrahmi thinks its leaders are worried that a loss would disappoint its members and donors. But he also said he wouldn't turn away from OFA if it fought on Keystone and lost.
"I would absolutely be proud of them for fighting as hard as they could [even if they lost]," he said. "They assume that if they lose the fight that it's just a loss and they haven't gained anything by building relationships, building movement infrastructure, etcetera. And that's actually very much an electoral campaigner's mindset. That's not a grassroots organizer's mindset."
This post was updated to include comment from OFA spokeswoman Katie Hogan.
CORRECTION: This post initially stated that the donor letter threatened to withhold funding if Obama approved the pipeline. That was not explicitly stated in the letter. The post also stated that if Obama opposes Keystone, an Obama organizer would withdraw support. The organizer, who opposes Keystone, would withdraw support if Obama supports the project.