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Finding Money – Chapter 44

 The vast majority of Hotline callers’ questions were much the same as any employer might ask. They focused first on backgrounds, then actual job performance (voting records), followed by issue positions, then more distant ratings, with campaign contributors bringing up the rear.  Occasional calls came in from the cynical, wanting to know what sinister outfit we worked for. Rare were the obnoxious, but often enough so that we had to train researchers how to handle them. “We must act like automatons,” I warned. “Do not respond with any emotion, no matter what the question. Simply give the facts. If you are asked for a fact we do not have, just say, ‘We do not have that information at this time.’” Lorena O’Leary, who trained the volunteers, handled calls best:

North Carolina caller with a deep southern drawl: “I jus have one queston fer ya honey.”

Lorena: “Well we are here to help. What information can I help you with?”

Caller: “Can ya tell me how long Harvey Gantt’s dick is?”

Lorena: “I am sorry sir, but we do not have that information available at this time.”

 A couple of weeks later, the election was over and we held a little party with a few awards. We had managed to successfully handle over 7,000 calls, more than we thought we could, and more than any foundation thought we would.  Lorena was a wonder and got the most prized award, an odd two-foot-long golden ruler, along with some rubber gloves.

 The timely success of the test was enough to generate a $25,000 grant from the Carnegie Foundation and the number of excited callers gave us the notion that voters themselves just might be willing to chip in too.  I had big dreams:  Build this until we could cover every race from the Presidency down to city council.  A central source of every fact on every candidate, so trustworthy that any citizen, conservative or liberal, could turn to it, use it and trust it;  at their whim, instantly get that accurate, abundant, relevant, factual information on any elected official or anyone campaigning to replace them. It would take years, but we could start building with the 1992 presidential and congressional contests.

 Surprisingly, if not shockingly, we discovered that virtually every other governance non-profit, like the League of Women Voters, Taxpayers Union, Common Cause, PBS, NRA, AARP, publications, church groups, and on and on, sold their members like chattel on an auction block.  It was why, if you donate to one organization, your mailbox, phone number and email address is soon filled with so many others groveling for help.  

 So, I purchased names and contact information from two of those organizations.  Then Jack Greenway, a friend and owner of the most delightfully unpretentious old elegant hotel you could ever know, the Arizona Inn, did the unthinkable.  He allowed me to take over one of his hotel dining rooms and have what I jokingly called a champagne and caviar mailing. I wrote a letter about what our new organization was up to, purchased 5000 envelopes and stamps.  Then I hit Safeway and got two 2 oz. jars of the cheapest caviar and spread it thinly over 10 pounds of cream cheese.  That, along with some Ritz Crackers and two dozen bottles of Andre champagne, selling at $2.90 a bottle, would do the job.

 I got a hundred or so former campaign workers and friends to do the kind of mind-numbing, monotony that must have come to Sisyphus rolling that rock up the hill. They sat for hours folding, stuffing, sealing, and stamping those thousands of letters. People willing to do such tedious tasks they are not required to do, when so many more pleasant entertainments are available, were always a marvel to me. Anyway, they did it, and I and you should love them for it.

 I was sitting there stamping and sealing as fast as the best of them when Richard Kleindienst walked in. This “disgraced” U.S. Attorney General from the Nixon Administration I am proud to say was my friend and for my money the least corruptible of the stupefyingly corruptible lot that led to Nixon’s resignation. This is, of course, a half century before Trump, when stupefying, corruptible, nor any other word in any language is adequate to describe how dangerously gruesome it has all become.

 Anyway, Kleindienst loved the idea of CNIP and had suddenly appeared to cheer my fellow envelope stuffers on.  He walked from table to table giving everyone encouragement, talking of the corruption in politics and the rampant hypocrisy in campaigns.  An ironic commentary for sure.  Sixteen years earlier, most in the room who were my Democratic campaign workers would have trampled each other for a chance at clubbing him to death.  But time can calm almost any tempest, so he was appreciated, even enjoyed. Who better to talk about CNIP’s need to expose truth than someone out of an administration that so dramatically concealed it?

 Six days later there they were, two envelopes addressed to CNIP in my box. One had a check for $25, the other had one for $10 but included a long two-page letter.  The letter writer said that he was old, had been working in politics his entire life, but this was the best idea he had ever heard.  I was instantly galvanized with fresh purpose. Over the next two weeks letters stuffed my box. We raised more than it had cost us to do the mailing and I wiped my brow, thankful that I had gotten the money back and a bit more.

 A few years later, I would hear from people in mail order businesses that such returns were spectacular. Turns out that once you find your supporters, the real money comes in the renewals that come again and again, year after year. Had I been smart enough to see that at the time I would have hawked my kidneys to obtain every penny I could for more mailings, but I was just thankful that I got the money back.

 I did start purchasing more lists from organizations that pimped out their unknowing fans, but I did so very cautiously.  After all, the money I was now spending was not just my own.  I could hardly bear parting with a single cent these strangers were sending in to help.

 I was still substitute teaching for basics like food and rent but with the class time to fold, stuff and stamp. My efficiency increased to a thousand pieces a day, which now included a crude brochure. This was, of course, back when you had to lick the stamps and envelopes, something I preferred over a wet sponge for speed purposes.  When using a sponge, you are never sure you’re getting the right touch of dampness.  Too much and it drips down the envelope, too little and the envelope may not stay secure. Licking ensured just the right amount of moisture each, and every time.  Now, you wouldn’t know this, but halfway through a thousand stamps licked your retch reflex kicks in. On the day that I rudely interrupted the student film by chucking in the waste basket, I decided to save the licking for an at home ordeal. There, I discovered that a sip of scotch now and then was just what the Post Office ordered.

 With growing support and blooming visions of the possible, other board members came through with cash. My favorite congressman sent me $5000. Republican Congressman Bill Frenzel, few will now recall, was arguably the most respected member in Congress. This was back in a day when some members still earned respect and deserved it because it was they who somehow kept congressmen from devouring one another and coughing up each other’s blood.

 Foundations suddenly seemed less reluctant to meet with me. I hopped a plane and headed back East for meetings with Carnegie, Markle, MacArthur, Revson, Pew, Markle and a few smaller foundations. Even a few corporate funders were willing to meet: Prudential, AT@T, MCI.  I was happy to get cash anywhere I could, but the corporate ones bothered me. A great deal of support for the nation’s largest institutional non-profits comes from corporations and were rightfully under attack for being influenced by the corporate source of their support.

  I thought a great deal about this when I returned home and decided that if CNIP was to be a success, it had to be trusted and completely above suspicion. So, I adopted a number of rules to insure public confidence, the three most important being:

  1. No one with a political reputation could serve on CNIP’s board without a political opposite or as I became fond of saying, “a political enemy.”  Thus, President Ford joined with President Carter, Senators McGovern with Goldwater, Representatives Ferraro with Gingrich, me and Senator McCain, and so on.
  2. No money would be accepted from corporations, unions, political action committees or special interests of any kind. It would be funded by foundations (old robber baron foundations no longer attached to the corporate source of their funds), and individual citizens, or it wouldn’t be funded at all.
  3. The staff would be primarily student interns whose only pay would be academic credit, a recognized plus at universities that saw CNIP as a great classroom they didn’t have to pay for. The staff that were paid would operate much like the Peace Corps: They would sign on for a two-year election cycle tour and receive just enough to live on.

 It was through protections like these that an increasingly cynical public would find confidence in the Center for National Independence in Politics (CNIP), a name I chose no one could remember or understand, which now included me.

(New chapters will be added roughly once a week)

Richard Kimball, Vote Smart Founder

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