By LIZ RUSKIN
Anchorage Daily News
March 28, 2006
"It is our goal to hold him accountable," said Christy Setzer, communications director for the group called Senate Majority Project. "He's (in) leadership, and he's also been in office a very long time with minimal opposition."
Senate Majority Project formed last year to do what it says no Democratic organization was doing: Going after Republican senators in the years they are not up for re-election.
The group has already irritated Republicans, including Stevens. Stevens told a reporter this month that he drafted a letter criticizing former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle for collaborating with the group, but he tore it up.
"I didn't want to sink to that level," Stevens told the political newspaper Roll Call.
But it's not just Republicans who are irked. The Senate Majority Project's first initiative against Stevens, a five-page report about his opposition to the proposed Pebble mine, also managed to tick off environmentalists in Alaska.
The report suggested that Stevens' position on the Lake Iliamna-area mine stems from his ties to Anchorage investment fund manager Bob Gillam. Gillam owns a large private lodge in the area of the mine and has hired a lobbyist to help derail the mine. He also manages as much as $250,000 of Stevens' personal wealth.
"It seemed unusual to us that Sen. Stevens would be interested in this mine in particular. He's been no friend to environmentalists," Setzer said, adding that she wasn't trying to promote the mine.
Tim Bristol, a career environmentalist fighting Pebble mine on behalf of Trout Unlimited, asked the Senate Majority Project to reconsider publicizing its report. Stevens says he's concerned about the possible impact on salmon runs, and Bristol said that makes more sense than anything SMP came up with. And so what if he talked to his investment banker about it, he added.
"The guy (Gillam) loves it out there," Bristol said. "He just happens to be rich."
In Anchorage earlier this month, Stevens said he has chatted about the Pebble mine with Gillam during fishing trips, and he read material about the project that Gillam provided. But it wasn't the money manager's opinions that persuaded him, Stevens said.
It was his meetings with a fisheries biologist from the U.S. Geological Survey and with local people who live near Pebble that made him sour on the mining project.
Bristol asked Setzer to reconsider going after Stevens over Pebble. He doesn't consider Stevens off-limits for criticism, he said, but he considers the Stevens-Pebble report "petty." Pointless too.
"It's not like they're going to have some Democratic juggernaut that's going to knock Ted Stevens out of the Senate. It's crazy," Bristol said. The SMP should know, he said, that Stevens is "Alaska's senator for life."
That thinking goes against the grain of the group, which believes no senator - no Republican senator - should get a free ride.
The project's founder, Democratic strategist Jim Jordan, says Republicans have won the Senate with a "long term, below-the-radar negative campaign." Specifically, he mentioned their victories over Democratic senators in South Dakota and Georgia, Daschle and Max Cleland.
"We need to think beyond the next election and we need to go on the offensive NOW," Jordan wrote in a fund-raising letter last month. "Simply put - we need to be strategic and long term and beat them at their own game."
The Senate Majority Project's plan is to research Senate Republicans and "drive what we uncover into the mainstream media," Jordan wrote. "We will subject them to unrelenting pressure."
His pitch went to potential donors with a cover letter from Daschle.
SMP has five employees and an office a short walk from the Senate building where Stevens works. Setzer, the communications director, sends a daily e-mail to scores of reporters citing news articles they believe show Republican missteps and dumb quotes. The Senate Majority Project also has a blog-like Web site. Stevens is a regular feature.
The group raised $185,000 last year, most of it from labor unions. It aims to raise at least $800,000 this year, Setzer said. It is what the IRS calls a 527 organization, a tax-exempt, political advocacy nonprofit. As a 527, it is not subject to the usual political contribution limits and can raise an unlimited amount of "soft money," political donations not directly related to electing a specific candidate. A 527 is prohibited from coordinating its work with a political party or a candidate's campaign.
Brian Nick, spokesman for the Republican committee devoted to keeping the Senate in GOP hands, says the Democratic project amounts to a permanent campaign. He doesn't know of an equivalent Republican group, he said.
"There's a time and a place for election-year politics," said Nick, who works for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "But if there's never a time when there's not a campaign, in my opinion it's disruptive to government in general."
He said he knows that the Senate Majority Project is going after the Republican senators in Oregon, Georgia and Alaska because he gets calls from reporters in those states. They call looking for Republican counterbalance to what the Senate Majority Project is alleging about their senators. Most of the time, Nick said, he has little response because they're not calling about the campaigns he's focused on, the 2006 races.
"I don't even know who to send the reporter to," he said. The Republicans don't have "some sort of secret shadowy group" as the Jordan letter suggests, he said.
SMP director Mike Gehrke said he expects his organization to ease off the criticism of senators when they become "in cycle," meaning the two-year period before their election.
But for now, it's open season on senators like Stevens, whose next election is in 2008.
Daily News reporter Paula Dobbyn contributed to this report.
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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