Saturday, November 20, 2004

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Ground War

Lessons From a Master

The youngest of three children, Rosenthal grew up in a Levitt house in Hicksville, a white working-class suburb of Long Island. His father was a shoe salesman who started a union for shoe store workers, and Rosenthal's first real job, at 16, was selling shoes in a union shop. He sold a lot of shoes. "I learned from a master," he says of his late father. "He was really, really good at selling. He would have been very, very good at this stuff" his son does now.

Political organizing and fundraising is much the same. You scrutinize your customers' needs and make your pitch. Part of his job as head of America Coming Together is fundraising, and after a recent meeting with potential donors in New Mexico, Rosenthal reached for a retail metaphor, telling his staff, "We didn't sell any vacuums today. We made a couple of visits, we have a couple on layaway."

There wasn't much talk around the Rosenthal dinner table about politics and current affairs, although there was that time someone tossed a brick through the front window to warn his father away from organizing the union. His father was "probably a registered Republican" in GOP-owned and -operated Nassau County, and one summer, because his dad was friendly with the committeeman, Rosenthal got a job working at the local park, "the first and last thing the Republican Party ever did for me."

The passion came from his mother, he thinks, and the Judaic tradition of tikkun olam, which means "repair the world." She was religious, strictly kosher and insisted her children go to synagogue weekly.

"I shouldn't tell you this," Rosenthal says, "but I barely made it out of high school." He just wasn't interested. After a stint at community college, he transferred to the State University of New York at New Paltz, a liberal hotbed then and now. There, he majored in political science and urban studies, grew energized against the Vietnam War and hunger and volunteered for George McGovern.

After working on some local campaigns and Ted Kennedy's presidential race in 1980, he was hired to help run a campaign by the Communication Workers of America to represent New Jersey's state employees.

Rosenthal moved to Trenton, and met and married a fellow CWA organizer, "a Teamster's daughter," Eileen Kirlin.

"Working in New Jersey for the union, that was the be-all and end-all. That was the Lord's work," he says. "We had become a very big union in a small state, and this was what it was all about: organizing workers, building political power for working people."

The couple moved to Washington in 1986, when Kirlin was hired to head organizing for CWA. She is now director of SEIU's public employee sector. They have two children, Ana, 19, adopted from Brazil, and Sam, 15, adopted from Paraguay.

In 1991, Democratic National Committee Chairman Ron Brown borrowed Rosenthal for Bill Clinton's presidential bid. He went to work as an associate deputy secretary at the Labor Department after the election.

In late 1995, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney hired Rosenthal to energize the federation's flagging political operation, and over the next six years he turned out increasing numbers of union voters, even as organized labor's political clout waned and its workforce fell. After the 2002 midterm elections, with Republicans solidifying their grip on Congress and statehouses, Rosenthal left the AFL. Federal election law was going to change, shutting down the "soft money," or unlimited contributions, that donors could make to the parties. Labor traditionally had given huge sums of this soft money to the Democrats to fund turnout efforts. That money would have to go somewhere else, and Rosenthal was keen to apply the get-out-the-vote programs he had built beyond union households.

That was the idea behind the Partnership for America's Families. After the flap, Rosenthal teamed up with Democratic fundraiser Ellen Malcolm, who had started Emily's List to fund pro-choice female candidates, and Harold Ickes, a senior aide during the Clinton presidency who masterminded Hillary Rodham Clinton's run for the Senate, and the trio formed America Coming Together.

George Soros, the Hungarian who came to America with nothing and built a fortune estimated at $7 billion, had decided that defeating President Bush had become "the central focus of my life." Perhaps the best way to assure this, he decided after meeting Malcolm and Rosenthal, with the trio and seeing Rosenthal's PowerPoint presentation, was to pledge $10 million to their effort. Soros has persuaded other rich progressives to do the same. The group now has pledges and receipts totaling about $75 million toward a goal of $100 million that it is confident it will reach well before Election Day. There have been howls of protest from campaign finance watchdogs, editorial pages and the Republican National Committee that groups like this subvert the intent of the McCain-Feingold Act to reduce the influence of large donors.

Rosenthal loves to argue this point."


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