PFA was established in 2001 to support George W. Bush's "agenda for America." The PFA Voter Fund, which was set up in 2004, raised $38 million in support of Bush's 2004 election bid.
Progress for America, a "friends of the party" organization "operated by Tony Feather, the former political director of the 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign and a close friend of White House political adviser Karl Rove, is described by some Republicans as a new group dedicated to corralling outlawed party soft money", Steve Weismann, Associate Director for Policy at the Campaign Finance Institute wrote January 28, 2003.
PFA was registered as a 501c4 group in February 2001 by Tony Feather, a political director of the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign and partner at DCI Group as well as at the affiliated telemarketing and fundraising firm of Feather Larson Synhorst-DCI (FLS-DCI). Feather set up PFA as a “grassroots organization that mobilizes the public to contact their members of Congress about pending legislation and to write local newspapers to publicize the White House’s agenda,” the Center for Public Integrity wrote in 2002. During the first part of the Bush administration, it led campaigns to support tax cuts, conservative judicial appointments and energy legislation.
Feather told the Washington Post in August 2002 that PFA was simply a vehicle for building grassroots support for Bush administration policies. "Many other Republicans, however, describe it as the first organization designed to capture some of the soft money that the political parties will be barred from accepting after November 6", wrote the Post’s Thomas B. Edsall.
In 2001, Democrats in Montana criticized PFA for running an astroturf campaign in support of energy deregulation. An Associated Press story reported how the campaign worked: “A pollster calls you and asks questions about energy issues. Then he asks if he can write a letter summarizing the conversation and mail it to you. A few days later, an envelope arrives containing a letter addressed to Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., on personalized stationery and prepared for your signature. The letter tells Burns you want no price controls and even fewer restrictions placed on electric power companies. You might agree with that, or you might not.... No two letters are identical, so there is no immediate indication of a letter campaign orchestrated by distant political operatives. It looks like a grassroots response, but it isn’t.” When asked in an interview, Tony Feather refused to say who was paying for the letter-writing campaign.
Several high-level Bush supporters and advisors have been associated with Progress for America. Ken Adelman spoke to the Washington Post in 2002 and identified himself as the group’s chairman. However, Adelman claimed he “knows neither the organization’s budget nor its sources of financial support.” The address that Adelman provided to the Post for PFA’s offices turned out to be in the “high-rent Lafayette Center complex in downtown Washington” - the same building where the offices of FLS-DCI are located.
Progress for America and its Voter Fund reveal only as much as legally required about their leadership and membership. The group’s directors, advisors and chairs are not listed on their websites. But the Washington Post has identified a few of the groups’ principal figures. In addition to FLS-DCI’s Tom Synhorst, who is reported to have served as a key strategic adviser to PFA, other figures include James C. Cicconi, AT&T General Counsel; C. Boyden Gray, a prominent figure in many conservative groups, including Citizens for a Sound Economy (now called Freedom Works); and Marilyn Ware, chairman of American Water in Pennsylvania and a Bush Pioneer (meaning that she personally raised at least $100,000 for his campaign).
On February 28, 2007 the Federal Election Commission (FEC) fined the Progress for America Voter Fund $750,000 for campaign finance violations. In the 2004 election cycle, the Fund had raised $45 million. The FEC stated: "Over $41 million of those funds consisted of excessive contributions from individuals, while over $2 million came from sources prohibited from making contributions . . . ."
“The largest single ad buy of the campaign comes from conservative Progress for America,” Time Magazine reported. “It shows Bush comforting 16-year-old Ashley Faulkner, whose mother died on 9/11. As it happens, the spot was made by Larry McCarthy, who produced the infamous Willie Horton ad that helped the first President Bush bury Michael Dukakis under charges that he was soft on crime. If that is the iconic attack ad, this is the ultimate embrace—to remind voters of the protectiveness they cherished in the President after Sept. 11. The ad has been ready since July, but sponsors waited until the end to unveil it.”
PFA-VF spent $14.2 million on ad time for “Ashley’s Story,” which ran on cable stations and in nine key states. According to USA Today, the ad was supported by a Web site, as well as “e-mails, automated phone calls and 2.3 million brochures” mailed to voters.
"Ashley's Story" made Advertising Age columnist Bob Garfield's list of top 10 "Ads I Loved" for 2004. Garfield writes, "We said, 'It might come down to one commercial,' and it may well have. A retelling of candidate Bush's encounter with an Ohio Teenager answered undecideds' doubts. The president wasn't a dry-well-drilling gambler, moron and fool... he's a fearless leader who will hug us."
The Chronicle raised the question whether investment firms, "which are trying to keep a low profile in the current debate, will quietly contribute to a number of groups promoting Social Security overhaul because private accounts will increase their business." PFA's McCabe denies "his group would serve as a front for investment firms." But PFA "will be soliciting from donors who have helped the organization in the past." The head of the prominent investment firm Charles Schwab contributed $50,000 to the group's political arm in 2004. Schwab also gave $75,000 to the Club for Growth, which is also lobbying for Social Security privatization.
The advantage of arrangements between corporate donors and groups like PFA, however, is acknowledge. Thomas Edsall wrote in the Washington Post, "For corporations wary of publicity over their involvement in [promoting Social Security privatization, tort reform] and other controversial issues, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for Legal Reform, the Club for Growth and Progress for America pointedly offer donors the promise of anonymity."
In late February 2005, the Houston Chronicle reported that Texas A&M University economics professor Thomas R. Saving had joined up with Progress for America as an advisor and spokesman. Saving, however, is serving as one of seven trustees for the Social Security Administration, raising questions about potential conflicts of interest between his advocacy work at PFA and his role as a Social Security "trustee." Saving is also a fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis. According to the Chronicle, former U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin joined PFA as an advisor as well.
"I'm interested in the issues and I'm working on them and I'll continue to work on them", Saving told the Chronicle. "I already do an awful lot of speeches about Social Security and Medicare."
In June 2005, The Hill reported that PFA intended to "spend at least $18 million on the expected fight to replace William Rehnquist, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court." PFA's campaign would include "national cable-news and broadcast-television ads in targeted states. The group will also coordinate grassroots organizers and public-relations specialists in 18 states, including states represented by centrist Republican senators such as Arizona, Maine and Oregon" The Hill wrote. The groups will also use phone-bank and direct-mail in its campaign. "Before Senate confirmation of Owen and Brown, PFA claims to have helped generate nearly 80,000 telephone calls supporting their nominations", The Hill reported. PFA will work closely with the Judicial Confirmation Network and the Committee for Justice on the campaign.
On June 22, 2005, PFA issued a press release announcing a $700,000 campaign in anticipation of a Supreme Court Justice vacancy during the Court's summer break. The campaign included buys on big newspapers' internet sites, and a roll-out of a new website: Up or Down Vote
On its website, PFA lists as one of its issues "The War on Terror", saying that "In a time of testing, we cannot find security by abandoning our commitments and retreating within our borders. If we were to leave these vicious attackers alone, they would not leave us alone. They would simply move the battlefield to our own shores. There is no peace in retreat. And there is no honor in retreat. By allowing radical Islam to work its will -- by leaving an assaulted world to fend for itself -- we would signal to all that we no longer believe in our own ideals, or even in our own courage. But our enemies and our friends can be certain: The United States will not retreat from the world, and we will never surrender to evil."
The front page of the site, when viewed on April 10, 2006, showed links to a brochure and video on the war, which also appear on the site MidwestHeroes.com, which is copyrighted by the PFA Voter Fund. When one follows the link there to sign up to receive information, s/he is forwarded to the site for Families United for Our Troops and Their Mission, yet another not-for-profit 501(c)(4) organization, claiming to be "a grassroots coalition of Gold Star families, veterans, families with loved ones in harm's way, and Americans who share a deep appreciation for our men and women in uniform and support them in their efforts to make America safer by winning the War On Terror." In order to receive the newsletter, one first has to sign a plege of support for the mission.
Note: The majority of the preceding material was taken from Laura Miller's "Progress for the Powerful", which was published by PR Watch, Volume 11, No. 4 (2004).
Progress for America
PO Box 19242
Washington, DC 20036