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Sunday, June 24, 2007

SEIU, AARP bitch-slap Big Business

Three of the country's most powerful organizations representing business, labor, and the retired, will launch a joint effort next week to put health care and retirement on the agenda of presidential candidates. AARP, the Business Roundtable, and the Service Employees International Union are willing to spend more than $60 million in an unprecedented effort to inject the issues into the campaign.

The organizations' leaders say the goal is not to promote any specific plan, but to pressure candidates to have their own strategies and talk about them often.

"We have been on the opposite sides of many issues," said John Castellani, the Business Roundtable president . "But really when you look at the biggest concerns that AARP members have they are retirement and health security and then you look at the Business Roundtable and the number one pressure they face is health care costs."

Castellani, AARP president Bill Novelli, and SEIU president Andy Stern will meet on the lawn of the New Hampshire State House tomorrow to kick off a campaign called Divided We Fail.

The coalition has hired staff in four early primary states and purchased billboards and television advertisements.

While AARP has state offices throughout the country, the campaign will focus on 10 states, including the five early primary contests in Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida.

Using the presidential primary process to influence the national agenda is not new, but the amount of resources these organizations are putting into the efforts is unusual.

In recent presidential primary years, groups have advocated for the medical use of marijuana, the reallocation of national defense spending to schools, scrapping the Internal Revenue Service, or instituting a flat income tax.

But in the past, efforts have been limited to gathering supporters, giving them T-shirts, and sending them to campaign events to attempt to ask questions.

But Divided We Fail is using a more cooperative approach, meeting with a handful of presidential campaigns to share polling data on their members and the electorate as a whole.

Over the past three presidential campaigns, advocacy groups have become more sophisticated. A bipartisan, $60 million effort backed primarily by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was launched two weeks ago in New Hampshire to put education on the presidential primary agenda in 10 states.

Joe Elcock, spokesman for Divided We Fail, said the effort is boosted by the huge number of members in the three groups. AARP has 38 million members, making it, he said, the second largest organization in the United States, after the Catholic Church. In New Hampshire alone, AARP has 225,000 members.

AARP said that 1 in 4 voters in the last presidential election nationwide were members.

The Business Roundtable represents 160 CEOs and the SEIU has 1.9 million members across the country .

Stern, the head of the SEIU, said his group plans to continue its Americans for Health Care campaign in four early primary states, including New Hampshire, to run in conjunction with the Divided We Fail campaign.

"What we learned in 2004 with Americans for Health Care is that by merely showing up to these events we were able to make all presidential candidates talk about health care as a major issue," said Stern. "We aim to do the same thing working with these other groups. The most remarkable thing about Divided We Fail is the fact that these three very different groups are together and that shows how serious these issues have become."