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VOL.CXLII .... No. ~,273 c~,~,e,~:~,s~'~.,~,~, NEW YORK, WEDNESDAY,
MARCH 17, 1993
A New Breed of Hired Hands
C tivates Grass-Roots Anger
By STEPHEN ENGELBERG
Special to The New York Times
WASHINGTON, March 16--The era
of electronic vox pop, when radio talk
shows help drive out a prospective Attor-
ney General, has meant boom times for
at least one species of Washington insid-
er: consultants who deliver populist rage.
Consider Bonner & Associates, which
occupies an entire floor of one of Wash-
ington's pricier office buildings. From a
distance it looks like the boiler room of
any telephone sales company, with fresh-
faced young men and women in narrow
cubicles reading intently from typed
But these operators are not pitching
Veg-O-Matics or life insurance. They are
prospecting by phone for that most elu-
sive of Washington commodities, the
hometown pressure points that represen-
tatives or senators are loath to resist.
This company is among a new breed of
Washington firms that has turned grass-
roots organizing techniques to the advan-
tage of its high-paying clients, generally
trade associations and corporations.
Unlike old-fashioned letter-writing
campaigns, which rained easily identifi-
able form letters on lawmakers, the new
campaigns are sometimes intended to ap-
pear spontaneous. Jack Bonner, who
founded Bonner & Associates in 1984,
says he always lets his targets know of his
activities. But the rise of this industry has
made it hard to tell the difference between
manufactured public opinion and genu-
ine explosions of popular sentiment.
Or as they put it in the lobbying indus-
try: is it grass roots or Astro Turf.
The Zoi~ Baird Case
The real thing helped bring down
President Clinton's first choice for Attor-
ney General, Zo8 Baird, when thousands
of angry citizens, apparently without the
benefit of outside encouragement, called
their members of Congress to complain
about her hiring of an illegal immigrant
couple as a baby sitter and driver, and her
failure to pay the helpers' social security
But Bonner Associates specializes in
seizing on unformed public sentiment,
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STORY RAN ON THE FRONT PAGE.
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rile teew runic r~Mes NATIONAL wzz~tces,gA ~ M,~,~CH lz, 19;1
Continued from A 1
marshaling local intere=t groups and rain-
Ing faxos, phone calls and letters on Con-
gr~ or the White House on a few days'
notice. Some competitors rely more on
a retail approach. They phone potentially
Irate chlzens, deliver detailed briefings
and then transfer the newly aggravated
callers dtroctiy to the office of the rele-
vant senator or representative.
"The golden age of grass roots has ar-
rived," Mr. Bonnet said. Fie has mobi-
lized public opinion against limits on
credit card interest rates when he was
working for the banks, agains~ tougher
fuel efficiency standards when he was on
the s!de of the auto makers, and against
triple-trailer trucks when he was hired by
Mr. Bonnet reports a surge in poten-
tial clients In the ls=t two m th~ months.
"In the past," he raid, "a lot of busi-
neuos wouldn't go to the grass roots be-
caus~ they thought they could contain
their problems in D.C., either by lobby-
htg or by George Bush vetoing anti-
business legislation. Well, that veto isn't
there any more.
Through the early 1980's, environmen-
tat groups and others on the fringes of
the Washington establishment relied on
latices, petitions and other manpower-
intensive methods to counter the power
and connections of big corporations.
But by the cud of the d~cade, special-
Ists like Mr. Bonner, as well as several
Washington political consultants and lob-
byists, had begun to co-opt the strategy,
a trend that gathered even more momen-
tum when Ross Pero! and Bill Clinton
tapped into the electronic babble of dis-
sent that is talk radio and television.
°'What some of those trade organiza-
tions are asking now is: How do we find
these Perot-type people and get them to
speak out on our issue?" ~eid R. Nancy
Clack, vice president of a political con-
~ulting company called The Clinton
Group, which has been operating since
Specialize in Big Public Displays of Emotion
the 1960's and has no ties to the current
Administration, "How do we fit into this
Jeff Eller, director of media affairs at
the White House, who is one of the Clin-
ton Administration officials responsible
for keeping a finger on the public pulse,
said he had a practiced ear for detecting
stage-managed campaigns, Mr, Eller said
that on an average day, 65,000 people
weigh in by telephone with their opinions
about President Climon's economic plan,
and another 700 a day use computers to
send electronic mail.
"You can tell if you listen to the phone
calls and read the mail which is prepro-
grammed and which comes from the
heart," he said. "If a bunch of phone
calls saying the same thing come in at the
same time, you know." Or do you?
Ms. Clack said The Clinton Group
used computer data banks to identify
people with specific leanings. Her com-
pany generally works for Democrats and
can set in motion a wave of sincere,
unscripted phone calls.
The technique, called "patch through,"
works like this:
Say, for example, the National Orga-
nization for Women opposes a nomina-
tion to the Supreme Court because the
candidate has equivocal record nn abor-
The Clinton Group will take the mem-
bership rolls of the group, and match
names to phone numbers. It might also
use its computer to cross-reference maga-
zine subscriptions, data on personal pur-
chasing habits, and precincts with partic-
ular voting and income profiles, to come
up with a bigger list of sympathetle
At the company's phone bank in
Louisville, Ky., a computer dials the
numbers. When someone answers, an
operator comes on the line and explains
NOW's position, offering to transfer the
caller, at no charge, to the White House
switchboard or local member of Congr~s.
"Progressive groups have got to do
this," Ms. Clack insisted. "The right
wing doesn't. They've got the Christian
Broadcasting Network, the 700 Club and
about 1,200 radio outlets. All they do is
print a press release, read it on the air."
The quality of this kind of briefing is
crucial Mr. Bonnet, 44 years old, who
was a political aide to the late Senator
John Heinz, a Republican from Pennsyl-
vania, employs as many as 200 "issue
junkies" to explain matters to a local
business or interest group. He often asks
the people he called to call him back after
they are through talking to their Congres-
sional office, to test whether any unfore-
seen questions arose.
Mr. Bonner's 12,000-square-foot of-
flees occupy an entire floor, through
which he walks with the pride of a high-
tech craftsman. He shows off the million-
dollar phone system, which can keep 300
lines humming at once, and walks a
visitor past rooms of phones.
Methods of Enlistment
Mr. Bonner tries to enlist local people,
Sometimes it is a straightforward matter
of getting local bankers or small business-
men to call their Congressman. Other
times the connection is a bit more
oblique, like the time he persuaded local
handicapped groups to attack proposed
fuel efficiency standards for auto makers.
(Smaller cars would be arguably harder
for handicapped people to get into.)
His services do not come cheap. A
campaign aimed at a handful of lawmak-
ers on a subcommiltee could cost in the
tens of thousands of dollars, but one
trade association in an uphill fight on the
Senate floor paid $3 million for a single
Prodding of public opinion, whether
by talk show hosts or Washington ex-
perts, has touched off its own backlash
and complaints that the reborn demo-
cratic spirit is being subverted.
"Give me a break," Mr. Bonner re-
plied. "Most communications to the
White House 0t the Hill are prompted.
Whether by ihe Sierra (21ub, the National
Rifle Association or th~ American Auo,
ciation of Retired P~ople i~ not the
At the White Houae,!the switchboard
has already been equipped with th~t
f~vorite high-tech wrinkle of corporat~
America: the voice mall system, which
allows callers t0 register views by press-
ing numbers on phone~.
"Thank you for ea~lin~ ibe White
House we appreciate your call "inton¢~
a man's voice. "If you would like to
make a comment or ¢xpcess your opin-
ion, please press one now,"
There's not a lot of room for nuance.
"Do you support or o~ose the Pred.
dc~t's cconomtc p ograqh the message
begins. The ~e~l ~hreeSelecti0ns allow
vo~ers to assess the Climon plan for its
size of deficit reduction, cuts hi Govern,
ment spending and the faFness o~ the t~x
burden proposed for upper Income tax,
payers. In each case, th~ choice~ range
from "too far" to "nol far eaougb" to
C~lers are invited to ta~k whh an oper.
ator if they have furlher thoughts.