Black PACs: Greeks Take Action

Two new political action committees say it's time for our electoral participation to evolve.

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1911 United

(The Root) -- The terms "PAC," short for "political action committee," and "super PAC," a reference to its mightier cousin, often conjure unsettling images of a pay-to-play electoral system: pharmaceutical-industry-backed groups that contribute thousands of dollars to members of Congress to sway legislation in their corporate interests, for example, or a staggering $10 million campaign donation from just one person. But a new set of PACs, fueled by the collective membership power of historically black fraternities and sororities, argue that they're cut from a different cloth.

Generally, PACs serve the purpose of raising and spending money to elect and defeat political candidates, ballot initiatives or legislation. Most are "connected PACs" established by business, labor unions and trade groups, but they're limited in how much they can receive (up to $5,000 from individuals) and give (up to $5,000 to a candidate or candidate committee per election, and up to $15,000 to a political party per year). PACs are also prohibited from accepting money from corporations and labor unions.

Super PACs, meanwhile, have no restrictions on who contributes to them or how much they give. Allowed free rein by the Supreme Court's Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling in 2010, super PACs may accept limitless funds directly from the bank accounts of corporations, unions and wealthy individual donors.

As The Root reported in January, a pro-Obama super PAC founded by members of Kappa Alpha Psi and Omega Psi Phi, 1911 United, is raising funds toward organizing 10,000 volunteers for President Obama's re-election. In April, Unity9 PAC -- a political action committee represented by members of the oldest African-American fraternities and sororities, unofficially known as the "Divine Nine" -- launched with the mission to financially assist congressional candidates and elected officials with legislative priorities of concern to the black community.

"Other super PACs looked at the Citizens United decision and thought about how they can now use enormous amounts of money to make corporate media conglomerates richer. They've spent incredible amounts of money on negative ad campaigns," Sinclair Skinner, treasurer of 1911 United, told The Root. "We're mobilizing people using fewer funds and getting a better return. We're not using fire to fight fire. We're using water to fight fire."

Where the (Political) Action Is

Unity9 PAC and 1911 United were both hatched from the same idea: expanding their footprint in the political process.

As tax-exempt foundations with 501(c)(3) status, historically black fraternities and sororities have limited election activities. For instance, Greek-letter organizations are prohibited from endorsing or opposing a candidate or contributing to political campaigns. Their political involvement has thusly concerned voter registration, education and get-out-the-vote activities.

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 "But the other side of the political process involves supporting people who have made the choice of seeking office," Samuel C. Hamilton, chairman of Unity9 PAC, told The Root. "The formation of a nonconnected political action committee is the piece that needed to be put in place in order to see African Americans engaged in the overall process fully."

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