(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."
Unity9 PAC and 1911 United operate independently of the black fraternities and sororities referenced in their marketing. Both PACs are staffed with general counsel to ensure compliance with all regulations, and any participation by members of the fraternities and sororities is on a volunteer basis.
The combined membership numbers of Greek-letter organizations, however, are a boon for the committees. "As members of the fraternities, we already have a natural network of potential volunteers in every city," said Skinner of 1911 United. "That's very different than if you start off as a random voter group trying to get people out."
The Divine Nine Strategy
The built-in network from Divine Nine members will certainly aid Unity9 PAC. The nonconnected PAC (organized around an ideological mission rather than corporate or labor interests) seeks to raise $1 million in voluntary contributions. With a combined 2.5 million members of historically black fraternities and sororities, Unity9 PAC is asking for a minimum contribution of $20.12 each — and it needs only 20 percent participation to hit its fundraising goal.
Decisions about which political candidates get financial support from Unity9 PAC will be settled by the committee's board of directors, which has been evaluating candidates through vetting sheets and documents on the track record of politicians who are already in office.
"We will support candidates who actively pursue legislation around the kinds of things that we are concerned about," said Hamilton, listing the educational achievement gap, economic equality, health disparities, environmental justice and voting rights as the PAC's priority issues. "We want to have people at the table who can champion those areas where there is a disproportionately negative impact on African Americans and others who may be socially or economically disadvantaged."
Hamilton was reluctant to name who's in the running for the committee's financial support, offering only that they may be like-minded candidates of any political party or race. The Unity9 PAC board will meet in June to make its first round of selections.
Nupes and Ques Join Forces
As for 1911 United, which has been operating for five months, the super PAC has raised $80,000 — a long way from its benchmark of $250,000 by the end of June, and its overall goal of $1.5 million by October. "As the election cycle continues, historically the amount of funding that goes toward our kind of on-the-ground efforts increases," said an undaunted Skinner. Based on the precedent set by past political funding cycles, he expects financial doors to open much wider by September, aiding 1911 United's ultimate goal of 10,000 volunteers and 1 million newly registered voters.
The super PAC's current dollars have allowed it to recruit roughly 3,000 volunteers and train enough to register 1,000 voters so far. It has also paid for a five-week, 24-city bus tour, which kicks off on June 6. After the heightened visibility and reach from the tour — complete with two black tour buses wrapped with the 1911 United logo and the image of President Obama — the super PAC's organizers anticipate an additional 4,000 volunteers, 10,000 more registered voters and a total of $250,000 raised through fundraisers at each stop.
"We're focusing on the battleground states, a specific population of black voters, and we're interacting with that population early and often," said Skinner of the super PAC's recruit, train and deploy strategy. "There's a group of black people who we know vote every time, and a group of people who voted in 2008 but didn't show up in 2004. Our approach is to get those people who vote all the time — who have connections to the folks who don't normally vote, through their family and friend networks — to engage in volunteering."
A Political Evolution
While some may balk at PACs of any stripe, with objections over injecting still more money into the election process, Unity9 PAC and 1911 United see their organizations as a maturation of black participation in politics.
"We have taken note of how people are able to influence legislation and appointments, and to do that takes more than just votes," said Unity9 PAC's Hamilton. "It takes assisting candidates to get them elected so that they can pass legislation favorable to what you believe is correct. This is not just a 'today' strategy but a long-term vision. We want to eventually have the right people in the right place, who have the ability to influence the decisions that government makes."
Skinner adds that groups like 1911 United and Unity9 PAC are just building on the foundation of black institutions such as civil rights groups, churches and fraternities and sororities. "As African Americans develop as a voting group, these are the things that we engage in — super PACs and all," he said. "The continuing legacy of these black institutions has manifested in new ways based on the times in which we live."
Ultimately, effecting change in a shifting electoral landscape will take a group effort. "If these are the rules of the game, you have to be smart about it," said Hamilton. "You have to use each and every tool available to you. That's why super PACs have their place, nonconnected PACs have their place and the [fraternities and sororities] that work on the voter-education side have their place. It's going to take all of that for us to be fully involved in our own future and destiny."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's senior political correspondent.