An outgrowth of the New Left, Citizen Action (CA), as described by author Stanley Kurtz, was “a loose national coalition of community organizations coordinated through Chicago’s Midwest Academy.” CA was established in 1979 when the leaders of five state organizations—Oregon Fair Share, Massachusetts Fair Share, the Illinois Public Action Council, the Connecticut Citizen Action Coalition, and the Ohio Public Interest Campaign—jointly decided to form a national federation. Its founders (most notably Heather Booth, who also co-founded the Midwest Academy) were veterans of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the â€¨Indochina Peace Campaign (the latter of which worked tirelessly in the 1970s to cut American aid to the governments in Saigon and Phnom Penh, and thus helped the North Vietnamese Communists and the Cambodian Khmer Rouge rise to power).
CA’s first national convention featured Michael Harrington, founder of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), delivering an openly socialist address. Ira Arlook (of the Ohio Public Interest Campaign) and Heather Booth served as co-directors of CA from 1979 through 1988, at which point Booth left the organization and Arlook alone remained at the helm. According to The American Prospect, Arlook and Booth “initially conceived of [CA] as a kind of a Sam Gompers-like pressure group on the political system rather than as a direct participant in elections or in the Democratic Party.”
The most influential of CA’s statewide groups was the Illinois Public Action Council (IPAC), which had been established in 1975 and was headed by Robert Creamer, who was a close associate of Heather Booth, Paul Booth, and the Midwest Academy. Dominated by socialists, IPAC served as the Midwest Academy’s action arm and contemplated the possibility of announcing its socialist ideals openly and candidly. As a 1981 article in DSA’s national newsletter explained, IPAC was aiming to shift “from the usual reform targets of citizens groups (shut offs, street lights, metro fares) to naming, and questioning, the basic economic structure of the society.” Indeed, IPAC’s program called for legislation promoting public ownership of property and a redistribution of “the fruits of production.”
In 1982, however, IPAC staffer John Cameron counseled against such candor when he published a piece titled “A Socialist’s Guide to Citizen Action” in an internal DSA periodical called the Socialist Forum. As Stanley Kurtz explains: “Essentially, Cameron was inviting his fellow socialists to join Citizen Action, while also subtly warning them away from attempts to turn the organization into an openly socialist entity. In other words, without quite using the term, Cameron was letting his colleagues know that Citizen Action was a socialist front group.”
While noting that “most of [CA’s] key leaders probably consider themselves socialists,” Cameron added that they generally adhered to a “pragmatic avoidance of hot-button cultural and foreign policy issues” lest they unwittingly expose their true socialist ideals. He urged CA to pursue a “transitional program”—i.e., a stealth campaign to engineer a gradual shift from capitalism to socialism. And he made it clear that such a stealth approach to promoting “progressive social change in America,” represented a competing strategy to DSA’s openly socialist approach.
The following year, in 1983, DSA field director Leo Casey also wrote about CA in the Socialist Forum. His assertion that “the bulk of Citizen Action leadership would privately profess a socialist politics well within the DSA spectrum” echoed Cameron, as did Casey’s observation that “for the most part, socialist sentiments are not expressed [by CA members] in public.” Also like Cameron before him, Casey defended this approach, noting that CA personnel had already been condemned for their SDS backgrounds and thus needed to keep their radical goals as private as possible. Still, some observers in the mainstream media took notice. As a September 1983 New York Times Magazine piece put it: “At the heart of the [CA] movement is an element of class struggle.”
Through IPAC, Heather Booth and Bob Creamer began exploring whether it might be possible to simultaneously pursue societal transformation by means of both community organizing and engagement in national electoral politics. Toward that end, in 1982 the group recruited Lane Evans, a young activist attorney, to run (successfully) as a Democrat in a downstate congressional district that had voted Republican in every election but one since the 1860s.
Another key IPAC figure of that era was Jan Schakowsky, who served as the organization’s program director from 1976 to 1985.
As CA waded into the waters of electoral organizing in the early 1980s, the leaders of the Midwest Academy saw that it would be difficult to continue limiting CA’s focus solely to economic issues—because congressional campaigns would inevitably be compelled to address issues of foreign policy and national defense. Consequently, CA decided to experiment with organizing on these issues in addition to domestic concerns. But Stanley Kurtz notes that:
“The move into international issues was fraught with danger, not only of splitting the coalition, but also of publicly exposing Citizen Action’s underlying socialism. Perhaps for these reasons, Citizen Action’s foreign policy efforts never gained significant traction. Nonetheless, for at least a couple of years, from about 1984 through 1985, Citizen Action had an active foreign policy wing.”
Working closely with Greenpeace and Ralph Nader’s Public Interest Research Groups, CA pioneered the strategy of door-to-door canvassing to solicit donations for, and disseminate literature by, environmentalist organizations and causes.
According to UndueInfluence.com, by 1985 CA had established 20 state organizations, was operating on an annual budget of $12 million, and was staffed by some 1,500 organizers, door-to-door canvassers, and researchers. At its height, Citizen Action had nearly 1.5 million members, 600,000 of them from Ohio and Indiana. Its popularity was due in part to the efforts of the public-relations firm Fenton Communications, of which CA was a client.
A number of key figures who would later play important roles in the life and ideological development of Barack Obama, had close ties to CA, IPAC, and the Midwest Academy during the 1980s. For instance:
In the early 1990s, CA began to focus some of its efforts on supporting the fight for socialized medicine, an issue that was being explored by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton.
CA’s political activism was again on display during the 1996 election cycle when it joined forces with the Sierra Club in a “Campaign for a Responsible Congress,” an effort to unseat Republican incumbents in 15 key congressional races. A major contributor to this effort was the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which gave CA $475,000.
But in 1997, a thriving CA suddenly imploded following the public disclosure of its implication in a money-laundering scandal that involved the illegal juggling of funds between the AFL-CIO, the leaders and officials of individual unions (including the Service Employees International Union, the Teamsters Union, and AFSCME), the Democratic Party, then-Clinton administration chief fundraiser Terry McAuliffe, and former Clinton White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes. For details on this scandal, click here.
CA’s national office shut down its operations in November 1997, but a number of the organization’s state affiliates remained intact. In 1999 Heather Booth revived Citizen Action as a national organization under the name USAction.
The various state affiliates of CA have received financial support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the AT&T Foundation, the Beldon Fund, the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, the Blue Moon Fund, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Energy Foundation, the Fannie Mae Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the Open Society Institute, the Proteus Fund, the Public Welfare Foundation, the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, and the Verizon Foundation.
In 2008, Ohio Citizen Action paid $907,808 to Citizens Services, an ACORN front group, for political canvassing. Moreover, Ohio CA paid an additional $590,526 to Citizens Services for “campaign consulting.”