Astroturf Burns: Perry scheme to gin up phony grassroots support going up in smoke
By GROMER JEFFERS Jr.
The Dallas Morning News
Gov. Rick Perry's campaign has unknowingly paid convicted felons as part-time workers under its incentive program to turn out voters for the Republican primary.
The campaign lists about 300 part-time workers on the financial disclosure forms it filed with the state, recruits under the "Perry Home Headquarters" program that pays people to get others to sign up as a Perry supporter and pledge to vote. A handful have criminal histories, a Dallas Morning News review shows.
Beyond that, the program has become a money-making opportunity, especially for those with extensive social networking profiles. Some may be in it more for the cash than the candidate. For instance, one lists herself as a Facebook fan of President Barack Obama, an unlikely political pairing.
Campaign officials don't screen those who sign up to be part-timers. They say that both the re-election effort and the workers benefit from the Home Headquarters program.
"People in life make mistakes," said Perry spokesman Mark Miner. "It doesn't mean they can't get a second chance and work hard. That's what these people are doing. They are out there trying to change their lives and make a difference."
Perry has described the campaign as a grass-roots effort that would help sweep him past Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the primary. But the voter turnout program has been problematic, requiring campaign staffers to spend crucial time verifying the voters who are recruited, campaign e-mails show.
And the revelation that some have criminal histories, including some for drug-related crimes, could open the campaign to charges of carelessness. Perry's report shows that the campaign has paid more than $360,000 to part-time employees. That's nearly 8 percent of the expenditures listed in his report, which covers the last half of 2009.
"Most consultants and large campaigns absolutely hate large numbers of volunteers just because it's complicated," said veteran Republican consultant Royal Masset, who is not involved with the campaigns of Perry or Hutchison. "It's so much easier just to have an organization that's basically all fundraising and media. I was surprised that he was paying people at all. Maybe he needed to do it to prove that he had grass-roots support."
Perry's opponents have criticized the program.
"Rick Perry's campaign finance reports prove real grass-roots movements cannot be bought," said Hector Nieto, a spokesman for the Texas chapter of Organizing for America, the Democratic group that grew out of Obama's campaign. "OFA-TX and its unpaid volunteers remained focused on finding real solutions to the problems that have surfaced under Perry's administration and are currently plaguing our great state."
Miner said the program is operating as intended.
"It's working well," Miner said. "We have a lot of people out there working hard on behalf of the governor. We've always said that this is going to be the largest grass-roots organization this state has ever seen."
But e-mails written by Perry campaign officials indicate there have been problems. The messages, obtained by The News, show that the campaign was overwhelmed by Internet-savvy workers who were earning too much money. The Perry team has stopped paying workers under one segment of the program: Recruiters are no longer paid for bringing in other recruiters.
Campaign officials have also complained that they had to verify the names of registered voters submitted by the more than 300 people looking to get paid.
A review of Perry's latest campaign report shows an array of people with criminal convictions.
Gema Gonzalez of El Paso was convicted in 2004 of felony possession of between 5 and 50 pounds of marijuana, public records show. Gonzalez also has a misdemeanor assault charge on her record.
She earned $13,440 to recruit voters over the last six months.
Reached by phone, Gonzalez said: "I can't make a comment about it, but I have a number in Austin for you to call if you'd like."
Britany Wiggins of Abilene, charged with drunken driving in 2004 and sentenced to a year of probation, was paid $3,240 for her grass-roots work. On Facebook, she lists herself as an Obama fan. She could not be reached for comment.
And Joshua Furrh of Fort Worth, convicted of possession of a controlled substance and sentence to three years probation in 2007, was paid $480 by the Perry campaign.
He acknowledged that he was on probation but declined to discuss his case any further or to talk about the Perry program.
"He's going to make a great governor, again," Furrh said.
Another Perry worker, Bryce Hudnall of Saginaw, has been convicted on charges of criminal mischief and attempted credit card abuse. He earned $20 for his work for Perry.
"That's what happens when you hire them out of the blue," said Masset, the GOP consultant.
Most are clean
The majority of the part-time workers have clean records, and most identify with the governor and his core beliefs. But at a minimum, the program has been expensive for a campaign that needs every dollar for a costly campaign-advertising war with Hutchison and, if Perry wins the primary, a possibly tough challenge from Democrat Bill White.
Perry's use of turnout workers is reminiscent of the successful grass-roots campaigns before him, including Obama's 2008 run and the trailblazing ground game used by George W. Bush in 2004. Those campaigns offered incentives, but not cash payments. For example, workers received campaign merchandise, choice tickets to campaign events, or photos with the candidate.
Other campaigns have paid cash, though.
East Texas politicos had a successful system of paying "haulers" to give voters rides to the polls. During their heyday decades ago, the haulers got as much as $8 per voter.
But straight cash is a rare reward, though perfectly legal. Statewide campaigns usually have a relatively small number of full-time employees but an array of consultants. Campaign structures vary, but grass-roots efforts are usually funded by hiring a consultant to handle the work of turning out voters.
Perry's program is unique because of how it's set up.
Workers are asked to recruit friends and neighbors, referred to as Perry Home Headquarters. Those recruits pledge in turn to recruit 11 more people to vote for Perry in the March primary.
The initial recruiters get $20 for each Perry Home Headquarter they bring in, plus another $20 for every 11 voters that the "headquarter" signs up for the primary.
The potential voters can go out and recruit more Perry Home Headquarters and voters.
The money adds up quickly, which attracts a wide range of folks looking for fast money.
Enterprising workers use their Twitter and Facebook accounts to help them recruit. Shaniqua Curry of Denton earned $3,420 for her effort, which included a plaintive Twitter plea: "HELP ME RAISE MONEY FOR MY NEXT CAR!!! COPY, PASTE, AND SIGN UP TO SUPPORT RICK PERRY!" the tweet read.
Clicking on links sends you to a Perry campaign Web page that appears to have a unique identifier so the recruiter can be paid.
Cash vs. the cause
Critics say the strategy is ripe for abuse, though any shenanigans would probably be perpetrated on the campaign itself, with workers eager for as much money as possible turning in names that won't support Perry in March.
The campaign appears mindful that all the part-timers may not be in it for the cause.
Communications from Perry campaign leaders and their grass-roots workers show that some part-time workers had failed to secure their batches of 11 voters promising to cast ballots for Perry.
"As a reminder, you have the potential to receive an additional $20 for each headquarter that fulfills their commitments of voting early in the primary (Feb. 16-26) and recruiting 11 voters," wrote Elyse Derian, the Houston regional director for Perry's campaign. "Please take these next few weeks to encourage your headquarters to recruit those 11 individuals to commit to vote!"
Needing to focus on getting voters to the polls, the Perry campaign scrapped part of its incentive pay.
"For those of you that are being compensated for your work, the campaign will not compensate you from this point forward for any new" recruiters that are brought in, Derian wrote this month. "However, the bonus for getting your [recruiters] to identify and turn out 11 registered voters is still as is."
Derian also urged the workers to make sure the people they recruited were registered to vote. Many of the names turned in by the part-time workers were either not registered to vote or lived outside of Texas.
Campaign officials remain confident the program will help Perry at the polls.
"It's doing what we said it would do," Miner said. "When you're taking on an unprecedented effort like this, there is always room to grow."
Staff researcher Darlean Spangenberger contributed to this report.
AT A GLANCE: PERRY HOME HEADQUARTERS
Here's how the program, known as Perry Home Headquarters, works:
1. Volunteers are asked to recruit friends and neighbors, who are called Perry Home Headquarters.
2. The "headquarters" pledge in turn to recruit 11 more people to vote for Perry in the March primary.
3. The initial volunteers get $20 for each Perry Home Headquarter recruited, plus another $20 for every 11 voters each headquarter signs up to vote in the primary. The campaign has recently quit paying out for the recruitment of an additional headquarter.
•The campaign paid out $360,000 to "part-time field staff" in the second half of 2009, and more than 300 people were listed on Perry's report as "part-time workers."
The lowest amount paid out was $20. The highest total was $34,060 to Jeff Cline of Rockwall.
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