Common Cause, Washington Monthly Explore a Common Future

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Two of the capital's most venerable institutions -- the lobby group Common Cause and the scrappy magazine Washington Monthly -- are in serious talks about merging.

A decision could come in May, when the Common Cause board plans to discuss the combination.

Officials of both groups said they have not decided how closely they might tie themselves together. It could be a partnership of some kind, or the Monthly could be folded into Common Cause.

What is certain is that conversations have been going on for months and that each side thinks there are good reasons to blend their efforts.

"We all like each other," said Common Cause President Bob Edgar. "We are now doing our due diligence."

Common Cause has been working to revive itself after several years of flagging finances and effectiveness, and sees adding a magazine as a good way to bolster its reputation. The Washington Monthly, while influential among an elite audience, has long searched for a financially stable partner, especially one with lots of members (and potential subscribers) such as Common Cause.

But how, you might ask, can a lobby group and a magazine merge? It sounds pretty strange.

In fact, Common Cause has a distinguished history in publishing. From 1980 to 1996, it housed a well-regarded magazine called, appropriately enough, Common Cause magazine. It was a deeply researched, finger-in-your-eye sort of periodical that often did investigations about such matters as campaign finance and military contracting.

The magazine won more than two dozen journalism awards, including five from Investigative Reporters and Editors, as well as a National Magazine Award for General Excellence. Its stories prompted more than a few congressional investigations.

The Washington Monthly is one of the city's most cherished magazines, especially among those on the political left (even though it has taken pride over the years in challenging liberal orthodoxy). It was founded in 1969 by Charles Peters, a former Peace Corps official whose uncompromising Tilting at Windmills column is legendary in journalistic circles.

A training ground for young scribes, the magazine has had on its roster some of the country's best-known journalists and authors, including Jon Meacham, Amy Sullivan, Michael Kinsley, James Fallows, Jonathan Alter, Joe Nocera, Taylor Branch, Nicholas Lemann , Mickey Kaus, Katherine Boo, Gregg Easterbrook, James Bennet, David Ignatius and Jason DeParle.

Common Cause was founded in 1970, a year after Washington Monthly, by John Gardner, a secretary of health, education and welfare under President Lyndon B. Johnson. It was intended, Gardner wrote, to be a "citizens' lobby -- a lobby concerned not with the advancement of special interests but with the well-being of the nation."

Common Cause went on to champion an end to the war in Vietnam, a halt to wasteful weapons programs and improvement of the nation's system of voting. Its signature issue was campaign finance reform.

In recent years, however, Common Cause fell on tough times and recently dipped into the red. Its policy focus drifted. For a while, it even de-emphasized campaign finance reform.

Last year, Common Cause hired Edgar, a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania who had become known as a turnaround specialist for nonprofit groups. This year it also got a new chairman, former congressman James A. Leach (R-Iowa), who is the interim director of the Institute of Politics of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Edgar has brought costs under control, obtained some new funding and beefed up the governing board. Common Cause is again concentrating on ethics in government and money in politics.

Among the additions to the board was Markos Kounalakis, publisher of the chronically money-losing Monthly. The merger talks evolved naturally from there.

Some questions about a possible merger remain unanswered. How can the Monthly stay "independent" while affiliating with a lobby group? Also, Common Cause claims to be nonpartisan and the Monthly lately, at least at times, has read like a forum for debate among Democrats. (Its editor in chief, Paul Glastris, was a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton.) Edgar said the magazine might be a fine addition if it "toned down its partisanship."

Surely the magazine would be happy to do so, especially if it had access to Common Cause's more than 150,000 members. Its circulation is now about 20,000.

The board meeting this spring will tell the tale.

Travel Lobby Showdown

Jay Rasulo, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, has lobbied hard with fellow travel industry execs for a federally backed advertising campaign abroad that would lure more tourists to our shores.

The idea made some headway last year but has stalled in Congress, partly because the Bush administration did not endorse the idea. Last summer, a deputy to Secretary of Commerce Carlos M . Gutierrez wrote to lawmakers that "tourism promotion activities should be financed and undertaken by the private sector and, where they desire, by states and local governments."

The letter came as a nasty surprise to Rasulo, who was chairman of the department's U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board -- the formal venue for hospitality industry lobbying of the executive branch from the inside. He quietly resigned from the board in protest. His departure, however, was never disclosed and, as of publication time, he was still listed on the department's Web site as the board's chairman.

Hire of the Week

Honeywell has hired Fernando Gomez Jr. as its director of government relations. He will lobby for the part of the company that makes turbochargers, Prestone antifreeze, Autolite spark plugs, and Fram oil filters.

Gomez, 37, was chief of staff to Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz (D-Tex.), who chairs the House Armed Services subcommittee on readiness. In that role, Gomez also served as liaison to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Earlier, Gomez had been legislative director for then-Rep. Martin Frost (Tex.), who was chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Gomez also worked for the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, Pete Laney, from 1994 to 1998.

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