Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Brown Didn't Pioneer Political Use of 800 Line, but Refined It

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Brown Didn't Pioneer Political Use of 800 Line, but Refined It

Article excerpt

IN a drab office building on the edge of downtown Los Angeles a quiet revolution in political campaigning is emerging. A cadre of 50 young people in jeans, T-shirts, and an occasional punk hairdo mans the phones of Jerry Brown's famous 800 line - the Home Shopping Network of campaign '92.

Once derided, the toll-free number has cemented itself in the folklore of the campaign as a potent way to raise money, build a grass-roots network, and draw people into the political process.

No matter what happens to the former California governor in the primaries ahead, the 800 line is likely to become as familiar in the future as the lawn sign.

Even Mr. Brown's rival for the Democratic nomination, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, has acknowledged that the technology can "empower ordinary people" and has been a "major contribution he {Brown} has made to this campaign."

"Nobody will ever run again without an 800 number," says Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California (San Diego). "I just think that in a day when it's incredibly hard to staff campaigns, to raise money for media, and when there are no strong parties, it gives a chance for the Tsongases {candidates with small bankrolls} to have money overnight."

Others are already installing lines. Supporters of the possible independent candidacy of H. Ross Perot have received a Texas-sized 1.7 million calls on their 800 line in Dallas. They are not accepting donations but are using the call-in operation to organize the Texas billionaire's grass-roots drive to get his name on the ballot and disseminate information.

The California Democratic Party is considering an 800 number to raise money, and a United States Senate hopeful in Oregon has hired the firm that is handling Jerry Brown's call-in effort.

Toll-free lines are hardly a novel idea in politics. Many remember Michael Dukakis's phone-home effort (1-800-USA-MIKE) in 1988. It was eventually dropped, in part because opponents, presumably Republicans, jammed the lines and rang up the Democrat's phone bill.

Still, says Susan Estrich, Mr. Dukakis's campaign manager, "it was helpful as an organizing and fund-raising tool and as a central way to connect the campaign."

The Democratic National Committee once tried the idea and found its lines flooded more with pranksters than with contributors. The threat of such shenanigans discouraged Republican presidential aspirant Patrick Buchanan from using one this year.

Toll-free operations are not cheap. Besides the extensive telephone charges, there are computers, massive mailings, and administrative and labor costs involved.

Since September, Brown's 800 line has received pledges of $5.6 million from 250,000 callers. About $2.7 million worth of checks have actually come in. The money is supplemented by federal matching funds - the main source of Brown's campaign treasury. …

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