The National Review's Stanley Kurtz, who has spent years poking around Barack Obama's liberal Chicago roots, yesterday turned up something that appears to contradict claims from Obama and others that he'd never been a member of something called the New Party, an ambitious effort to pull Democrats to the left by creating a rival, third party on the left.
According to the minutes of a 1996 New Party meeting, which Kurtz found in an ACORN archive:
Barack Obama, candidate for State Senate in the 13th Legislative District, gave a statement to the membership and answered questions. He signed the New Party “Candidate Contract” and requested an endorsement from the New Party. He also joined the New Party.
When Kurtz claimed in 2008 that Obama had been a member of the New Party, the campaign dismissed it as a "crackpot smear" and responded that:
the truth is Barack has been a member of only one political party, the Democratic Party. In all six primary campaigns of his career, Barack has has run as a Democrat. The New Party did support Barack once in 1996, but he was the only candidate on the ballot in his race and never solicited the endorsement.
I talked to New Party founder Joel Rogers at the time; he also said Obama wasn't a member, and that the party didn't exactly have "members": There was no internal voting structure, and no way to register as a member of the party in Illinois. Donors were sometimes called "members."
(The party, in any event, fell apart after the Supreme Court denied its efforts to force states to allow "fusion" — multiple parties endorsing the same candidates — but its strategy survives in the form of New York's Working Families Party.)
I returned to Rogers, a professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison today, and asked him about the minutes Kurtz found, which seem to contradict both his and Obama's claims. Rogers stuck by what he told me four years ago.
"I have no idea what the Chicago people were saying about him being a member," he said. "We didn’t have membership, it wasn’t a membership organization."
Rogers added that he'd in fact tried to convince Obama to be more closely involved in the organization.
"I had sat with Barack and tried to get him to be a big thing in the party," he said, recalling a meeting in a Chicago Greek restaurant with the young, ambitious Obama, yet to be elected to the State Senate. "He just recited the usual stuff about the difficulties of doing third parties," and kept his distance, Rogers said. (Update: He said in a subsequent email: "The only time I talked to BHO about it, he made clear he didn't want to work on it or join it or be identified with it. Maybe that changed.")
Kurtz also doesn't make clear what membership could have meant, and it's a bit hard to untangle in the defunct organization. Rogers said four years ago and again this morning that he didn't think Obama was a donor to the party, the other possible meaning of the term. (Update: Morgen Richmond notes that there are various references to membership in New Party online documents, at least some of which seem to refer to small "sustaining" donors, which doesn't seem to be the context in which Obama would have been involved. The organization, Rogers reiterated in a follow-up email, didn't have an internal governing process by which members could be involved in decisions.)
But if the membership issue remains hazy, the minutes do sharply contradict the other half of the Obama campaign's claim: That he hadn't sought the New Party's endorsement. It's hard to see what else a candidate for office was doing meeting with them, and the "requested the endorsement" line seems clear.
And if the Obama campaign falsely denied that detail of his liberal past in Chicago, it wouldn't be the only fishy statement they made in 2008 about that period. Although the outlines and most of the details of his time as a fairly liberal legislator from Hyde Park were hardly secret — he had supported single-payer health care and an end to the death penalty before tacking to the center to run statewide — the campaign fought tooth and nail to erase other elements of that period. In particular, Mike Allen and I reported on first one questionnaire in which he took liberal positions, which he voiced in the first person. Ken Vogel turned up another, which had his handwriting on it. The campaign still denied they were his, said the positions reflected only an aide's mistakes.
That said, Obama took intense heat from conservatives for ties to ACORN and other liberal groups. The New Party was part of that constellation, and part of a Chicago left whose ties to Obama — his relationship with the former Weatherman Bill Ayers — became central to the Republican campaign in the summer and fall of 2008.
Kurtz's theory, which doesn't really match my recollection of the politics, is that this would have been the straw to break the camel's back: "The revelation in 2008 that Obama had joined an ACORN-controlled, leftist third party could have been damaging indeed, and coming clean about his broader work with ACORN might easily have exposed these New Party ties. Because the work of ACORN and the New Party often intersected with Obama’s other alliances, honesty about his ties to either could have laid bare the entire network of his leftist political partnerships."
Obama's spokesman didn't have an immediate comment on the minutes. Kurtz also hasn't put the minutes online, and didn't respond to an email requesting them.
UPDATE: Kurtz has quite a bit more detail on what sure sounds like a membership program, though it's not entirely clear what membership required or entailed.
UPDATE: Richmond sends over a New Party page from 1997 that makes pretty clear that they saw themselves at the time as having members:
The New Party is run by dues-paying members, who are organized into chapters. The national organization provides support for chapter growth and coordination. Every member gets one vote.