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GOP walks fine line with survey disguised as census form

Some Eastern Washington voters diligent about returning their U.S. census form may have been surprised last week when what seemed like another census form arrived in the mail.

An official-looking letter – its envelope, after all reads “DO NOT DESTROY/OFFICIAL DOCUMENT” – says it is carrying a “Census Document” registered to the addressee, with one of those cool line codes that just reek of officialdom.

The document inside isn’t from the Census Bureau. But it is from someone you might’ve heard of: Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele.

The nation’s top GOP official took time out from his busy schedule of trying not to get fired to get input from “a select few” in Washington’s 5th Congressional District. How select isn’t clear, but chances are not very. The copy forwarded to me came from a friend’s spouse who is in no way a Republican. Nonetheless, the information sought is described as absolutely critical to building what Steele calls “a state of the art grass-roots organization” to win races up and down the ballot.

To do that, Steele sent out a “2010 Congressional District Census,” which masquerades as an in-depth survey but is really just a way to raise money. A sample of the questions:

“How much does it concern you that the Democrats have total control of the federal government?”

“Do you believe the huge, costly Democrat-passed stimulus bill has been effective in creating jobs or stimulating America’s economy?”

“Do you believe the Obama Administration is right in dramatically scaling back our nation’s military?”

“Do you trust the Democrats to take all steps necessary to keep our nation secure in this age where terrorists could strike our country at any moment?”

After finishing some three pages of questions, the survey taker is asked to send the RNC money to help win state and local races, with suggested amounts ranging from $25 to $500. It also has an option for the less fortunate to check: “I cannot send a donation at that level right now. But I am enclosing $15 to help defray the cost of processing my Census Document.”

(The RNC is apparently so short on cash, having made wise investments like picking up the tab at an L.A. bondage club, that it can’t process its own surveys. Note to Mr. Steele: You don’t really need a phony survey to figure out how to set up an organization that wins races in Eastern Washington. One already exists. Ask U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and the many state senators, representatives and county elected officials, the majority of whom are – ta-da! – Republicans.)

This could be written off as just a standard, if somewhat feeble, attempt to raise blood pressure and money from rock-ribbed Republicans who did get the mailer, if not for one thing.

Congress recently passed a law outlawing mailings that masquerade as census forms. They did it to protect the real census, which is going on right now under a constitutional mandate. The House of Representatives and the Senate both passed the bill unanimously – that’s right, in one of the most partisan years in memory, no one from either party voted no – and President Barack Obama signed the bill April 7. This mailing was sent out April 12.

“What is with these guys?” asked Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., who sponsored the bill that passed in record time. “Every census form that isn’t returned costs taxpayers money and hurts accuracy. But there goes the RNC again, right back to trying to make a buck on the census! Clearly they are not acting in the spirit of the new law.”

With the exception of one sentence, it is almost word-for-word the same as the RNC mailing last fall that prompted the law in the first place. The one sentence? A disclaimer that “this is not a U.S. Government document” on the envelope.

That may not be enough to get around the law, a spokesperson for Maloney said. The law requires a return address from the sender to avoid any confusion, and there’s no address for the RNC anywhere on the envelope.

Jahan Wilcox, a spokesman for the RNC, insisted the party is “in full compliance with the law” because the post office would have rejected a mailer that wasn’t. The RNC sends out many mailers, and he didn’t have the one sent to Eastern Washington’s 5th District immediately available, but he was very clear about what they are all about: “The purpose of this mailer is to raise money so we will have the resources available to defeat Democrats, like Patty Murray, this fall.”

Spin Control, a weekly column by veteran political reporter Jim Camden, also appears online, with daily items, reader comments and videos, at www.spokesman.com/ blogs/spincontrol.


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