CED Shuns Its Radical Roots in Shifting to a New Agenda

Times Staff Writer

The Campaign for Economic Democracy, an organization with a reputation for espousing such radical causes as redistribution of the nation's wealth, is recasting its agenda to win new followers and strengthen its statewide political base.

Director Jack Nicholl said the CED plans to focus more attention on statewide issues and traditional electoral politics. By identifying and working for causes that appeal to a broad range of people, Nicholl said, the organization also hopes to shed its "negative" image.

CED members, who once were encouraged to wave placards and chant slogans at local rent control hearings and at toxic dump sites, now are being told that they can accomplish more by backing Democratic candidates and working to shape the party agenda.

The plans call for the CED to concentrate its scattered operation in four urban areas: Santa Monica-Los Angeles, San Jose, San Francisco and Sacramento. The organization also will dramatically step up its door-to-door canvassing and direct mailing, establish a citizen's lobby to promote progressive legislation and work to increase its membership from 12,000 to 20,000,

Organizers said that the CED will continue to champion traditional causes such as rent control, environmental protection and abortion rights at the statewide level. But they added that the organization also will embrace new causes such as tax reform, child care and automobile insurance rates.

"We're interested in shaping a message that people respond to," said Craig Merrilees, CED's San Francisco-based regional director. "CED is one organization on the left that understands power, practical politics and a pragmatic approach to social change. These are not the golden years of the new left. We've been forced to ask tough questions and undertake new debates."

The CED's chairman and founder, Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), is chief architect of the new plan. Hayden turns aside speculation that he is compromising the CED's radicalism to further his own political career. But he is concerned that, unless the CED adopts new issues and tactics, it will continue to be co-opted by the state's well-heeled political action committees.

Hayden, who recently wrote a position paper for the Democratic Party called "Going West," said that the CED should be a promoter of "cutting edge" issues in Democratic circles.

"The CED has to evolve along with other groups," Hayden said. "It has to come to terms with the new technology that has eclipsed the local grass-roots organization. . . . Politics has been taken away from grass-roots groups and we're searching for ways to bring it back."

Nicholl said that the CED's membership, which tends to be mostly white and over 30, is stable. But he called the last year a "very difficult time," explaining that the group has had trouble setting an agenda that balances social concerns with political goals.

Nicholl said that the CED has been unable to focus on "one strong issue" other than rent control since Hayden's 1982 election. In addition, Nicholl said, the organization was jarred by the departure of Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., whose Administration had been friendly. With a Republican Administration in Sacramento and Hayden preoccupied with legislative matters, the CED lost much of its fire, Nicholl said.

The problems were acknowledged by Nicholl in a recent CED newsletter. Seeking to reassure people who have been asking whether the group is "out of business," he wrote, "Well, it's easy to think that, isn't it?. . . Except, it isn't so."

Star-Studded Panel

Another signal of the CED's change in direction came at last month's state Democratic convention, when the organization canceled the breakfast it traditionally hosts to provide a forum for speakers to rail against social injustices. Instead, the CED hosted a discussion by a star-studded panel on the future of the Democratic Party.

It is a future in which the CED wants to play a bigger role, and that could mean significant changes for the political organization that Hayden created after his unsuccessful 1976 bid for the U.S. Senate.

The CED, which is funded mostly by profits from the exercise empire of Hayden's actress wife, Jane Fonda, has been vilified in the past for promoting radical policies. In two of its most controversial stands, it advocated redistribution of the nation's wealth and called for corporate boards to include citizen "watchdogs."

Its current views on economic democracy are harder to define. Hayden, who not long ago was characterizing big business as "the monstrous corporate state," now offers no apologies when he says that corporations play a "vital role in the market economy."

'It Was a Mistake'

Nicholl said that the CED still opposes corporate abuse and will continue to work for reform in such traditional areas as the tax system. But he added that its leaders no longer believe that a major overhaul of the economic system is a practical goal, and said that "it was a mistake" to think that anything could be achieved by being uncompromisingly anti-business.

"We saw (economic democracy) in the old days as an umbrella concept that allowed us to talk about economic power," said the 40-year-old Nicholl. "It became an attack on the major corporations. . . . Now we're moving into a more traditional economic struggle. We're trying to be the political voice of the disenfranchised and the needy in the state. To do that we have to address issues that they're concerned about. Frankly, they're not concerned about putting John Doe on a corporate board."

Giving the issue more thought, Nicholl added: "You always make the plunge from the heart and if you don't achieve your goals you either drop out of politics . . . or you try to figure out what's wrong with your approach. . . . The political environment now is much more moderate. . . . We're pragmatic. We're trying to understand the limits of the movement . . . and results-oriented groups are willing to make compromises to achieve goals."

By paying more attention to statewide issues, the CED hopes to become more politically involved and accepted, Nicholl said.

The goal is to be ready for next year's elections.

A New 'Battle Cry'

"If there's a battle cry in the CED, it's that we have a huge challenge in 1986 to protect the Democratic Senate seat and to challenge (Republican Gov. George) Deukmejian," Nicholl said. "As an organization, we feel that the task ahead is very clear."

The CED already has had some success in the political arena. Helping Hayden win an Assembly seat in 1982--the record-setting $2-million campaign was funded mostly by Fonda, but organized and staffed by the CED--was its biggest victory. At the local level, the organization has elected about 50 of its members to city and county offices in California, and its members hold about a third of the delegate seats on the state Democratic Central Committee.

It has shown more skill at the organizational level, where its members, working at the behest of Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, registered about 110,000 Democrats in districts targeted by Republicans in last November's election.

Nicholl maintains that the CED also can be counted on to mobilize 700 to 800 volunteers on election days, and Hayden has been generous about distributing CED resources to allied candidates and causes. While political observers stress that the CED is still regarded suspiciously by many traditional Democrats, few deny that the organization has shown talent at the grass-roots level.

Have the Resources

"The CED provides Tom with troops that can be deployed at such bread-and-butter political activities as registration and getting out the vote," said Assemblyman Gray Davis (D-Los Angeles), who entered the Legislature at the same time as Hayden. "Those resources can be deployed around the state when and where they're needed."

Assemblymen Art Agnos (D-San Francisco) and Burt Margolin (D-Los Angeles) also acknowledged the group's registration abilities. But neither could provide other examples of CED accomplishments at the statewide level.

Margolin said he had not "heard much about the CED in relationship to Hayden." And Agnos characterized it as a local organization. "In San Francisco, they're one of a number of groups that appear on the side of issues I usually find myself involved with," Agnos said. "They're one of a number of groups that do worthwhile things. But they're not a powerhouse."

With a budget of about $750,000, the CED does not qualify as a financial powerhouse either. Profits from Fonda's Workout Inc.--the exercise studios in Beverly Hills and Encino and the original books, records and videos--continue to provide the bulk of its revenue, about $500,000 in 1984. About $90,000 of it went to 1984 campaign expenses, finance reports show.

Liberal Causes, Candidates

Approximately $32,000 went to support liberal candidates and causes in Santa Monica, its home base. A fund of $15,000 was given to defeat Proposition 39, Deukmejian's reapportionment measure. The remainder was distributed in small increments to candidates such as San Francisco Supervisor Harry Britt ($1,200), West Hollywood City Councilman Steve Schulte ($1,000), Bay Area Rapid Transit board candidate Rodney Johnson ($6,000) and Humboldt County Supervisor Wesley Chesbro ($3,000).

Chesbro, who has belonged to the CED since 1979, said he agrees with the organization's latest move because it "strengthens CED's role."

"When the (Humboldt) chapter first formed, there were questions about what it was and what its purposes were," Chesbro said. "But those days are really gone, because people have been able to see it in action. . . ."

And even though the CED still serves as an effective target for Republican fund-raisers, Assemblyman Richard E. Floyd (D-Hawthorne), who has worked with Hayden on legislation affecting veterans, said the organization seems to be predominantly composed of white-collar professionals.

"I think that the CED is basically a Yuppie-type thing," Floyd said. "I don't see a whole lot of minorities or blue-collar people. I see a whole bunch of well-educated, upper-middle-class people who feel that they want to involve themselves politically."

'Chamber of Horrors'

Nicholl said that some "fringe lefties" have objected to the CED's agenda, but he maintained that most liberals are supportive. "My friends to the far left are almost always critical of the CED," Nicholl said. "They say, 'Why don't you go for the issues we like?' But if you look at the right wing, they don't have any problems with where to put us in their chamber of horrors. They view us as a very serious threat and a serious enemy because we can mobilize progressives throughout the state to do battle with them"

But Derek Shearer, a liberal activist on the Westside, said he has not heard any complaints about the CED, adding: "Who's to criticize? What they do is a plus in the age of Reaganism."

And at least two of the CED's former staff members said the group has been heading toward a more broadly based agenda all along.

"I think they have tried to focus on issues that will build coalitions," said Mark Siegel, who left the CED staff in 1979 to work for Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs. "In the past few years they've become very loyal Democrats. . . . It's a maturing process. It's not that they've sold out."

"I think every organization changes," added Michael Dieden, who opened his own consulting firm after serving as the CED's political director until 1981. "There has always been a creative tension between the ideological people and the pragmatists. But its better to have a corner office at City Hall than to be on the front lawn."

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