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A Woman’s Take on Social Security Overhaul

Times Staff Writer

As President Bush tries to rally the nation around his vision of Social Security restructuring, he is receiving lots of assistance beyond the White House.

Political groups have run television ads supporting his call for change. Business organizations have helped fill the halls when the president or members of Congress hold public meetings. Think tanks have produced research papers full of well-honed arguments for letting younger workers open personal investment accounts, the idea Bush is promoting.

Then there’s Leanne Abdnor, policy entrepreneur.

A former business lobbyist, Abdnor is part of a small but influential network of policy promoters who are campaigning around the country for the president’s Social Security proposals. She is the leader of two groups that are prominent in the Social Security debate: For Our Grandchildren, and Women for a Social Security Choice. Both have advisory boards, individual donors and websites, but no rank-and-file members.

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Abdnor was also a member of the commission appointed by Bush in 2001 to study the long-term funding problems facing Social Security. The panel proposed reducing Social Security benefits across the board to close the system’s long-term funding gap, but letting younger workers divert some of their payroll taxes into personal stock and bond accounts that would help offset the benefit cuts.

Now, as Bush barnstorms the nation to build support for personal accounts, Abdnor is playing a key supporting role. She appeared on stage with the president three times this month, in Florida, Colorado and Arizona, dispensing facts and figures to buttress Bush’s arguments.

She also has traveled the country on her own, giving speeches, participating in forums, conducting TV and radio interviews and meeting with newspaper editorial boards on behalf of her organizations and others involved in the White House campaign. She has appearances scheduled today and Thursday in Portland and Bangor, Maine.

“Lea’s committee had a lot of really good ideas,” Bush said at his stop earlier this month in Pensacola, Fla., referring to the study commission he had appointed in 2001. “I like the spirit of how they met. They didn’t show up and say, ‘I’m not going to listen to your idea.’ They showed up and said, ‘Bring your ideas forward.’ ”

“Exactly,” Abdnor responded. “And Mr. President, I think one of the things that was most gratifying was that even in private, we never talked about politics. All we talked about was policy.”

Perhaps, but few people understand the convergence of Social Security politics and policy better than Abdnor.

“She’s a leader of the movement,” said Edward H. Crane, president of the Cato Institute, the pro-privatization think tank where Abdnor became an apostle of personal accounts.

“Her strong suit is sharing the gospel of reform,” said Derrick Max, who heads a business coalition backing Bush’s initiative. “The list of leaders on this issue is pretty short, and she’s near the top.”

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Abdnor is a focal point for critics who say she is part of a pro-privatization coalition financed by wealthy conservatives and business interests who try to create the appearance of broad support without building genuine grass-roots constituencies.

“They’re front groups,” said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, another Washington think tank. “These people are just backed up by money, and they buy themselves a place in the debate.”

Bush’s coalition includes conservative think tanks that want to restructure Social Security for ideological reasons, business interests that want to fend off future payroll tax increases, and Republican strategists who see an opportunity to solidify a future governing majority by introducing more wage-earners to stock ownership.

Abdnor, 54, moves easily among all three worlds. With the White House’s help, she is becoming an increasingly visible spokesperson for the assertion that women might fare better under Bush’s initiative than they do under traditional Social Security.

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She argues that the current retirement program is based on a Depression-era family model and benefit structure that rewards stay-at-home moms while penalizing single and working women. According to Abdnor, many women would fare better if they diverted their payroll taxes into private accounts, which are similar in structure and concept to the 401(k) accounts offered by many employers.

“For Republicans to win on this issue, they are going to need women to buy into the concept of private accounts,” said Stephen Moore, president of the conservative Free Enterprise Fund, who worked with Abdnor at Cato. “She is one of the preferred choices for personal accounts advocates speaking to women’s issues.”

Although neither For Our Grandchildren nor Women for a Social Security Choice has any rank-and-file members, both operate independently of the White House, have bipartisan boards and are careful not to portray themselves as grass-roots groups, Abdnor said.

“I don’t see my job as representing millions of women,” she said. “I see it more as educating people on how women are helped and harmed by the system, and how they would be affected by personal retirement accounts. They can choose for themselves whether or not they agree.”

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Barbara Kennelly, president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, said Abdnor’s organizations lacked the broad-based legitimacy of her organization, with about 4 million members, or the AARP, with about 35 million members.

Both groups are fighting Bush’s private account plan.

“K Street is full of people who present a particular point of view but don’t have any membership,” Kennelly said, referring to the Washington boulevard where many of the capital’s lobbyists have offices.

“This woman probably is an expert on Social Security. But it’s a handful of people’s opinions she represents. It’s not a groundswell by any means.”

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Abdnor is the niece of former U.S. Sen. James Abdnor (R-S.D.), who served 14 years in the House and Senate until he was defeated by Democrat Tom Daschle in 1986. She moved to Washington in 1973 with a degree in special education. She got a secretarial job on Capitol Hill, worked for Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) during the Watergate era, tried teaching for a few years, went to work for a lobbying firm and eventually became the Washington representative of Koch Industries, a Kansas energy firm.

In 1995, Crane hired her as vice president of external affairs at Cato. It was there that she was introduced to the gospel of privatization by Jose Pinera, Chile’s former labor minister who oversaw that country’s transition to a retirement system based on personal accounts. Three years later, Abdnor left Cato to launch the Alliance for Worker Retirement Security, a lobbying group created by the National Assn. of Manufacturers to promote Social Security restructuring and private accounts.

Abdnor created Women for a Social Security Choice last year to counteract women’s groups that oppose personal accounts.

Abdnor’s assertions that women would benefit from private accounts troubles Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington. “Privatization could be a gain for very high-earning women, but there are very few of those in the grand scheme of things, and the vast majority of women would surely lose,” Hartmann said.

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Although she’s part of the president’s bully pulpit crusade, Abdnor said she regarded groups like hers as underdogs in the Social Security debate.

“The opposition to this, the AARP and the unions, are much better organized and much better funded than we are,” she said. “This is like a political campaign, and we’re working really hard. But at this point I think the opposition is ahead of us.”


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