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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Grassroots, Astroturf, and Speed Cameras

In our chapter on interest groups (p. 289), we talk about "astroturf" -- "grassroots" activism that has support from professionals. In our chapters on mass media and political participation, we also discuss ways in which activists are using blogs and social media. A story in the Lutherville-Timonium Patch illustrates both themes:

Sarah Dennis started the Facebook group "Slow Down for Baltimore County Schools" in January because she and her friends support more speed cameras in school zones.

"I just figured I'd put it up on the web," said Dennis, a Rodgers Forge mother of two and a special education teacher for Baltimore County Public Schools.

The group quickly attracted 357 “likes” from people who support a County Council bill that, if approved Monday, will authorize an unlimited expansion of the county’s current network of 15 speed cameras.

But the grassroots effort to win council support has a powerful friend not found on its Facebook page: ACS State and Local Solutions, the company that holds the county’s speed camera contract and stands to financially benefit from the pending legislation.

Kearney O’Doherty (KO) Public Affairs, the politically connected strategy firm hired by ACS, has helped Slow Down for Baltimore County Schools communicate with County Council members and expand its base of support by establishing a separate website that sends e-mails to the elected officials and drives more “likes” to the Facebook page.


Unlike with disclosure rules for lobbying groups, nothing prohibits political strategy firms from working behind the scenes to align the interests of grassroots groups with those of their corporate clients.

But political observers say public awareness of such activity is important so that elected officials and citizens know when a company with a financial interest in pending legislation is backing a grassroots group with a public interest in the bill.

“It’s information people should know,” said Paul Herrnson, director of the University of Maryland’s Center for American Politics and Citizenship and a professor of government and politics. “It’s not unusual for a company to try to get its way.”


In Maryland, groups like the Maryland Jockey Club and Penn National have financed anti-slots community groups — not because the companies were against expanded gaming, but because they wanted to influence where the machines were placed, said Matthew Crenson, chairman emeritus of Johns Hopkins University’s political science department.

The practice of companies helping grassroots groups "is so common they have a name for it — 'Astroturf democracy'"—as opposed to “grassroots,” said Crenson, who did not comment specifically on Kearney O'Doherty Public Affairs’ involvement in the speed camera issue.

"For every public group there is a private or corporate organization that has an interest in their efforts," Crenson said. "In a way, it's good. Small public groups get access to consulting and support services they might not otherwise have. They're getting access to the political system that they wouldn't have had otherwise."