Hollywood heat. It’s Friday night, and the Premiere Supper Club is filled with the young, Black and beautiful set. Think red and purple silk bowties for the men, and sexy off the shoulder dresses for the women. But this evening is a bit different than your usual Friday night gathering. Tonight is less about flirting, and more about political empowerment. This is a fundraiser, and everyone wears a sticker on their lapel that says, “1911 United.” The words on everyone’s lips? “Re-Elect Obama.”
Welcome to 1911 United, a new African-American “Super PAC” founded by members of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity (both frats were founded in 1911). Super political action committees are new powerful political weapons, and if the leaders of the 1911 United have their way, this Hollywood fundraiser, and hundreds more like them, will help 1911 United be the deciding factor in the re-election of President Barack Obama this fall.
“Nupes and Ques together, it just made sense,” laughed Kappa Alpha Psi member Sinclair Skinner, a Washington DC based engineer, and co-founder of the 1911 United Super PAC.
The spark that led to these Kappas and Omegas members getting together was the dual celebrations of each fraternity’s 100-year anniversary in 2011. There was a recognition that both fraternities had made a great impact in the African American community, particularly in the area of politics, with members like former Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley and Rainbow/PUSH leader, Jesse Jackson, in their ranks. Yet they knew they could do much more. And that’s when the idea of a super political action committee was formed.
“Here we have two African American fraternities founded in the same year,” Skinner continued, “and we thought that there could be a way for us to work together on something as important as helping to re-elect the first African American president, President Obama.”
Fraternities and sororities, as 503c non-profit organizations, are prevented by law from endorsing or raising funds for any candidate. These non-profits are limited to general voter registration efforts and voter education drives, like the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity’s, A Voteless People is a Hopeless People. However, a political action committee, not affiliated with the fraternity or sorority, can be formed as a 527 political action committee.
Political action committees aren’t new. Essentially, they are non-profit groups who advocate on behalf of ballot initiatives and political policy. Formed by groups with a common interest, like politically conservative think tanks or liberal labor unions, members can contribute to the PAC and help fund political ads, get out the vote initiatives, and voter education efforts.
But in 2010, the political game changed. The Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case declared that corporations, unions, and individuals could contribute unlimited funds through political action committees as right protected by the First Amendment. Instantly, politics was flooded with hundred of millions of dollars, as Super PACs were formed to influence local, state and national elections.
Conservative billionaires like David and Charles Koch, scions of Koch Industries, could pump tens of millions into political races in an effort to elect conservative candidates, like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. But in this new pay-to-play Super PAC world, African Americans were largely absent.
“The difference between the 1911 United Super PAC and other voter registration efforts, is that we can explicitly advocate for President Obama, although we can’t coordinate with the campaign,” said Skinner. “And that’s a big deal, because a lot of us think that all we have to do is show up on Tuesday for the election. If you do that, you’ve already lost. We’re getting African Americans to think about this election months in advance. We need to get past thinking that elections are one-day events.”
The strategy of the 1911 United Super PAC is to concentrate on the swing states, the places where African Americans could be the deciding factor. States like Colorado, Virginia, Florida, Pennsylvania, Indiana and North Carolina are the main targets of a grassroots campaign of voter education, phone banking, and getting people out to vote. Not just limited to members of Kappa or Omega, everyone is encouraged, regardless of fraternal affiliation or non-affiliation, to get involved in some manner with the Super PAC.
“I’ve been involved in politics for many years. I’m from North Carolina, so I worked on Harvey Gantt’s (Senatorial) campaign,” said Kappa Alpha Psi member, Kwame Jackson. “The fact that so many people sacrificed so that I could vote means that I think it’s important to be involved in politics.”
The 38-year old Jackson may be best known for being the runner-up on Donald Trump’s reality show, The Apprentice, but he also has experience working on Wall Street, and has been an entrepreneur for many years. His Krimson By Kwame line of bow ties was lauded by O: The Oprah Magazine, as a perfect Father’s Day gift. It’s that background in business that Jackson thinks will help him raise funds for the 1911 United Super PAC.
“This isn’t my first time raising funds for President Obama,” said Jackson. “I raised money for him in presidential run in ’08, and I was there when he was running for the Senate (in 2004). My job is to use to my contacts on Wall Street to find high-end donors for the 1911 United. We aim to raise over three million dollars.”
Since the Citizens United decision, Super PACs have spent millions on media, mostly negative ads, hoping to influence elections. This has produced mixed results, as billionaire Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson found out. Adelson, who is the eighth richest American according to Forbes magazine, worth an estimated $24 billion, spent millions on the failed GOP primary campaign of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Undeterred, Adelson has pledged to spend over $100 million to help defeat President Obama.
According to the Washington Post, as of mid-April, 1911 United had only raised about $60,000, with another $60,000 in pledges. And while 1911 United still has a long way to go in their fundraising, Skinner knows that 1911 United can’t compete with billionaires in the media wars. Still, he thinks 1911 United has a secret weapon to combat the influence of Super PACs focused on negative ads.
“One of the things we know is that the best way to combat negative advertising is through word of mouth,” Skinner said. “If you have someone you trust tell you the truth, then you’ll believe them. That’s why we need to make sure that we have as many African Americans involved in the election, and keep them educated.”
“We’re the only Super PAC that has a laser focus on organizing African Americans in swing states,” according to Jackson. “We’re going to do this on a surgical basis. While other Super PACs are cash cows for negative ads, we’re not interested in that version of mutually assured destruction. We’re going to reenergize those who voted in 2008, and get them to understand the urgency of this election.”
That 1911 United campaign includes two summer bus tours through swing states, organizing African American students, and yes, having many more social soirees like the one in Hollywood. Omega Psi Phi Fraternity member, the comedian Joe Torry, is also lending his name and fame to the efforts, and the Super PAC hopes to get others to rally around the 1911 United.
“This is only the beginning,” said Jackson. “After we re-elect the president, we hope to be impactful in future elections. We’re building a (political) machine that we can be proud of, and I’m happy to be at the tip of the spear.”
Lawrence C. Ross, Jr. is the author of The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities.