To Get Attention In New Hampshire, Dress as an Ostrich


By: Wall Street Journal

Pink Pigs Work for PETA, Santa for Global Warming; Catching McCain’s Eye
By BRODY MULLINS

NASHUA, N.H. — Dozens of interest groups have spent millions of dollars in the 2008 campaign to help candidates and promote issues they support.

But just one rides around in an “Ostrich Mobile” and dresses in ostrich costumes. The goal of the group, Students for Saving Social Security, is to prevent presidential candidates from “sticking their heads in the sand” about Social Security reform.

The small operation is just one of a growing number of labor unions, environmental groups, wealthy individuals and other issue-advocacy organizations that have come to New Hampshire hoping to draw attention to their pet issues. To compete for attention, they rely heavily on gimmicks.

In Derry on Sunday evening, for example, as people arrived for a town hall meeting with former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, two people dressed in bright pink pig outfits handed out leaflets propounding a 10-cent-per-pound federal excise tax on meat and fish. Their sponsor, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Just inside the doors, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation sponsored the “Ed in ’08″ campaign to make education the top issue in the election. Sitting in the audience were Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman, who have shown up at dozens of events as part of an effort by the League of Conservation Voters to bring attention to global warming.

Students for Saving Social Security, founded on the cheap by two recent college graduates, uses all sorts of tactics to press the presidential candidates to pledge to make Social Security reform a priority in their campaigns.

At events with senior citizens, they hand out T-shirts reading “My Grandparents Got Social Security, and All I Got Was This T-Shirt.” At morning events, they pass out coffee in cups that read: “Wake Up to Social Security Reform.” One young staffer crossed the state on foot dressed as an ostrich, and they often show up at events in their Ostrich Mobile — a beat-up GMC Suburban with slogans painted on it.

Founded in 2005 when Congress was debating President Bush’s privatization plan, Students for Saving Social Security now works to put social-security reform back on the agenda in Washington.

Since the issue has been dormant for two years, it has been hard to scare up much money. With a $250,000 annual budget, the group can afford just two full-time employees, two part-time people and a handful of active volunteers. Nine members of the organization are crashing in a cramped, one-bathroom house in Concord that doubles as the group’s headquarters.

That doesn’t seem to bother Jo Jensen, the 22-year-old Concord native who joined the campaign and now runs it. A registered Republican, she plans to change her party affiliation to independent before she votes today. She says she became passionate about Social Security when she took a college class on taxes. Now, as a young professional, she finds it frustrating trying to save for retirement “because I’m already paying into a system, but I don’t see myself getting any of that money back.”

Social Security is unsustainable because the number of retirees is growing faster than the number of workers so payroll tax receipts eventually won’t cover the benefits now promised.

A fearless advocate of creating private retirement accounts, Ms. Jensen has come up with inexpensive ways to champion her cause. One is to rely on student volunteers. Ms. Jensen recruits her volunteers with gimmicky pizza parties, bake sales and “Drain the Keg Not Social Security” happy hours on college campuses. At the pizza parties, students are encouraged to “take a slice because the government is taking more than a slice of your Social Security,” Ms. Jensen says.

When Sen. Hillary Clinton said last year that Social Security wasn’t a priority, Evan Dent, the group’s 24-year-old grass-roots and public-relations director, walked into the New York senator’s New Hampshire headquarters in an ostrich suit to deliver an “ostrich award,” a citation given to candidates who avoid the issue. In recent months, the group has adopted a new tactic: dropping in on campaign events in neon-green T-shirts that say, “New Hampshire Cares About Social Security.”

The goal is twofold, explains Ms. Dent. “We want the voters to be educated on the issue, and we want the candidates to know that it’s a very important issue that they need to fix,” she says.

Ms. Jensen has proved herself skillful at the art of getting called on at town hall meetings. At a Clinton event on Sunday, Ms. Jensen wore her bright green T-shirt and held another in the air. “I wanted her to think that I had something to give to her,” she said later. It worked.

When Mrs. Clinton nodded in her direction, Ms. Jensen grabbed a microphone and took the floor. “I heard some people say that Obama won the youth vote in Iowa because you don’t talk about issues that we care about,” she said as Mrs. Clinton and more than 2,000 people listened. “But I know that you do, so I wanted to give you this T-shirt and ask you: What’s your plan for Social Security for my generation?” (See the video.)

Mrs. Clinton reiterated that it isn’t a priority for her first year but acknowledged that it is important. Ms. Jensen felt she had succeeded because she got Mrs. Clinton to talk about Social Security in front of thousands of voters.

Ms. Jensen has had more luck with Republicans. When she tracked down Mitt Romney in June, she prompted the former Massachusetts governor to say that he backed the personal-retirement accounts championed by Mr. Bush.

Arizona Sen. John McCain became so accustomed to seeing the neon green T-shirts, he once asked members of the group to stand up and be applauded at a town hall event.

Ms. Jensen and her team celebrated her success with Mrs. Clinton with a group lunch at a restaurant. When a fellow busing tables read their T-shirts — “New Hampshire Cares About Social Security” — he said, “I care about Social Security because I’m a young person and I’m going to get s-.”

“That’s our motto,” Ms. Jensen said excitedly.

Write to Brody Mullins at brody.mullins@wsj.com

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