Support the war!

The war on terror has been good for Move America Forward. It’s brought the conservative activist group notoriety, cash and ratings.

In the dimly lit downtown offices of consulting firm Russo Marsh + Rogers, the pro-troops effort includes political strategy, television attack ads, ground coffee beans and cookies.

In the dimly lit downtown offices of consulting firm Russo Marsh + Rogers, the pro-troops effort includes political strategy, television attack ads, ground coffee beans and cookies.

Photo By Larry Dalton

There’s a story that some political campaign consultants in Sacramento tell about Sal Russo. It goes like this: He’s running a statewide campaign for a political candidate a few years back and has just made a “big” purchase of television broadcast airtime to start running a commercial. He invites Capitol news reporters to a press conference at his downtown high-rise offices, where he debuts the witty ad. Result: The next day, the commercial is written up in newspapers throughout the state.

Then, as the story goes, it turns out that Russo actually hasn’t purchased TV ads in each of California’s major TV markets—as would be expected from such a campaign. Instead, he’s only purchased a couple of spots on a station in Chico. That’s it.

But, for that paltry TV-ad buy, Russo has earned for his candidate untold tens of thousands of dollars in free ink-and-newsprint media reaching voters from San Diego to Redding. He worked the media.

In his downtown Sacramento offices, just a few blocks directly south of the Capitol dome under which he once worked, the story was recently recounted for Russo.

He quibbled with whether it was Chico, and whether it was just one or maybe a couple of small TV markets, but replied, “That may have happened.”

‘Attaboy endeavor’
These days, Russo is the political mind behind the rapidly growing nonprofit Move America Forward. Unless you listen to conservative talk radio, you may never have heard of it.

But chances are you know its work.

Remember the “You Don’t Speak For Me, Cindy” Tour this past summer, which sent pro-troops activists to Crawford, Texas, to go toe to toe with anti-war military mom Cindy Sheehan? That was Move America Forward. And the group that tried to quiet the theatrical opening to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11? That was them, too. They’ve also encouraged the United States to withdraw from the United Nations, run television commercials showing American troops handing goods to Afghani children and curated a pro-America art exhibit on Sacramento’s Capitol building steps.

More recently, there was orchestrated outrage by Move America Forward supporters in reaction to the Sacramento City Council’s bring-the-troops-home symbolic resolution.

Since the group formed fewer than two years ago, it has become the dominant voice countering the apparent American groundswell against the war in Iraq. Despite a relatively small base of supporters, reportedly little income and an almost complete lack of support from the Republican Party, Move America Forward has made waves and newspaper headlines across the country.

That may be because the group has struck a nerve with a group of vocal Americans. It also may be simply because Russo and others who run Move America Forward have found a formula to bamboozle the media into paying attention to its ultraconservative viewpoint. And if that’s the case, what are its true motives? Are its founders genuinely trying to encourage American soldiers to continue fighting, or are they trying to rake in paychecks, political offices and radio listening audiences?

Move America Forward has been called, by liberal Internet-based pundits, a front for the Bush administration, a manufactured pro-troops movement that’s more AstroTurf than grassroots. That’s largely because of Russo’s involvement.

A longtime Republican strategist, Russo got his political start volunteering on Ronald Reagan’s first gubernatorial campaign, was later deputy chief of staff to then-Governor George Deukmejian and has run campaigns for clients as varied as New York Governor George Pataki, California’s anti-affirmative-action Proposition 209, Congressman George Nethercutt and a referendum for independence in the Ukraine. Russo even once worked to elect a Nicaraguan political candidate, Violeta Chammoro, a campaign during which he says he and his staffers were accused of being CIA operatives.

But Move America Forward has not been embraced—rather, it has been shunned—by many in the Republican establishment.

Other Republican message-deliverers say, without wanting their names attached, that Move America Forward is just an attempt by Russo to keep his name in the political arena while he is unable to garner significant political work—the result of having run a disastrous campaign for governor-wannabe Bill Simon back in 2002. One respected Sacramento Republican insider called Move America Forward the “Sal Russo Employment Act.”

And journalist Bill Berkowitz, whose specialty is reporting on the links between purportedly nonpartisan charities and the Republican Party, wrote earlier this year that Russo’s consulting firm had benefited financially from riding the war-on-terror wave.

Russo shrugs off such claims, calling his work with Move America Forward an “attaboy endeavor”—something he does for the troops, he says, and not for his personal gain. Get on the bus“Aren’t you proud to be an American?” a smiling Luauna Stines said into the microphone on a weekday in September. She stood on the sidewalk, across the street from the downtown Sacramento Greyhound bus station, amplifying her voice over passing traffic. About 20 people gathered on the sidewalk. Some held signs. “We support our troops.” Others had purposefully incorporated the colors of the American flag into their outfits.

It was a gathering orchestrated by Move America Forward and attended by some of the group’s local followers. The cause of the day: opposing anti-war mom Cindy Sheehan.

“How many are so proud of our troops?” Stines, a pastor from northeastern San Diego County, asked the crowd, receiving applause in return.

The group had come to see a bus. Move America Forward had rented a luxury RV, which it planned to drive from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., stopping at cities in between. The following Saturday in D.C., anti-war activists rallying around Sheehan would be gathering outside the White House in a mass demonstration. And the Move America Forward folks wanted their pro-troops, pro-war-mission voice to be heard there as well.

Sal Russo displays a box of the treats, adorned with a message of thanks that Move America Forward mails to soldiers deployed in the war.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“Let’s just say a prayer. Can we do that?” Stines said. “Father, we thank you … that you are helping these men to bring peace and liberty to that land.”

Meanwhile, nine stories above the crowd at L and Seventh streets, Russo gathered his belongings and rushed out of his company’s offices. Russo Marsh + Rogers, the conservative political consulting and marketing firm that he started in 1976, sits at the center of the Move America Forward crusade. Up there, the small staffs from both the consulting company and the pro-troops nonprofit mingle and overlap.

This bus road trip and rally stop were part of a formula designed to give pro-troop Americans a tangible way to express their views. Listen to the radio, visit a Web site, come out to see the bus drive by, buy a T-shirt, make a donation.

The RV stopped here only briefly. KFBK radio talker Mark Williams spoke, as did Deborah Johns, a Roseville mother of a Marine serving in Iraq. The turnout at that event was small. Nevertheless, the event—and, by extension, the pro-troops message—received coverage in Sacramento’s daily newspaper and on several local television stations.

“You may think that your numbers are few,” Stines told the gatherers. “But I’m telling you what: small but mighty.”

Giving birth on the radio
Thank Gray Davis for the movement that is now Move America Forward.

The whole thing began January 22, 2003, during the morning drive time, on a San Francisco radio station. Shawn Steele, then the head of the California Republican Party, was a guest on the morning show that Melanie Morgan co-hosts on KSFO 560 AM. He and Morgan were chatting in typical incendiary talk-radio fashion, when Steele crowed, off the cuff, that someone should recall Davis from the governor’s office. Morgan remembers a light bulb being lit.

“I knew this was an idea whose time had come. … I said, ‘I can do this. I know I can do this,’” Morgan recounted. “It was like watching a video. I saw it in my brain.”

Fast-forward through a circus special election in which Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor. Though Morgan and her co-conspirators supported Tom McClintock throughout the election, they considered the recall a success.

In an interview on a recent Wednesday morning in her studio, following The Lee Rodgers & Melanie Morgan Program—the Bay Area’s No. 1-rated morning drive-time talk program—one of the first things out of Morgan’s mouth was: “I used to be a liberal Democrat.”

Morgan, a petite woman, who even in jeans appears well-dressed, also says she used to be a “straight-down-the-line journalist.” The daughter of a former Missouri state legislator, Morgan said she’d always been politically aware. But it took Lee Rodgers, her morning-show co-host, to cause her political rebirth, she says.

“I feel like I’ve gone to school for the last 11 years for the conservative ideology” sitting beside him, Morgan said.

In that same time, Morgan discovered that radio, more than other media, has a town-square-like power—a lesson amplified in liberal-minded San Francisco, where she says the radio station became something of an island of refuge for conservatives.

“Talk-show hosts really are the ward healers of modern-day politics,” Morgan said.

By the time Morgan’s recall effort was up and running, conservative activist Ted Costa and former Republican state Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian had caught the recall bug and started online efforts of their own. An acquaintance encouraged her to contact Kaloogian, who was working with Russo.

At that point, Morgan admits, she’d never heard of Kaloogian, who had served in the state Assembly for three two-year terms representing northern San Diego County. “I knew who Sal Russo was, but I did not have a favorable impression of him from the last campaign he had run,” she said.

Still, she contacted Kaloogian and says she and he clicked. He later introduced her to Russo.

“We became ideological friends,” Morgan said of the two men.

The mission is the mission
After the recall success, the alliance formed between Kaloogian, Morgan and Russo no longer had reason to exist. But with that radio-Internet-action formula perfected and with the media attention at a height, the trio wanted to continue.

Russo was quoted shortly after the recall in the L.A. Daily News saying of his new activism group, “We’ll change the name to something like Move America Forward.”

The question, then, was the issue. What would be the cause they would rally around?

Born-again conservative Melanie Morgan promotes Move America Forward and its views through the Bay Area airwaves as co-host of the morning drive-time talk-radio program on KSFO 560 AM.

Photo By Lori Spears

Enter John Ubaldi.

When the war on terror began, Ubaldi, a U.S. Marine reservist with political aspirations, was working as an assistant in Russo’s office—manning the front desk and answering phones. He lobbied the military to get sent to Afghanistan. And as soon as he got there, Move America Forward folks say, he began e-mailing back to the office about how poorly the American media were reporting on the war. What he saw on the ground, he said, was not what was reflected in newspapers.

“How can we get the soldiers’ story to the public unfiltered?” Russo remembers asking.

So, encouraged by Ubaldi, Move America Forward became an organization aiming to support the troops and their mission. Initially, that meant combating anti-war messages, whether in the so-called mainstream media or in movie theaters. Later, Move America Forward targeted individuals—an Ohio senator; a Bay Area congresswoman; and, of course, Cindy Sheehan, the Vacaville mother whose son was killed in Iraq and whose anti-war vigil outside President Bush’s Crawford, Texas, ranch brought her an international spotlight.

“Cindy Sheehan just landed in our lap,” Morgan said. “That was a no-brainer. Hers was such a destructive voice that she had to be countered.”

Hers was also a voice already in the news, thus providing an opening for Move America Forward to get its name in those same news stories.

“We’re all media-savvy people,” Morgan said. “If she was gonna be in a ditch in Texas, we were gonna be in a ditch in Texas.”

Kaloogian tells the caravan-to-Crawford story to counter critics who say Move America Forward is not a true grassroots organization.

“There were 4,000 people there—from all over the country, who spent their own money to make the trip,” Kaloogian said. “We had a five-mile-long caravan.”

By way of comparison, Sheehan said more than 12,000 of her supporters traveled to Crawford over the course of her vigil.

Move America Forward’s pro-troops road-trippers are what make the organization work. Typically, nonprofit political-action organizations have significant monetary backers—wealthy donors who believe in the cause and put up cash to support it. For example, the conservative group Progress for America, closely linked to the president, gets much of its money from Bush’s major donors., the liberal Internet-based activist group, was started by two wealthy Internet entrepreneurs and buoyed by several million dollars from billionaire George Soros.

“Don’t get me wrong. If someone would have offered us $100,000—unless there were a lot of strings attached to it—we would have taken it,” said Joe Wierzbicki, an employee of Russo Marsh + Rogers who spends about half his time there working on Move America Forward. “We just didn’t have that.”

That’s where Morgan’s radio-Internet-action formula came into play. She talked about Move America Forward on the radio—and got other conservative talk-show hosts to do the same—and then directed listeners to the Web site. There, supporters could sign up for e-mail, send donations, write letters to lawmakers, and listen to radio and television ads that Move America Forward planned to air.

In his cluttered, windowless office at Russo Marsh + Rogers, Wierzbicki interrupted the screen saver on his computer that still read “Recall Gray Davis” and opened a spreadsheet listing donations that have come in to Move America Forward to support the organization’s holiday-time advertising blitz. He scrolled through the hundreds of names and addresses and donations—$50, $25, $100, $5. There were a couple of $200 listings and one $500 listing.

Wierzbicki said that since Move America Forward’s formal launch in the spring of 2004, it has brought in just more than $1 million in small donations like these.

Russo said he isn’t paid for the work he does on Move America Forward.

But Russo Marsh + Rogers, which produces all of the pro-troops group’s television commercials, works exclusively with King Media, an agency that buys airtime and receives a commission—usually 15 percent—of the buying cost. And King Media, located in those same offices on L Street, is an arm of Russo Marsh + Rogers.

Morgan said she spent $7,000 of her own money on a Move America Forward trip to Iraq and has never even submitted her expenses for reimbursement.

On a Monday in early November, Howard Kaloogian sat slumped in a booth in a noisy sandwich shop in Carlsbad, in northern San Diego County. Later in the evening, he would formally announce his candidacy for California’s 50th Congressional District.

Some Sacramento critics of Kaloogian’s say running for another elected office was his plan all along and that this Move America Forward deal was just a way to keep his name on a business card and in the media in the meantime, until the right office opened up.

To that, Kaloogian tells an anecdote. One of Move America Forward’s actions was to organize satellite phone calls from troops overseas to talk-radio stations back here in the States. It was a way to allow troops to tell their stories, unfiltered, directly to the listening audience, sometimes in their hometowns. One call, he remembers, came into a Ventura radio station. The soldier said a few words, and then the radio host took a few calls from listeners. The very next call was from that soldier’s wife. Kaloogian gets misty-eyed telling this next part.

Former state Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian has stepped down from a leadership role at the nonprofit while he runs for an open Southern California congressional seat.

“She said it was so good to hear her husband’s voice, and she hadn’t spoken to him in a long time,” Kaloogian said. “It was moving. It really was.

“That didn’t put my name in the paper. That didn’t do anything for me. That was for the troops.”

Kaloogian is an attorney, who, in his years since being in the state Assembly, has worked from his home office for a private college in Michigan, doing estate planning for its larger donors.

The 45-year-old discovered his calling, he said, in college, when he followed Reagan’s first election to the presidency. Kaloogian made his way to California on a scholarship from Pepperdine University’s law school, in Malibu. A decade later, when he decided to run for Assembly, he interviewed Russo to run his campaign.

“He and I saw eye to eye,” Kaloogian said.

After leaving the Assembly in 2000, he and Russo have continued to work together, such as in 2003, when the two formed the Defend Reagan Project, which sought to convince cable companies not to air a miniseries about the Reagans, which Kaloogian said amounted to a “character assassination” of the former president. Kaloogian also ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2004.

Wierzbicki said Move America Forward’s motives are mistaken by both its critics and its supporters.

“The progressives think we’re in a tall, dark skyscraper, where the 10th floor is the ‘Kill the U.N.’ floor, and the ninth floor is the ‘Be Mean to Minorities’ floor,” Wierzbicki joked. “They think we’re backed by the Bush administration, and so that makes us evil.

“But the people who agree with us also think we’re backed by the Bush administration, and that’s a great thing. And they see us as in a white castle with 100-foot-tall turrets.”

Those who have been attacked by Move America Forward have much less than a white-castle view of the organization.

“I think they’re moving America backward,” said Sheehan. “I don’t know how they can wave signs that say ‘Shame on you Cindy.’ Why aren’t they waving signs saying ‘Shame on you George’?”

Cres Velluci, a former journalist who says he was part of the military propaganda machine while serving in the Army in Vietnam, says he sees a lot of similarities between what he did during that war and what Move America Forward is doing during this one.

“They’re either just misinformed about what’s going on over there,” said Velluci, a representative of the local Veterans for Peace chapter, “or they just want to see war happen.”

Move America Forward principals shrug off such criticism as signs of desperation.

“It’s the last resort of the losing side to demonize the opposition,” Kaloogian said. “Our message resonates with people. In the marketplace of ideas, people are more with us than with them.”

Opinion polls don’t agree with that assessment. A Gallup Poll published last month showed that 52 percent of Americans think troops should be immediately pulled out of Iraq.

And similar activist groups on the left are much larger. boasts more than 3 million e-mail subscribers. That’s more than 15 times as many as Move America Forward.

Laurie Loving, a Davis mother whose son is in the military and is deployed to fight the war on terror, said she pays little heed to Move America Forward and to the pro-war rhetoric of Marine mother Deborah Johns, who recently has been closely linked to Move America Forward.

“She doesn’t speak for my son, and I don’t speak for hers,” Loving said.

But Move America Forward has had success by tapping into an action-oriented audience—no matter how small, it is vocal.

Another reason Move America Forward works so well, and so quickly, is because its principals don’t need meetings or a show of hands or polls or focus groups before they can take action.

Move America Forward has tried, on several occasions, to counter the anti-war voice of Cindy Sheehan, a Vacaville mother whose son was killed in Iraq. In Davis last month, Sheehan criticized Move America Forward but said she supports its right to express its views.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“When you have that conversation with a friend and say, ‘Somebody ought to do something,’ we usually are that somebody,” Kaloogian said. “It’s that old Reagan line. ‘If not us, who? If not now, when?’”

A 30-second phone call or a two-sentence e-mail usually sets one of their plans in motion. And no matter who lobs the first pass, the others know how to move it down the field.

“It’s because we all think alike,” Wierzbicki said.

The best conservatives used to be Democrats
When that tour bus got to D.C., Russo remembers, he was astounded. The rally appeared to have been hijacked, he said. In addition to Sheehan and other anti-war military families, a variety of other groups showed up, spouting about everything from greenhouse gases to 9/11 conspiracy theories, Russo said.

The result, he said, was a chaotic message. “It was very, very kooky.”

In contrast, Russo said, Move America Forward delivers a clear message: Support the troops and their mission. They repeat it like a mantra. It is the answer for almost any question asked of them.

“We speak clearly and unequivocally,” Russo said.

And Russo, standing behind his desk in his large office, whose walls are lined with faded photographs of him with Reagan and him with Deukmejian, speaks like a guy who still thinks all this politics stuff—the battle of ideas and supporting of causes—is pretty cool. At 58, he does not appear to take it too deadly seriously. He talks about his Cal Bears football team with the same tone as he does U.N. debates and anti-war senators.

Some in the political arena call him a genius.

“He’s one of the few people in this business who really thinks differently—or thinks quicker—than everyone else,” said Republican consultant Tim Clark.

It was at Berkeley where Russo became a Reaganite, he says. In 1964, at 17 years old, Russo was the son of a fisherman from Monterey. He says he was a liberal Democrat—a Kennedy Democrat—who’d grown up in a union hall, something he now considers an asset.

“It’s an advantage to know the other side,” Russo said.

He went off to college, where he quickly joined the conservative Youth for Goldwater campus club. He was there in the fall of 1964, when student groups, barred by the campus administration from pamphletting and recruiting other students on the school’s grounds, revolted, demonstrating in Sproul Plaza. Russo found himself on the same side as radicals and liberals, fighting the campus for First Amendment rights.

“When Reagan was at Eureka College” in Illinois, Russo quickly pointed out, “he had been a demonstrator.”

Russo soon dropped out of Berkeley to work on political campaigns down in Republican stronghold Orange County. In 1966, he volunteered on Reagan’s campaign and then worked in his administration. Later, at just 30 years old, he founded his own consulting firm.

Russo considers himself a man of action and a man of ideas. He has little tolerance for those who aren’t the same way. Quoting Reagan, as he often does, he refers to the “eat, meet and retreat” crowd—the type of folks who might show up to the event or plunk down a donation at a fund-raiser but can’t be bothered to spend their weekends volunteering or to knock on doors during election time.

Unfortunately, he said, there are a lot of those kinds of people within his own party.

Despite his long history with the Republican Party, Russo and his Move America Forward have not been embraced by the institutionalized right. By some, they’ve actively been kept at an arm’s distance.

“During the recall, we were treated like lepers by the state party,” Morgan said, adding that the national party hasn’t been any better.

“This Bush administration has not been supportive of us at all,” Morgan said, remembering that she tried to set up a lunch meeting with an administration official, at the suggestion of a mutual friend, but was rebuffed.

“Do they know we exist? Yes … and that would probably go to the extent of it,” Wierzbicki said of the relationship between the organization and the Bush administration.

Sal Russo got his political jump-start in 1966, volunteering on Ronald Reagan’s first campaign for the governor’s office. Both Russo and Howard Kaloogian consider Reagan a political role model.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Kaloogian said he knows there are members of the administration who appreciate what Move America Forward is doing, even if they can’t come out and say it publicly.

As far as Morgan is concerned, the lack of relationship is just fine. She calls the California Republican Party “bankrupt of ideas.”

Russo has done his fair share of criticizing the administration.

“The White House doesn’t do a very good job, in my opinion, of communicating on this war,” Russo said.

While some political consultants in Sacramento say they respect Russo, others blame his failures for the rift between himself and the party.

“If you want to win a statewide office, Sal Russo’s not the guy you call,” said one Republican who works in political communications.

Chalk that attitude up to a series of failed campaigns. There was Simon, who was defeated by Davis. Then there was Audie Bock, the Green Party legislator turned decline-to-stater who lost a congressional bid to incumbent Barbara Lee. And Matt Fong, who failed to oust Senator Barbara Boxer. And Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, who lost the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2000 to Bush.

Currently, Russo Marsh + Rogers counts among its clients Kaloogian and Phil Kurzner, a candidate for state insurance commissioner.

Wierzbicki said it’s more satisfying to keep the politics separate from the activism.

“Campaigns are much more about the science of getting votes—how do you get 50 percent plus one,” Wierzbicki said. “That’s much more of a game. [Move America Forward] is much more about passion, ideas, what’s in the heart.”

That, Kaloogian said, is what divides the two. The Republican Party is too concerned about the next election cycle, while he and Move America Forward simply want to express what they believe, political outcomes be damned.

“Some of the hardest fights you’re going to have are going to be within your own party,” Morgan said.

Cookies and coffee
Back at Russo Marsh + Rogers on a November weekday, Donald La Combe, a part-time employee of Move America Forward, was sticking adhesive labels on bags of ground coffee beans and then packaging those beans alongside boxes of cookies. The coffee and cookies, with these messages of support stuck to them, will be sent to troops overseas.

More than 10 tons of coffee and cookies have come through the Russo Marsh + Rogers offices on their way to Iraq or Afghanistan, said Robert Dixon, executive director of Move America Forward and its only other paid employee. Dixon said this is the most satisfying part of his job—sending something simple like a box of cookies and receiving in return letters of appreciation from troops.

You get the sense that even if this part of their effort was all they could manage to pull together, these men would still be here, packing U.S. Postal Service boxes full of cookies and ground coffee beans.

But there’s more.

When Russo returned from a Move America Forward trip to Iraq, he brought with him a client for Russo Marsh + Rogers: the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Of the Iraqi political entities’ various visions of a new Iraq, the Kurds’ is closest to Russo’s, he said, explaining why he took on the client. As both Russo and Wierzbicki put it, the firm was hired to thank Americans, on behalf of the Kurds, for supporting the war in Iraq—essentially, to do what Move America Forward is already trying to do. Among other things, the firm has scripted and produced television commercials for the Kurds and has arranged for visiting Kurdish officials to be interviewed by the media.

Kaloogian said Move America Forward likely would be around a long time, as the war on terror doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon. And, he said, as long as the country is at war, he will work to support the troops.

In addition, the Move America Forward work has encouraged the political aspirations of a few of its principals. Sparked by Sacramento City Council’s anti-war resolution, both Dixon and Ubaldi are considering bids for a city-council seat. Each, presumably, would hire Russo Marsh + Rogers as its consulting firm.

Kaloogian sums up Move America Forward’s progress by pointing out that a cartoon strip that regularly lambastes Bush, Dick Cheney and Karl Rove also took a jab at his organization.

“Doonesbury decided they had to mock us,” he said. “You’re there [in the strip] alongside the president, the vice president, his special adviser—and who are you? You’re a citizen. You’re a private citizen without an elected office.

“You’re doing something right when you get into Doonesbury.”