Grover Norquist: 'Field Marshal' of the Bush Plan
But all along, Americans for Tax Reform was his chief focus, and Norquist used it as a base of operations for a guerrilla-style attack on the capital's culture. Working closely with Gingrich, then a radical backbencher and rebel in the minority GOP House caucus, Norquist gradually built ATR into a leading force in the American antitax movement, raking in corporate contributions and deftly using the right's direct-mail lists to pull in donations from rank-and-file conservatives. Gingrich is unstinting in his praise for his former ally, especially on the central issue of cutting taxes and shrinking the federal government. "He is essentially the most creative and most effective conservative activist in the country," says the former Speaker. "He is both a serious conservative intellectual [and] a remarkable implementer of effective communications and grassroots political strategies." When the Clinton Administration took office, Norquist saw an opportunity to position ATR as what one ally calls the right's Grand Central Station. The vehicle for that, and for Norquist's emergence, would be his now-famous Wednesday meetings.
Launched in 1993 to rally conservatives against President Clinton's healthcare plan, Norquist's invitation-only, off-the-record Wednesday meetings started small, with a dozen or so activists in attendance; a year later, it had grown to forty-five, including representatives of the National Rifle Association, on whose board Norquist serves; the Christian Coalition; the Heritage Foundation; and staffers from Gingrich's office. Since the arrival of President Bush, attendance has climbed to more than a hundred--including representatives of the White House, the Republican National Committee and the House and Senate leadership. Reporters and editors from conservative media outlets are frequent attendees, along with a smattering of corporate lobbyists. At one recent meeting, topics of discussion ranged from a report on allegedly wasteful federal spending to the campaign of a potential challenger to a Democratic Congressional incumbent. Norquist introduced the day's speakers and allotted ten or fifteen minutes to each. "The meeting functions as the weekly checklist so that everybody knows what's up, what to do," says Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, a conservative pollster who has been a regular attendee for years. Often, more informal get-togethers--along with fundraisers and dinner parties--take place at Norquist's Capitol Hill home, where, she says, the door is always open "and there is always Chinese food."
ATR has an in-house staff of about a dozen, along with a network of part-time people scattered across the country, and it works closely with nearly 800 state-based, antitax activist groups. In 1999 ATR boasted an annual budget of more than $7 million, nearly a third of which comes from just forty corporate backers, including Microsoft, Pfizer, AOL Time Warner and UPS. Far and away the single biggest donor that year, according to ATR's most recent tax return, was tobacco giant Philip Morris, which contributed $685,000 to the group, with R.J. Reynolds and U.S. Tobacco also providing significant money. Another big chunk of ATR's funding in 1999 came from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians ($360,000), in support of Norquist's work for the gambling industry. The liquor industry is a third major funder, with money from the Distilled Spirits Council, United Distillers & Vintners and Seagram Companies.
Despite the fact that large parts of his funding come from the taxophobic "sin" industries--tobacco, gambling, liquor--Norquist maintains strong alliances with the Christian right, often speaking at Christian Coalition events. But Norquist, who calls himself a "generic Protestant" and attends church only "semiregularly," is uncomfortable talking about religious beliefs. He welcomes groups like Republicans for Choice and the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay rights group, into his weekly conclaves, and gay rights groups in Washington credit him with openness on gay issues, including his recent support for the Republican Unity Coalition, an ad hoc gay group that supports Bush.
In fact, balancing distinct parts of what he calls "the center-right coalition" is what Norquist does best. "Conservatives love to fight with each other," says Richard Lessner, executive director of American Renewal, the lobbying arm of the Family Research Council and a former editorial writer for the archconservative Manchester Union-Leader in New Hampshire. "What Grover's brought to the movement is to say, 'Let's find the things we can work together on.'"
One such issue, which has had mixed results so far, is the misnamed "paycheck protection" campaign, aimed at crippling the political clout of organized labor by forcing unions to get annual written permission from members to use some of their dues money for political work. The idea was initially brought to Norquist's attention by a small coterie of right-wing California activists, and Norquist took it national, launching initiatives in state after state and persuading Gingrich to tack it onto campaign finance reform bills. (It is now an official part of Bush's catechism, too.) "He really was effective at getting that idea crystallized," says Hickey of the Campaign for America's Future, noting that the AFL-CIO was forced to spend millions of dollars to beat back paycheck protection on California's ballot three years ago.
Norquist says that he only occasionally takes a salary from ATR, and tax records from 1999 confirm that he was paid nothing that year. Norquist used to do some work as a lobbyist--at one point he was on a $10,000-a-month retainer for Microsoft and at another he lobbied on behalf of the Seychelles, an island republic in the Indian Ocean--but those ventures brought him bad publicity and he no longer takes private clients. Instead, he draws a retainer as a consultant and strategist for a lobbying firm he helped to found, Janus-Merritt Strategies, which represents Seagram, BP, Universal Studios and a wide range of Mexican industrial groups. By all accounts, however, Norquist lives quite modestly. John Fund of the Wall Street Journal, a longtime friend and former roommate of Norquist's, compares him to Ralph Nader for his almost monklike devotion to his cause.