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Inside a generic suburban office building along Highway 61 in Hastings, the Republican Party is swelling its 2004 war chest. Every day, for up to 16 hours, two shifts of telemarketers don headsets and beg citizens across the country for cash to support various GOP causes. The second floor space has three rows of blue cubicles, equipped with computers and phones for as many as 20 to 40 callers. The walls are decorated with signs declaring "I Stand with Our President George W. Bush" and "Liberate Iraq."
The operation is run by Feather, Larson & Synhorst DCI, a corporation founded in 1999 that has become one of the most powerful players in Republican politics. The principals of the organization are Tony Feather, who was President Bush's political director in the 2000 campaign; Jeff Larson, a St. Paul-based GOP activist; and Thomas Synhorst, a veteran of numerous national Republican campaigns.
Thus far in the 2004 election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission data, FLS is the largest corporate recipient of largesse from the Republican National Committee. The company has been paid more than $3.6 million for its telemarketing services since the beginning of 2003. (The only organizations that have received more money from the RNC are the United States Postal Service and the Internal Revenue Service.)
The RNC is just one of the company's well-heeled conservative clients though. FLS has raised money for practically every Republican organization in the country, including the National Republican Congressional Committee, the Republican Governors' Association, and at least 35 state parties, as well as numerous individual candidates. The company's website includes an endorsement from none other than Bush's chief political guru Karl Rove.
For all of the company's K Street connections, however, it generally flies below the public's radar. "I've heard the name before but I don't think they're particularly well known," says Bill Allison, managing editor at the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington-based watchdog group. "It's not a name that comes up every single day."
Allison notes that Democrats have similar operations, but in recent weeks, I interviewed a half-dozen current and former employees of the Hastings call center. All but one described themselves as either Republicans or independents. And the portrait that emerges of this GOP boiler room is more redolent of Animal House than the White House.
Ted Swaback first began working for FLS in the spring of 2002, when he was a high school senior. He was attracted by the pay, at that time $9.50 an hour for part-time employees, and stayed on for roughly six months. "It was an excellent part-time job," Swaback shrugs. "All you did was sit on the phone and talk all day." He describes himself as a political independent and Bush partisan. "I definitely would support President Bush again," he says.
Following a stint at the University of Minnesota's Duluth campus, Swaback returned to FLS in November. He says that the atmosphere at the call center had changed dramatically. The workers were now divided into two teams and before each shift they'd do a cheer to inspire their respective sides. Music, generally hip hop, was pumped into the office space from a boom box. Supervisors would roam the floor, screaming encouragement and admonishing workers who weren't pulling in enough money. "Basically the floor managers would just run around yelling, 'We've got to get our numbers up!'" Swaback recalls. "Or if somebody got a fifty dollar pledge they'd yell out, 'Way to go, Ted, you got a fifty!'"
Swaback says it was so loud that he often couldn't hear the person on the other end of the line. "One of the guys I got trained in with, he was telling me that he had to hang up on four people in a row because he couldn't hear what was going on," he recalls. "Basically it's a big zoo."
Swaback lasted just eight days on his second go-round. "I didn't need the job that bad," he says.
Other workers describe a similarly chaotic atmosphere. "That's how they think they get pledges, by screaming and yelling at you," says a current FLS employee who didn't want her name used for fear of losing her job. The floor managers, she notes, are constantly imploring workers to "get clanging" and "keep pushing it." "I told one of the floor managers if I pushed any harder I'd shit my pants," she says. "The stress level in that place is brutal." She recently began taking prescription tranquilizers before going to work.
The rah-rah atmosphere seems particularly strange given that, according to employees, the bulk of prospective donors are elderly. "You're trying to talk to some 80-year-old woman and she's like, 'My God, where are you? In a bar?" recalls another woman who worked at FLS until recently. "Whenever someone gets a pledge they just scream like wild monkeys."
Several workers say they were disturbed by management's insistence that they push for donations from elderly people, even those on fixed incomes. "I had one woman last week just bawling because she loves the Republican Party, but she doesn't have the money," recalls a current employee. "I had to keep pushing her. I think she gave 10 dollars."
This hard sell can be gleaned from several FLS telemarketing scripts that were provided by a former employee. They are studded with fear-mongering and political hyperbole. A script used to raise money for the RNC, for example, instructs employees to up the emotional ante if their initial request for a donation is rebuffed. "And already, Democrats are attacking, using super-charged, political hate speech," the script reads. "It seems that what's worst for the American people is what's best for them politically--& that if President Bush is FOR something, they're AGAINST it!" If the donor is still not persuaded, the specter of a forthcoming liberal jihad is raised. "If Democrats win, they're poised to roll back Republican reforms & raise taxes," the Republican faithful are told. "Their liberal war room is up & running."
FLS employees also describe what they feel is the misleading nature of the company's sales pitch. Potential donors are never told that they are being called by a for-profit company. They are simply informed that the telemarketer is calling "on behalf" of whatever candidate or cause they are raising money for that day. In addition, according to an internal memo, if donors inquire where their money goes, the correct response is to tell them that "100% of your contribution goes directly to [client name]."
Exactly what percentage of donations actually supports Republican candidates and causes is impossible to determine. Because FLS is a private company, it is not required to disclose such data. Jeff Larson did not return two calls seeking comment.
In recent weeks, according to workers, the Hastings call center has been ramping up its operations for the forthcoming elections, constantly hiring new telemarketers. But those who spoke about their experiences inside the GOP fundraising factory conclude that would-be donors should hold on to their money. "I would never give a dollar to the Republican party," says Rebecca Nibbe, who worked at FLS until November. "Or to any party for that matter, because you don't really know where that dollar's going."