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Grassroots activism at its finest

When Senator Arlen Specter addressed the Commonwealth Club on December 13, 2008, he was not thinking about fraternal benefit societies.  His remarks included several inappropriate Polish jokes which immediately hit the blogosphere, newspapers, and television news in Specter’s home state of Pennsylvania and across the country.   

Polish Falcons CEO Tim Kuzma was offended by the jokes and spoke for the entire Polish-American community by commenting to the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette that he found the jokes “appalling” and offensive to Polish-Americans.

Senator Specter and his staff quickly went into “damage control” mode in an effort to smooth over relations between the Senator and the Polish community – an extremely important constituency in the state, especially to an individual facing a tough re-election campaign in 2010.  Senator Specter reached out to Tim and other Polish leaders to apologize for his remarks.  To his credit, Tim and the other community leaders suggested that the Senator conduct a town hall meeting so that the Senator could deliver his apology in person.  Tim and his peers also saw this meeting as an opportunity to discuss other issues important to the Polish-American community, including immigration and the Senator’s position on the fraternal tax exemption.   

It took some doing, but Tim’s persistency paid off and on April 16, Polish-Americans met with Senator Specter at the University of Pittsburgh.  Tim took his mission one step further.  He wanted to be sure that Senator Specter understood that he wasn’t just Polish, he was a Polish fraternalist – one of 600,000 fraternalists in Pennsylvania.  Fraternalists understand collective action, and Tim saw an opportunity to bring the fraternal message to an important member of Congress.  (Remember, by this time Senator Specter had become a Democrat and brought that party’s control of the Senate to within one vote of a filibuster-proof majority.)

Working with NFCA staff and federal legislative counsel Evan Migdail, Tim researched the fraternal tax exemption and identified key points for Senator Specter.  During the Q&A session Tim asked the Senator to outline his position on the fraternal tax exemption issue.  Senator Specter assured Tim and the other participants at the meeting that he would set forth his position on the issue in a letter soon after the meeting. 

Evan, Tim, and NFCA staff worked together to compile a host of background information on the history of the tax exemption, the meaningful social impact that fraternals contribute to American society, and the size and activism of the hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania fraternalists for the Senator and his key tax staff member.   Tim served as the NFCA’s “on-the-ground” contact with in-district Congressional staffers in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and Evan met with Sen. Specter’s tax staffer in D.C. 

Earlier this month, Tim received a letter from Sen. Specter expressing his support of the fraternal tax exemption.  What started with an ethnic joke turned into a victory for all fraternals – and an opportunity to build a lasting relationship with Senator Specter.  That’s the power of grassroots activism and a testament to the commitment of Tim Kuzma.  Just think what we could accomplish if each society “adopted” a member of Congress and made sure that he or she fully understood the power of fraternalism in his or her community…

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