The Artful Codger

Trashing the AARP with Grandma Green.

ANYONE VISITING THE SENIOR center in Woodbridge, Virginia, on a Tuesday runs a serious risk of being ignored, Tuesday being the appointed day for the weekly Spanish lesson, the arts-and-crafts hour, and the champion pingpong team practice. But when Flora Green, a.k.a. Grandma Green, paid a call one recent Tuesday, she outdrew all competitors. Two dozen seniors packed the main hall to listen with a mixture of reverence and awe to Green’s message of political redemption.

“I can get past those 29-year-olds who think they run the government, and you can too,” she promised, eliciting cheers and the occasional “Amen.” At 82, Green is a proud mother of 8, grandmother of 27, and great-grandmother of 22. She is also a hired gun, of a certain apostolic sort, a white-haired maverick with the charisma of a firecracker. As such, she’s an inspiration for people in the AARP set, though you mustn’t call them that in her presence. Green is the human face of the conservative Seniors Coalition, a grassroots—critics use the term “Astroturf”—lobbying group fed by member donations and industries like Big Pharma to influence votes on Capitol Hill. It’s one of K Street’s answers to the AARP, the nation’s most powerful seniors’ lobby.

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In Green’s long life, the coalition post comes as something of a third act. Raised in her native western Pennsylvania, she was widowed at the age of 50, then moved to Utah and began working as a debt collector, overseeing a staff of 60. “I did quite well, too, because I am a pushy old lady,” she said. In 2000, the Seniors Coalition hired her to play Grandma in their lobbying show. She would tail an election-year bus trip sponsored by AARP, where she’d hound the group with pamphlets that claimed to expose its “shameful secrets.” “They called the police on me every day,” Green said, laughing. “How ridiculous. What, did I scare them?”

That Tuesday, she arrived at the Woodbridge event towing Mike Harrington, the head of the Seniors Coalition’s government-relations shop. “Lobbyists come in all different shapes and sizes,” he said. “Some of them wear fancy Italian Gucci suits and fancy black shoes and they drive big fancy cars.” Harrington might have been describing himself, a young Republican operative in expensive pinstripes and a tie the color of a good California merlot. “But then there are other lobbyists like Grandma Green. She doesn’t need a fancy car or a fancy suit.” Green, for the record, was resplendent that morning in a Barbie-pink jacket and pearls.

She also rides in style: in a 37-foot motor coach emblazoned with her billboard-sized image and called the “Straight Talk Express” (a moniker taken “straight” from John McCain’s 2000 campaign bus). “That’s what I try to provide all seniors I meet with,” Green said. “Straight answers and no nonsense.” She has logged half a million miles crossing the country over the past five years, warning seniors in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and Wilmington, Delaware, about the dangers of buying medications from Canada. (In fact, there are no known cases of Americans being sickened by pills purchased from pharmacies over the border.) She has appeared as just-another-voter at a Bush town hall meeting, taking the microphone to praise the president and his Medicare policies. She regularly stars in Capitol Hill press conferences, and targets wavering pols with busloads of senior volunteers. And she’s helped drive the enrollment of the Seniors Coalition to a claimed 4 million members.

Meanwhile, she’s shaking her fists at the AARP for all other seniors to see. The AARP is suffering many thorns for its opposition to the Bush administration’s plans to block drug importation and privatize Social Security. In a recent ad, USA Next, a conservative seniors’ group dreamed up by the same GOP direct-mail wizard, Richard Viguerie, who dreamed up the Seniors Coalition, suggested that the AARP advocates homosexuality and disdains American soldiers. Although the Seniors Coalition has split with Viguerie, Grandma Green sings in a similar—if less shrill—chorus. “I’ll come right out and say it,” she declared, speaking of the AARP as she walked the crowd at Woodbridge, handing out autographed pictures of herself next to an American flag. “They don’t like me.” She pronounces AARP as one syllable, like a small dog barking.

The real pedigree of the group Green represents is hidden under layers of PR and politics. The Seniors Coalition was cofounded in 1989 by conservative activist Dan C. Alexander Jr., three years after he was sent to prison for arranging construction kickbacks as an Alabama school-committee member. Today, its top outside lobbyist is C. McClain Haddow, a former Health and Human Services official who spent time in prison with Alexander for failing to file a timely ethics waiver when he gave his wife a government contract. Haddow has also lobbied for generic-drugs manufacturer Mylan Pharmaceuticals.

The organization’s Washington activities regularly blur the needs of seniors with the agendas of corporate donors. After it took money from Microsoft in 1999, the coalition lobbied on antitrust litigation, and after it took money from Lottery.com in 2000, it lobbied on a bill that would restrict Internet gambling. Money also poured in from the American Petroleum Institute and the American Public Power Association—just as the coalition spoke out against the Kyoto Protocol and lower gas-mileage standards.

The Seniors Coalition is especially tied to the drug industry. PHRMA, the pharmaceutical industry’s trade group, gave the organization $2.2 million between 1999 and 2000 (the only two years for which full financial disclosure is available). Other drug industry sources funneled the group an additional $300,000 during that time. But Tom Moore, the coalition’s chief operating officer, writes in an email that only 22 percent of his organization’s funding comes from industry, and that the group “retains its complete independence in developing [its] legislative agenda.”

Meanwhile, almost everything Grandma Green said at Woodbridge parroted PHRMA talking points. Since January, she has focused her message on the dangers of imported prescription drugs, arguing against proposed laws, supported by about 73 percent of the American public, that would allow importation. The stakes are huge for the industry, since the United States is currently the only industrialized nation in the world that does not regulate the price of prescription drugs. Green derides countries that might become suppliers of bargain drugs. “Do we drink the water down in Mexico?” she asked while at Woodbridge. “I don’t think so. I’ve been down there.”

The message has confused some of Green’s fans. Over lunch of pasta salad and chocolate pudding, Woodbridge senior Betty Graham wondered how the current pricing system could be justified. “It seems that the drug companies sell drugs to foreign countries cheaper,” she said. “And that is not right.”

By then, though, Grandma Green had already left the building.