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Motivations of group attacking AARP include money, members and influence

WASHINGTON—Charlie Jarvis calls himself the "dynamite" that will blow up one of the biggest obstacles to partly privatizing Social Security: AARP, the powerful seniors' lobby that leads the opposition to privatization.

But Jarvis has another motive: He wants to take business away from AARP for his own much smaller group, the United Seniors Association, also known as USA Next.

Thus one little-noted aspect of the furious politics attending Social Security's fate is simply a fight over money, members and influence in Washington. If Jarvis can discredit AARP, he thinks his group stands to gain. So he's attacking AARP relentlessly, accusing it of being pro-tax increase, pro-gay marriage and even anti-U.S. military.

"If you are looking for an organization that will work to lower your taxes, not raise them, I invite you to take a look at USA Next," Jarvis said last week in an e-mail message to AARP members.

His group won publicity earlier this year when it ran an Internet ad attacking the AARP. It featured a photo of a soldier with an X through it and a second photo with a check mark of a gay couple kissing, apparently at their wedding. Said the caption: "The real AARP agenda."

AARP spokesman Steve Hahn dismissed the charges.

"We wholeheartedly support the troops," he said. He said AARP's Ohio chapter opposed a gay-marriage initiative because it believed it would restrict the rights of unmarried heterosexual couples.

The ad and the negative reaction to it set back USA Next just as it was attracting publicity. The White House backed off plans for a joint event in Florida with President Bush and the group's honorary chairman, Art Linkletter.

Jarvis refused either to defend or disavow the Internet ad. "It was removed. We didn't want it up," he said.

At the time, Jarvis said he was targeting AARP because it was fighting Bush's proposal to partly privatize Social Security. "AARP is the biggest boulder in the road to success on Social Security personal retirement accounts, and we are going to be the dynamite that removes it," he said.

He didn't mention his desire to take over some of AARP's considerable business. In 2003, the Washington-based AARP had revenues of $769 million, including $211 million in dues from its 36 million members, $300 million in royalties and fees from sales of services such as health insurance and $60 million in interest income.

Jarvis' goal is to convert 1 million AARP members in the coming year. That would transform his group into the kind of member-based organization its name implies, but which it's never been.

In fact, the United Seniors Association is a somewhat shadowy group that's acted as a front for corporate interests seeking to influence federal legislation.

While pushing for a prescription-drug benefit under Medicare, for example, the group took $1.5 million from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association, $664,000 from an industry group called Citizens for Better Medicare and $50,000 from drug giant Pfizer Inc. It also received $181,000 from Arctic Power, an Alaska consortium, to lobby for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

In 2003, the most recent year for which records are available, dues from members accounted for $1.2 million of USA Next's $25 million budget. The organization refused to say where the rest of its money came from. It also won't say how many dues-paying members it has.

Jarvis is no stranger to the conservative cause. He's a former executive of Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian group, and won appointments to federal posts under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He's chaired the United Seniors Association since 2001. It paid him $242,000 in 2003, the last year for which financial records are available.

Jarvis labels AARP as liberal in hope that conservative members will quit.

"We would be happy to take the 40 percent who are conservatives," he said. "That would be 12-13 million. One million would be wonderful."

The AARP charges members annual dues of $12.50. The United Seniors Association has several tiers of membership. Basic members pay $12.50 a year, but for $100 a year, a member gets a picture and quarterly conference calls with former TV celebrity Linkletter. For $1,000, a member gets monthly conference calls with Jarvis and "top political, business and financial leaders."

Like the AARP, USA Next also sells services, such as a $10.95-a-month discount plan for dental and chiropractic services.

AARP officials said they hadn't noticed any loss of members to the United Seniors Association. Nor has Jarvis had any noticeable impact on AARP's standing. A recent survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center showed the AARP as the most trusted voice on Social Security, ranked higher than Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, President Bush or leaders of either major political party.

"We're the David versus Goliath," Jarvis said. "But I like the way that story ends."

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For more on the United Seniors Association, go to www.usanext.org

For more on AARP, go to www.aarp.org

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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