An email to advocacy groups undercuts their mission

February 22, 2013 

The hot issues of this legislative session would be fodder enough for political debate. But now someone has tossed in political intrigue about a supposed plan by liberal advocacy groups to undermine public support for Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and GOP leaders in the General Assembly.

The drama began with an e-mail from Blueprint, a partnership of advocacy and policy groups based in Raleigh. The email forwarded polling data on public attitudes about Republicans along with talking points about how groups in the Blueprint coalition should address these subjects in their public comments.

Along with the polling memo was a second document outlining a strategy for approaching the legislative session. It focused on “the lay of the land” in which Republicans hold the governorship and control of both the state House and Senate, leaving advocates for progressive causes “out in the cold.” It urged advocates to wage a rearguard action of obstruction and provocation to “lose forward.” Those tactics, is said should include video tracking of Republicans looking for gotcha moments and efforts to exploit tensions between Republican lawmakers and to provoke McCrory’s alleged tendency to be “thin-skinned.”

Conservatives have long maintained that liberals who attack Art Pope for his network of nonprofit conservative groups promote their liberal politics through a network of progressive groups. Some of the groups are funded by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem that is headed by Leslie Winner, a former Democratic state senator.

The Blueprint email appeared to offer smoking gun evidence of the conservatives’ charge. But now Blueprint’s executive director, Sean Kosofsky, says his group may have been a victim of a political dirty trick. Blueprint sent the polling memo in February, but the “lay of the land” memo was from a December gathering of groups and was not written by Blueprint. He said he doesn’t know who wrote it, but it did not reflect a coalition plan. It may have been written by a meeting participant, he said, who had a “lot of hubris.”

Kosofsky said that while he thinks many of the tactics in the memo are acceptable for groups lobbying for change, “It’s not our document.” He suggested that someone in the mode of conservative activist James O’Keefe may combined the documents and leaked them.

Whether it was liberal hubris or conservative skullduggery that brought the memos to light, the result is bad news for Blueprint and its members at a time when there’s little good news. The suggestion of overt political activity could bring questions from the IRS if the groups are violating their nonprofit tax status which limits them to issue advocacy.

And it could cause a problem with funding. Winner said of the memo focused on Republican leaders, “(W)e believe in debate on public issues, but we don’t believe in attacking people.”

Winner said she was “surprised and disappointed” by the plan. “I don’t know whether it was improper under their tax-exempt status. I just know it was bad judgment.” She said her board will be taking the matter “seriously.”

We may never know who linked and leaked the memos, but it’s clear that some of the advocacy groups, perhaps discouraged by their political setbacks, have flirted with sharp-edged tactics that are not proper in nonpartisan advocacy and certainly are not their forte.

With the Republicans ascendency, progressive groups have lost their influence on the governor and in the General Assembly. It would be unfortunate if this incident shows they’ve also lost their sense of fairness and of mission.

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