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Giving is not the same thing as buying. Donors can’t buy their way into puppet-master status -- whether they’re cutting checks to nonprofits or to politicians. Those who claim otherwise tempt donors to become narcissists, and encourage critics to become hysterics.

Exhibit A: Jane Mayer of the New Yorker. Famed for her shrill attack last year on the billionaire Koch brothers, Mayer recently gave birth to a sequel, Nightmare on Koch Street 2, starring North Carolina funder Art Pope, who heads the John William Pope Foundation in Raleigh.

This latest hit piece was subtly titled, “State for Sale: A conservative multimillionaire has taken control in North Carolina, one of 2012’s top battlegrounds.” An equally subtle cartoon of Art Pope shows him with a mountain of cash spilling out of one pocket and the state of North Carolina stuck firmly in another.

The article overflows with details about how Pope, his family, his family’s foundation, and his family’s business have invested millions in public policy and political efforts. You’re supposed to conclude that Pope has now bought the state, because he and his allies’ donations supported conservative and Republican causes, and in 2010 the Republicans won both houses of the North Carolina legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.

Alas, Mayer and the leftish donors and activists she quotes don’t understand how markets work. When an item is “for sale” and two men walk in, the man who shells out more money gets to put it in his pocket. If the man who offers less money walks out with the item instead, then something other than a sale has occurred. Perhaps it was the second man’s good looks or his persuasive pleas that won the day, but it certainly wasn’t his wallet. Similarly, in North Carolina’s last elections, Pope and his allies saw their rival donors outspend them by millions of dollars. If Pope’s side gained a victory, something besides a market transaction took place.

Mayer’s overheated article doesn’t belong in the New Yorker; it’s really National Enquirer material. It follows the tabloid’s hoary formula, “Tell a banal truth in a hysterical way.” You know how that works: when some plodding researcher publishes the umpteenth study that finds you can strengthen your immune system by regularly drinking water, a tabloid editor posts the headline, “SCIENTISTS DISCOVER MIRACLE CURE YOU ALREADY HAVE IN YOUR HOUSE!”

Here’s my favorite example of this technique from Mayer’s article. Referring to a nonprofit that Pope funds, she writes:

Though Civitas is ostensibly nonpartisan, its sister organization, Civitas Action … is organized under a different part of the tax code, which allows it to sponsor hard-hitting election ads.

Translated into donor-speak, this means that Civitas is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that also has a (c)(4) organization attached to it – which is staggeringly commonplace. So much so that it’s a cliché for the (c)(4) to have “Action” in its name: MoveOn.org Civic Action, Immigration Equality Action Fund, etc. A quick search turns up 36 different Action Funds created by Planned Parenthood alone. It would be far easier to count the (c)(3)s engaged in controversial issues that do not have a (c)(4) arm than those that do, and even the sleepiest trade associations typically have a (c)(4) too.

More importantly, Mayer’s peers on the left are obsessed with pushing this multi-prong strategy for their causes. NonprofitAction.org, which shares a telephone and address with left-of-center OMB Watch, has a whole website instructing nonprofits on how to use every means possible to move political outcomes to the left. Here’s one of its offerings:

The Connection: Strategies for Creating and Operating 501(c)(3)s, 501(c)(4)s, and Political Organizations from the Alliance for Justice sets out the legal lay of the land for nonprofits seeking to expand their advocacy activities. It covers different kinds of tax-exempt organizations, detailing what advocacy activities each can do and how they can be affiliated under rules in federal tax and election statutes.

But don’t stop there. “See the Alliance for Justice Sample Cost Sharing Agreement between 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) organizations” so you, too, can spread your wealth between the “ostensibly nonpartisan” and the “hard-hitting” electioneering wings of your operation. Entire sections of this website are devoted to “Lobbying” and “Nonprofits Can Help America Vote!” Particularly helpful for Mayer’s North Carolina reporting would be the Guide to State Advocacy for all 50 states – “Click on your state for a one-stop advocacy resource!”

At one point Mayer concedes that “the use of ostensibly nonpartisan advocacy groups has been proliferating on both the left and the right,” but she refuses to give readers a clear portrait of this phenomenon in North Carolina. She stresses the datapoint that Pope and groups he’s affiliated with made $2 million in “independent” expenditures in 2010 state legislative races, which accounted for three-quarters of the independent giving that cycle. When Rachel Maddow interviewed Mayer on MSNBC, she harped on this datum even more loudly, and the echo chamber at Huffington Post reverberated with the same scary number:

Pope, Maddow said, was linked to "three-quarters of all the independent money" that helped elect a Republican-controlled legislature in the state. "He targeted 22 races, he got a Republican into office in 18 of those 22 races. One guy, three-quarters of the outside money in the entire election, one guy," said Maddow.

But Mayer, Maddow, and HuffPo never bother to mention that Pope was not the largest donor to all those “affiliated” groups. Far more importantly, Mayer never bothers to reveal that the $2 million/“three-quarters of the outside money!” was merely one-fifteenth of the total political spending for those races. While breathlessly repeating every number she can find about Pope and his friends’ giving, Mayer suppresses these more important numbers, all much larger than $2 million:

--the total political giving in those races from all sources: $30 million

--the outspending of Democrats over Republicans ($16 million to $14 million)

Nor does Mayer make any attempt to total up the spending done by left-wing versus right-wing public policy groups in North Carolina, which would show an even larger skewing toward the left, though in her single concession to context and accuracy, Mayer does quote Art Pope saying that the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation spends more money than he does, most of it going to “progressive social-welfare organizations.” (In the previous election cycle, the John Locke Foundation, a Pope-funded think tank, calculated that the left outspent the right by roughly three to one in (c)3 + (c)4 policy-oriented giving.)

Mayer’s portrait of Pope is sharply defined and ugly; her portrait of North Carolina and its left-of-center donors, almost nonexistent. Yet Mayer lacks any excuse for not providing the numbers – other than the fact that they make her thesis laughable – because Pope and various staffers at organizations he funds spent many hours submitting to interviews, phone calls, and emails from Mayer and the New Yorker, during which they repeatedly presented her with all the data. As Pope told me:

I talked to her extensively about the left-wing foundations that give far more. The biggest one, Z. Smith Reynolds, gives to left-wing groups like Democracy North Carolina, Common Cause, and Blueprint North Carolina, which had “voter contact plans,” “voter mailers,” “get out the vote” projects, and so on. John Hood at the John Locke Foundation independently told her the same thing. She had only 1 sentence on it.
     Here in North Carolina we probably have the best and best-funded policy fights of any state in America. I didn’t tell her, “We’re fine, but the other side is breaking the law and buying the state.” I said, “We’re both doing it legally and having a vigorous fight.”
     That’s the real story, and she refused to write about it.

Again, Mayer doesn’t have to abandon her leftish pals in order to be honest about this. She could have quoted numerous left-wing groups about the powerful work being done in all the legal subdivisions of giving by left-of-center donors who want to persuade North Carolinians on state issues.

The write-ups from left-of-center groups include a gushing report from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP): Impacts of Advocacy, Organizing, and Civic Engagement in North Carolina. The report examines 13 “progressive” nonprofits and their funding from 2003-2007. It never mentions the evil Pope empire, but it repeatedly lauds the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and similar funders of public policy advocacy. It notes that Blueprint North Carolina, a powerful left-wing collaborative, was organized by the foundation and consists of dozens of politically active nonprofits that invest in

civic and voter engagement, messaging and strategy development, building the base of socially responsible voters and activists….

Nor need Mayer fear that these numerous anti-Pope groups lack for multimillion-dollar foundations to keep them at the barricades. State and regional funders that have supported just the 13 groups in the study include, but are not limited to,

the A. J. Fletcher Foundation, Community Foundation of Western NC, Fund for Southern Communities, Hispanics in Philanthropy-NC, Kate B. Reynolds Foundation, Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, NCGives, NC Health and Wellness Trust Fund, NC Humanities Council, Southern Partners Fund, Triangle Community Foundation, Winston-Salem Foundation, and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. Others mentioned in the report that support advocacy and civic engagement include Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro, Cemala Foundation, Moses Cone-Wesley Long Community Health Foundation, Tannenbaum-Sternberger Foundation and Weaver Foundation. It is admirable that these funders have exercised leadership to support civic engagement and policy change to improve North Carolina communities. This list is not comprehensive….

Another left-of-center source for Mayer – who would have readers believe that no American donor before Art Pope ever focused on state policy – comes from the Proteus Fund, a pass-through charity used by “progressive” donors the same way as the more notorious Tides Foundation. Half a decade ago, Proteus launched an entire project called the “State Strategies Fund.” A report on “six emerging collaborative state projects” prepared for a 2007 Proteus meeting is full of the work being done in, yes, North Carolina and five other states by “state organizations that began as pressure groups to advance progressive values.”

This report, too, focuses on Blueprint North Carolina, whose “political frame has created a bond among the North Carolina groups.” Ms. Mayer may be scandalized to learn that “a group of Blueprint and other organizations that have c-4s have been meeting regularly to share ideas and strategies.” The work is so dicey that Blueprint had to circulate a Memorandum of Understanding for groups to sign, swearing that “Blueprint groups must not use any Blueprint tools and resources [for] non-c-3-permissible purposes.” Of course, “all the participating groups use voter files as a key ingredient of their work.”

Whose voter files, you ask? Why none other than the state-of-the-art voter files provided by Catalist, the firm used by Democratic presidential candidates and the Democratic National Committee. Writing a year before the 2008 elections, Proteus lauds Blueprint North Carolina’s “Civic Engagement Plan,” which “focuses on increasing voter participation and building leadership capacity to encourage learning, advocating and voting on issues, including holding elected officials accountable. Success will be measured through organizational capacity and increased voter turnout.”

Then there’s the George Soros empire’s keen interest in North Carolina, which Pope and others documented for Mayer. She could have reported some of the relevant material from Soros.org, where in January 2010, the Open Society Foundations explained how their Democracy and Power Fund is especially eager to invest in North Carolina and Texas to the tune of $2 million (there’s that number again) per year. The Soros group was drawn to North Carolina and Texas for, among other reasons, their “rapidly changing political environments,” their “strong state-based organizations” that have “won impressive recent advocacy victories,” and their “engaged local donor communities.”

Mayer doesn’t want you to know about the lively battle for North Carolina’s hearts and minds, but Soros’s Democracy and Power Fund relishes the same competition that Art Pope delights in. The Open Society Institute funds the Institute for Southern Studies, for example, whose year-old attacks on Pope are rehashed by Mayer (compare this ISS piece with the opening paragraphs of Mayer’s essay). The Democracy and Power Fund, which recently advertised for a full-time program officer to handle just North Carolina and Texas, also supports:

--the North Carolina Justice Center, which incubated Blueprint North Carolina ($50,000 in 2010)

--Democracy North Carolina, which “uses research, organizing, and advocacy to increase voter participation” ($100,000)

--Blueprint North Carolina, which – surprise – is also “improving non-partisan voter participation” ($75,000)

--the North Carolina NAACP ($125,000)

--the Southern Coalition for Social Justice ($75,000)

--the North Carolina Latino Coalition ($75,000)

If Mayer tires of North Carolina, she can move on to a number of other states where one billionaire and some millionaire pals have relentlessly focused on state legislature races and racked up amazing victories, including having their favored political party gain control of both houses of the Colorado legislature for the first time in four decades. She can read about it in the Atlantic, which has never been tainted with Art Pope’s money (see “They Won’t Know What Hit Them”). The donor is Tim Gill, America’s largest backer of homosexual causes, who has both a foundation and the (c)(4) Gill Action Fund.

The article explains that Gill, the largest political donor in Colorado, has “formed an alliance with three other major donors.” Unlike Art Pope and his outspent friends, the Gill team of funders in the last off-year elections “built a kind of information-age political machine that enabled Democrats to outspend Republicans for the first time in years.” Like Pope, Gill saw his side take over the legislature in a state that had voted for the other party in the last presidential election. (For more on Gill’s giving, see this Salon report.)

Perhaps the best way for Mayer to stop hyperventilating over Art Pope’s machinations would be to read an article written a few years ago on George Soros. This essay also appeared in the New Yorker, and it took Soros’s tens of millions of giving to politically “independent” groups calmly in stride. The sophisticated author of the piece pooh-poohed those Republicans who “explained Soros’s involvement with simpleminded shorthand, suggesting that he wanted to own the White House.”

Who wrote that? Who realized that even billionaires can’t simply buy voters?

You guessed it: Jane Mayer.

FOOTNOTE: For a less jaundiced view of Art Pope’s giving, see John J. Miller’s “The Fisherman’s Friend.” Pope responded to Mayer here. John Hood of the John Locke Foundation responded to Mayer here and here, and more amusingly, he anticipated her article 19 months ago in this essay, which could be a spoof of her diatribe. The Chronicle of Higher Education published a harsh criticism of Mayer’s “poor journalism,” and even the Columbia Journalism Review raised its eyebrows over her “guilt-by-association.” The non-conservative local press offered numerous criticisms of Mayer that I lack space to detail; for instance, here. The Raleigh News & Observer flatly declared, “North Carolina isn’t in Pope’s pocket.”

UPDATE: Powerline's John Hinderaker linked to this post and urged readers to comment at Jane Mayer's blog, demanding she respond to this critique.

7 thoughts on “Donors, not puppet-masters”

  1. Drew Anderson says:

    A good and well-reasoned response to Jane Mayer’s poorly researched, biased and unfair attack on Mr Pope.

  2. James says:

    Great job. Its wonderful to see dishonest journalists taken to task by true professionals.

  3. Sherri Smith says:

    Thank you for showing them up in their deviousness—these so called “journolist” out-number the fair and balanced 10-1. We have to keep fightning.

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