Monday, April 8, 2013

ROUNDHOUSE ROUNDUP: That's the Ticket!

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican 
April 7, 2013

Remember “Tommy Flanagan,” that character played by Jon Lovitz on Saturday Night Live a few decades ago? Flanagan was the guy who tended to make up outrageous stories, then, as if to reassure himself, mutter, “Yeah, that’s the ticket!”

Lovitz as Tommy Flanagan
I thought of Flanagan when reading the Santa Fe Reporter last week. It was the article about New Mexico Prosperity, a new nonprofit classified as a 501(c)4, a “social welfare organization” that by law must be dedicated to “the common good and general welfare of the people of the community.”

So, what’s wrong with that? Couldn’t a poor state like New Mexico use a few organizations dedicated to social welfare?

Sure, but, the Reporter got hold of a 12-page document outlining the purpose for Prosperity New Mexico. Its goals, according to this report, were taking back the Governor’s Office, “protecting” potentially vulnerable incumbent Democratic legislators, candidate recruitment, “rapid response” efforts, polling, focus group, direct mail, etc. Nothing wrong with that — if you’re the Democratic Party. But not a “social welfare organization.”

The “Organizational Structure” section of the document says, “New Mexico Prosperity will be structured as a 501(c)4 entity. This allows us to accept unlimited contributions with limited reporting obligations.”

Oh my.

“Once each election cycle formally begins, we will form a ‘Super PAC’ that will be used for all electoral activities,” the document continued. “We will still not be limited by contribution limits, but at that time, we will need to disclose all contributions received to the New Mexico Secretary of State.”

Another super-PAC. Just what we need for the social welfare of New Mexico.
When confronted by the Reporter about the overtly political nature of the group outlined by the document, Prosperity’s director, Jon Lipshutz — no, not Lovitz — had a quick reply for the Reporter: The nonprofit’s mission had changed sometime between that document was written (which was after the November election) and in mid-February, when the group registered with the Public Regulation Commission. That silly document with all that political stuff was just a “preliminary” document, Lipshutz said. The mission has changed.

I’d have loved to have heard that conversation: “You know guys, there’s something about all this polling and opposition research and protecting incumbents that just doesn’t seem right. Why don’t we just become a group that advocates for the common good and general welfare of the people of the community?”

Yeah, that’s the ticket!

But before the Republicans start their self-righteous dance, which they’re so good at, Prosperity New Mexico wouldn’t be the first 501(c)4, “social welfare organization” to be involved in politics in New Mexico. 

Just to name one, there’s Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, which ran several television commercials for GOP senatorial candidate Heather Wilson last year, is a 501(c)4.

I spoke to Lipshutz last week. He didn’t dispute anything in the other paper’s article. “We’re a 501(c)4, so we’ll certainly abide by regulations laid out by the IRS,” he said.

Asked about the apparent political nature of Prosperity, Lipshutz, who last year worked for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee until he started his new organization, said, “There are elected officials in New Mexico who want to prevent New Mexico from moving forward.” He said Prosperity’s goal is to focus on issues, inform the public and engage them to “work for change.”

Which still sounds a lot like trying to get voters to vote for the candidates you like and against the ones you don’t.

In this murky post-Citizens United political world, Prosperity is just one of untold numbers of nonprofits fuzzying up that fine line between issue advocacy and partisan politics. 

Something tells me it’s not going to get much better.