February 25, 2013; Source: News & Observer

Based on our reading of the stories last week and this week, there appears to be a mix of faux outrage as well as some real issues concerning Blueprint North Carolina’s distribution of a memo outlining a legislative strategy to attack Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Pat McCrory. The 501(c)(3) Blueprint North Carolina describes itself as “a partnership of public policy, advocacy, and grassroots organizing nonprofits dedicated to achieving a better, fairer, healthier North Carolina through the development of an integrated communications and civic engagement strategy.” It clearly leans toward the progressive side of the ideological divide in politics. Note the inclusion of “an integrated communications and civic engagement strategy” in its mission. Doing so is critical to understanding the controversy that has erupted.

The memo given to the press included ideas for messaging and information on polling results. Blueprint Executive Director Sean Kosofsky acknowledged distributing the memorandum, but denied that Blueprint wrote it and hinted that “dirty tricks” might be involved. But after initially saying that Blueprint distributed the memo, Kosofsky later said he misunderstood a reporter’s question and that Blueprint in fact didn’t distribute the message; rather, he said, someone somehow “appended” the memo to other documents that Blueprint had in fact distributed.

Whether unwittingly or intentionally, we have a 501(c)(3) public charity sharing a strategy memo attacking officials of one political party. But, the organization says it didn’t generate the memo. So does this violate the ban disallowing public charities from engaging in partisan political activity? The North Carolina Republican Party thinks so and has filed a complaint that Blueprint is nothing more than an “arm of the Democratic Party…actively engaged in partisan political activities to further the goal of its preferred political party and political candidates.”

On the other side, the largely foundation-funded Blueprint denies being a tool of the Democratic Party. In 2011, Blueprint counted grants of $425,000 from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, $175,000 from Mott Philanthropic, $150,000 from the Open Society Institute, and $105,000 from the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation. The executive director of Z. Smith Reynolds expressed disappointment about the alleged distribution of the memorandum by its grantee.

We do not know all the particulars of what was or wasn’t in the memo in question, but Kosofsky said that the memorandum in question was circulated at a meeting of 50 or so progressive groups in December. For anyone who has ever attended meetings on political issues, there is usually a mix of (c)(3)s and (c)(4)s in the room, without participants wearing lapel pins identifying their IRS tax status. This leads us to wonder whether a more partisan group than Blueprint may have authored the memorandum.

If anyone thinks that there aren’t 501(c)(3)s that lean strongly toward one party or the other without necessarily being arms of the political parties, please look again. There are plenty of public charities that don’t engage in partisan electoral activities but whose policy positions simply overlap substantially with a particular political party. Still, there is no question that charities get themselves into trouble when they sidle too close to politicians. It leads to questions like the kinds of attacks that are now hitting Blueprint. There’s no problem at all with taking strong ideological positions, but falling prey to the political parties, which are often less about policy and more about politics, doesn’t help.

It is worthwhile for Blueprint to contribute to a vigorous political debate in North Carolina, taking politicians of all stripes to task with well reasoned policy analyses. It should not be shut up by insinuations that it is a part of one party’s political machinery—so long as it really isn’t.—Rick Cohen