March 11, 2019; Bangor Daily News
The term “social welfare” is used to describe the purpose of organizations granted 501c4 status by the IRS. One such organization is Maine People Before Politics (MPBP). Since its creation in 2011, MBPB has travelled an arc of significant growth, steep decline, and now rebirth. Throughout all of this, the circumstances have changed radically around the organization; in some ways, MPBP has changed with them, but not in others, and that points to how closely tied a “social welfare” agency often is to a specific political party.
According to a report this week in the Bangor Daily News, MPBP was recently relaunched and has ramped up activity after having gone almost completely dormant between 2016 and 2018. The organization’s current focus is on many of the hot-button issues associated with politically conservative groups. These include cutting taxes, reforming welfare, and changing the regulatory environment to be more attractive to businesses.
What has changed for the organization over the years is the political landscape. MPBP was formed in 2011, right after Paul LePage, a Republican, was elected as governor. LePage served two terms before being replaced in January of 2019 by Janet Mills, a Democrat. In 2011, one of MPBP’s founders was quoted as saying that the group will be “absolutely supportive of the governor’s policies.” Now, the “Latest” section of their website is filled with criticisms of the current governor’s policies. So, MPBP has changed its role and is now in the role of dissenter, not supporter of the current administration.
Where the organization has not changed over the years is in its very close ties to LePage and to the Republican Party. At times, it seems like MPBP is the place where former staff of Paul LePage go when they need a new job. When it was founded, it was actually a renamed and restructured version of the group known as LePage Transition 2010. It used funds left over from money raised for LePage’s inauguration and was led by two advisors to the governor’s campaign. John Savage and Brent Littlefield had done their job for LePage, and now took on MPBP in their new roles. A few years later, the organization had gone almost completely silent.
In its first five years of existence, it raised more than $1.1 million and was running radio and TV ads promoting Governor LePage’s agenda and policies. But in 2016, the funds raised dropped to $1,000, and to just $157 a year later. During that time, however, the organization paid another person close to the governor, LePage’s daughter Lauren, a total of more than $30,000. Although she was listed as working for 40 hours a week, she was enrolled in law school at the same time.
What did the organization do during Lauren LePage’s tenure as the executive director? It is impossible to tell, as the IRS Forms 990 filed annually by the organization between 2015 and 2018 do not list any activity at all in Part III (Statement of Program Service Accomplishments).
In 2019, the group is undergoing a “reboot and reorganization,” according to the new director of policy and communication, Julie Rabinowitz. Her previous position was as LePage’s press secretary. The organization’s new Director of Operations is Michael Hersey, considered a top political ally of the former governor. Littlefield is still with the organization as the media advisor. As for the governor himself, although he has moved to Florida he is listed as the “honorary chair” of MPBP.
Following their tenure at MPBP, employees have remained active. Ms. LePage managed the gubernatorial campaign for Shawn Moody, who failed in his bid, losing to Governor Mills. She has since gone on to be a lobbyist for the NRA. Savage is now executive director of the Republican Party in Maine. He has run into trouble for owning a website that may have interfered in a local election and for nonpayment of income tax.
According to the IRS, a 501c4 organization must be operated exclusively to “promote social welfare.” Lobbying on behalf of a piece of legislation, raising awareness about legislative issues, and educating the public all fall within that category of work. According to that, it would appear that MPBP falls within the definition of social welfare organization. It is not a PAC, but its ties to conservative causes, LePage’s political career, and the Republican Party in general are very strong. What’s more, it receives funds to support its particular cause without having to reveal its donors’ names. That’s where the terms “social welfare” and “benefit to the common good” become a little hazy.—Rob Meiksins