September 9, 2011; Source: St. Petersburg Times | When nonprofits become holding pens for politicians who just lost their last campaigns, places to wait and think until the time for the next campaign occurs, something is a bit wrong. In Florida, Jeb Bush created a nonprofit “think tank” after he lost his first race for governor. The think tank, according to the St. Petersburg Times, “helped keep his profile elevated and sharpened his education policy chops before he won the governor’s race on his second try.”
Now, Democrat Alex Sink, who lost to Republican Rick Scott in the 2010 race for governor, has created her own think tank, the Florida Next Foundation. Its ostensibly nonpolitical purpose is “to gather research and data from around the state and the globe to help boost Florida’s economy, with a focus on small business and entrepreneurs,” So far Sink is choosing not to reveal whether she will run again for governor in 2014. She explained that she doesn’t “think that [it’s] good for our state . . . [if she would] go hide under the covers and do nothing.” Leading Florida Next will be Sink’s former chief of staff (and also her top campaign adviser) Jim Cassady, and the board will feature Sink’s husband, Bill McBride (who also once ran for governor), and Richard Swann, who was Sink’s campaign finance chairman.
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O.K., so Jeb Bush used his time in nonprofit exile to craft his ideas on privatizing public education. Sink appears to be hoping that her new think tank will give her a small business / job creation profile. It is highly doubtful that Jeb Bush discovered any truly unique insights into education policy that had not been devised and field-tested many times over by other nonprofit education policy shops. Given the derivative nature of all job proposal legislation that uses “small business and entrepreneurship” as a magic talisman, Sink’s nonprofit is similarly unlikely to have many “Eureka!” moments while she and her campaign staff wait for 2014.
Legitimate 501(c)(3)s are not supposed to be rubber rooms for campaign staff to cool their heels until their bosses’ next campaign. We criticized this practice when we uncovered it in the staffing of candidate John McCain’s Reform Institute nonprofit in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election. The Reform Institute may have had some good moments, just as Jeb Bush may have come away from his think tank with some useful ideas on education, and just as Sink may find that her nonprofit gives her some good suggestions on job creation in Florida. But “place where campaign staffers can kill time until the next election cycle” does not sound like much of a nonprofit purpose.—Rick Cohen