Recently, the Washington Post revealed the multiple connections of one Linda Chavez; her husband, Christopher Gersten; and her sons, Pablo and David Gersten, in a number of 501(c)(3) nonprofits and political action committees (PACs). Chavez and the Gerstens drew multiple salaries for themselves and often delivered little in the way of program resources to constituents or, in the case of PACs, their intended political beneficiaries. It is a story of the well-connected taking care of themselves, but hardly those they claim to serve.
This Linda Chavez is not the AFL-CIO’s vice president, Linda Chavez-Thompson, but rather the longtime conservative activist and Fox News pundit. Burnished by her past as a Democrat and a former labor activist as well as a close aide to Al Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers, this Chavez has well more than a dozen conservative nonprofits for which she works or sits on a board of directors or advisory board. In addition to her Fox News stints, the public knows Chavez as the staff director at the U.S. Civil Rights Commission for President Ronald Reagan and as President George W. Bush’s onetime nominee as Secretary of Labor until it was discovered that she housed and employed an undocumented immigrant. Or maybe they remember her invective- and innuendo-filled run for the Maryland Senate seat now held by Barbara Mikulski.
The Post discovered that Chavez and her family had turned their constellation of nonprofits into a family business of sorts, collecting moderate salaries at several of these organizations to add up to a tidy sum and a comfortable living (the Post didn’t reveal what Chavez made from her Fox News gigs or her husband’s total income or her kids’ lawyer salaries). Over the past five years, Chavez’s four PACs (the Republican Issues Committee, the Latino Alliance, Stop Union Political Abuse, and the Pro-Life Campaign Committee) have paid her husband and sons $261,000 while delivering relatively little in the way of results: in one case, only 1 percent of revenue, to their programs. The Post didn’t note that she is or has recently been a compensated board member of Greyhound Lines, ABM Industries, and Pilgrim’s Pride.
Chavez herself heads the Center for Equal Opportunity (CEO), a 501(c)(3), which in 2004 paid her $70,000, though her salary was higher in previous years—as much as $136,000. Son David got another $83,000 as the Center’s vice president of development, and Chavez’s husband, Christopher, got $64,000 from the nonprofit Institute for Religious Values. The Center operates with a mission similar to that of Ward Connerly’s American Civil Rights Institute, calling for a color-blind society, and end to affirmative action, no assistance based on one’s race, creed or color, and rapid-fire assimilation of non-English-speaking immigrants into American society. Fighting for these causes continues Chavez’s work from years ago, when she was among one of the executive directors of U.S. English, the nonprofit founded by California state senator S.I. Hayakawa to make English the official national language of the nation. Besides running CEO, she also heads what appears to be a CEO affiliate called the Institute for Research in English Acquisition and Development (READ), apparently dedicated to promoting English immersion and that discourages bilingual education.
In the Post article, Chavez was pretty nonchalant about the fact that her family has earned a living from PACs and nonprofits that deliver relatively little, attributing the winnings to the challenges of raising money. Her argument: If they all marched over to Wall Street—assuming that someone would employ them—they could make a lot more money in business than by skimming salaries from tax-exempt organizations.
But Chavez has been a mainstay among conservative nonprofits, and her family business has included some of the nation’s highest-profile right-wing avatars. Chavez and her family, for example, also run One Nation Indivisible, the political 501(c)(4) arm of the Center for Equal Opportunity, with occasional indications of small payments to Gersten in its otherwise opaque 990 filings.
And that’s just the beginning of the right-wing connections. Along with Reagan-era Attorney General Edwin Meese, Judge Robert Bork, and Kenneth Starr, Chavez is a member of the policy board of the American Civil Rights Union, an organization fighting against the “outrages” of the American Civil Liberties Union. At the Independent Women’s Forum, she sits on the board with Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, and Wendy Gramm, wife of former Texas Republican Senator Phil Gramm. Chavez also sits on the national advisory board with the likes of Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao (formerly head of the United Way of America), conservative screed author Laura Ingraham, and Abigail Thernstrom of the Manhattan Institute (who also sits on the board of Chavez’s CEO). Chavez was and may still be a member of the Capital Research Center’s national advisory committee, where Ed Meese, among others, serves on the board. With Thernstrom, Heather MacDonald, and Ken Starr, she’s also on the policy board of the Center for the American Experiment.
Considered one of the elite spokespersons for the conservative cause, Chavez mounts plenty of platforms from which she rails against the faults of modern society, bilingualism, and more. In February 2005, at the very serious and thoughtful Vision and Philanthropy symposium at the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, Chavez engaged in a spirited discussion of the conservative vision for America, along with a panel that included Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation, David Keene of the American Conservative Union, and Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. In response to a question about how philanthropy should address contemporary culture in the United States, Chavez launched into what can only be described as a diatribe against society. Her thoughts are worth quoting at some length:
It’s very clear that when conservatives are talking about the kind of degradation that has taken place in our culture . . . one of the things that most concerns people is the sexualization of our culture. . . . I would contend that in the culture wars, they are burning down our houses, and it is—we are being infected. It isn’t a matter of simply people making free choices to imbibe or not imbibe in the culture; it is all around us, and it invades our homes, it invades our lives in ways over which we have little control . . . I think it is more than just the sexualization of our culture. . . . Multiculturalism is now the reigning orthodoxy . . . [M]ulticulturalism is very much part of everyday life. . . . I would define the culture broadly. It isn’t just about sex; it is about some of these other issues defining our community. . . . [T]he number of immigrants coming into the country has affected our sense of community, has affected how we define ourselves; the notion of an Anglo-American culture that everybody buys into is very much a thing of the past.
Chavez railed against the intrusion posed by modern music when she’s driving in her car, the sexuality that’s evident when she visits shopping malls, and the forces of sexually tinged multiculturalism to which she is a captive audience. But allied with the crooks of the Bush administration, Chavez doesn’t rail at all against the corruption of the political system. Consider her abuse of PACs generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines from the Federal Election Commission; her tortured explanations to distinguish her relationship with an undocumented immigrant from Zoë Baird’s “nanny problem”; or her unflagging defense of George W. Bush. Add to these silences her failure to disclose her role as an unpaid adviser to the Bush presidential campaign while writing laudatory syndicated op-ed columns about the candidate.
It’s all about the family business. Chavez may not have gotten her Department of Labor job, but her husband landed a position as principal deputy assistant secretary for the Children and Families division in Tommy Thompson’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). It is worth noting that while he was at HHS, Gersten launched President Bush’s Healthy Marriage Initiative, but he left in 2004 to create his own public-policy coalition: the Fatherhood and Marriage Leadership Institute, neatly acronymed as “FAMLI.”
The daughter of a Mexican-American father, Linda Chavez’s first book was titled Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation. In fact, while her nonprofit history includes service with several organizations that have been associated with anti-immigrant messages, Chavez takes pains to emphasize that she isn’t anti-immigrant—to the point of antagonizing her far-right counterparts on immigration reform. Her stance is that immigrants should shed their language and assimilate as fast as possible in order to become true Americans. By virtue of her various nonprofit connections, multiple salaries, family job connections, and more, Chavez herself has absorbed as well as anyone how to make the tax-exempt structure work quite well for herself and her family.
1 Matthew Mosk, “In Fundraising’s Murky Corners: Candidates See Little of Millions Collected by Linda Chavez’s Family,” the Washington Post, August 13, 2007.
4 Maureen Dowd, “Razor-Edged Race for Maryland Seat,” the New York Times, October 21, 1986.
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11 In a shifting array of nonprofit identities at her disposal, Chavez identified herself as a member of One Nation Indivisible when she testified in 2005 in front of Congress against bilingual ballot provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
14 Cf. Bill Berkowitz, “The Capital Research Center at 20: Defunding Progressive Organizations Drives DC-Based Institute ,” the Dissident Voice, January 11, 2005.
16 Vision and Philanthropy: A Bradley Center Symposium, The Hudson Institute, 2005.
17 Don Wycliff, “Coming Clean: Should a Columnist Make Full Disclosure?” the Chicago Tribune, January 11, 2001; Michael Roberts, “Cabinet Reject Linda Chavez Is Making the Most of Her Public Humiliation,” Denver Westword, February 8, 2001; and Tim Jones, “Chavez May Turn Controversy into Opportunity,” the Chicago Tribune, January 11, 2001.