Rick Cohen

Two weeks ago, Linda McMahon, spouse of World Wrestling Entertainment owner Vince McMahon, won the GOP nomination for the Senate from Connecticut in an upset over former Congressman Rob Simmons.  Now, with no political experience herself, but with lots of money—enough to self-finance a campaign and then some—McMahon enters the ring against a very experienced Democratic opponent.

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There are the expected political differences between a conservative Republican candidate and a mainstream Democrat.  But what will the U.S. Senate smackdown between wrestling’s Linda McMahon and Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal mean for nonprofits—especially if McMahon’s tens of millions of dollars buy her way into a credible run for the seat? 

The state’s attorney general for nearly two decades, Blumenthal is a reasonably known quantity in the Nutmeg State, but McMahon has never held, has never run for, political office until vaulting to the Republican nomination. Though not one of the big state AG’s like New York’s or California’s, Blumenthal’s office has been reasonably active in pursuing questionable charity telemarketers and other typical state-level areas of nonprofit regulation and oversight.

For McMahon, the information of note to the nonprofit sector is skimpier.  There is no information to be gleaned from her occasional forays as a character in husband Vince’s soap opera-ish story lines which have had her at times sitting almost comatose in a wheelchair, at other times kicking Vince (and a WWE television commentator) in the you-know-where, and notably managing daughter Stephanie’s “I Quit” match against her father (Vince won by choking Stephanie with a pipe).  You can check out a lot of the fun here on Youtube. There’s nothing wrong with wrestling as a launching pad into politics—witness Jesse “The Body” Ventura in Minnesota. But wrestling doesn’t necessarily reveal much about nonprofit policy.

So what can we find out about Linda McMahon and the nonprofit sector?

Linda and Vince head the Vince and Linda McMahon Family Foundation,a  small foundation that ended calendar year 2008 with about $3.7 million in assets.  Its governance is short on outside input however, given a three-person board of Vince as President, Linda as Secretary/Treasurer, and WWE lawyer Jerry McDevitt as the non-family member of the governing body.  The cost of running the foundation is minimal, with total operating and administrative expenses of roughly $80,000 in contrast with $2.5 million in grantmaking in 2008.  One suspects that staff functions are performed by WWE staff as assigned by the McMahons.

Only five grants were paid during 2008, $1 million for the Fishburne Military School (Fishburne-Hudgins Educational Foundation) in Waynesboro, Va . (Vince McMahon is arguably FMS’s most famous alum), $1 million for the capital campaign of Sacred Heart University in Stamford, Conn., where Linda McMahon sits on the board of trustees, and $333,000 for East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. (the McMahons met while both attended East Carolina).  Approved for future payments were another $999,000 for East Carolina and $3 million for Sacred Heart.  In 2007, the foundation gave another million to Sacred Heart and $500,000 to the YMCA in Greenwich—$12,500 went to three other nonprofits to round out total giving that year.  In 2006, the big—and only—grant paid out was $2.525 million for the construction of a tennis facility for the Young People’s Community Center in Ebensburg, Penn. Vince McMahon’s mother, Vicki, is from Ebensburg and is a tennis enthusiast. 

In terms of their family philanthropy, Linda McMahon’s operation is closely held supporting only a handful of charities, most associated with the McMahon family, with grant support emphasizing capital expenditures. 

Linda McMahon also serves on the board of the Close-Up Foundation, which offers young people civic education experiences in field trips to Washington D.C.  Oddly, for a candidate running as a strong fiscal conservative during this era of Tea Party-tilting Republican candidates, McMahon’s Close Up Foundation has long given noncompetitive Congressional appropriations for its fellowships, $14.5 million between FY2000 and FY2007, including $3.85 million in FY2007. 

Just about every year, the federal budget calls for the elimination of the Close Up Foundation appropriations, but every year they slide in.  In President Obama’s FY2010 Education Department recommendations, there again was a recommendation to eliminate DOE’s Close Up Foundation funding, which in FY2009 was $1.9 million.  Guess what?  They were in the FY2010 budget, but President Obama’s FY2011 budget again calls for their elimination. 

Perhaps when McMahon calls for government cutbacks and the elimination of wasteful spending, she might be reminded that Presidents Bush and Obama unsuccessfully tried to prune the Close Up Foundation from the federal budget,with no noticeable evidence that she was a reengage Close Up board member asking that the foundation spurn the federal dough.

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As the co-owner of the WWE, McMahon got the corporation and its wrestlers actively involved in nonpartisan voter registration efforts targeted at 18 to 30 year olds, presumably the population cohort that most appreciates professional wrestling.  Its 2000 and 2008 campaigns used the tagline, “Smackdown Your Vote,” and partnered with entities such as Project Vote Smart and Rock the Vote.  If McMahon finds herself in the Senate and sounds less than enthusiastic about nonprofit voter registration and free speech activities, perhaps she could be reminded that their programs in this regard are no less valid and legitimate than the WWE’s. 

Connecticut is a strange state.  Instead of one major city, there are several medium-sized cities. Parts of it look like extensions of New York in the southwestern corner of the state, others look rural and bucolic in the east and northeast.  It has extremes of wealth and poverty, though the state overall is considered quite affluent.  The state government has a reputation for dysfunction, long teetering with budget deficits that on a per capita basis suggest Connecticut is chasing its big state counterparts for the title of nation’s worst fiscal crisis. 

No one might have suspected several months ago that the state might put the wife of Vince and mother of Stephanie and Shane into the U.S. Senate, but then who would have guessed that “The Body” Ventura would be elected governor of Minnesota?  It could happen.  If it does, McMahon’s rather thin nonprofit and philanthropic track record suggests she is going to need a lot of educational prepping on nonprofit issues.