Line Dance: Nonprofits, Campaigns and the Rio Grande Foundation

There’s a peculiar sidebar to the legal battle that has pitted Attorney General Gary King against New Mexico’s nonprofit organizations.  You know, that’s the one in which U.S. Tenth Circuit Court recently ruled in favor of two of the nonprofits – the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) and New Mexico Youth Organized (NMYO) .

In a recent Albuquerque Journal op ed, Sara Berger, the attorney for the two nonprofits, explained the outcome of the case:

The Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling was a decisive and unambiguous decision — one that affirms the right of free speech for all nonprofits.

For the two groups involved in the lawsuit, the Tenth Circuit’s decision was a total vindication — and a firm rebuke to critics who publicly doubted any nonprofit organizations’ right to hold public officials accountable and to advocate for those they serve.

What constitutes political campaign intervention?

Heath Haussamen of also devoted an in-depth piece to the facts and issues in the 10th Circuit’s decision. In addition, he examined the specific activities that had prompted the allegations against SWOP and NMYO, and contrasted these to what another New Mexico nonprofit, the Rio Grande Foundation (RGF), has been doing.

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Targeting Nonprofits: The Tides Foundation this time — with real bullets

First on Fox. One of the impacts of last week’s media firestorm over Andrew Breitbart’s most recent smear involving doctored videos (the ACORN deception was the first) was to overshadow another important story with a Fox connection.   The shocking tale of an “anti-government” gunman determined to launch an assault on Bay Area nonprofit organizations was almost totally buried.

The Shirley Sherrod story was beginning its week-long domination of several news cycles — starting with the Breitbart smear trumpeted on Fox, followed by her cowardly firing by the Administration, and finally her total vindication by mid-week when the full video of her previously edited speech was released. Meanwhile, a political assault of another, more ominous kind, was thwarted outside Oakland, California.

San Francisco Examiner:

Byron Williams, 45, of Groveland, was apparently headed to kill people at two nonprofits in San Francisco when CHP officers made an enforcement stop of his Toyota Tundra at 11:57 p.m. Saturday on westbound Highway 580 near Harrison Street.

When the officers tried to contact Williams, a 12-minute-long gun battle ensued. Williams, armed with three guns, including a .308-caliber rifle that can penetrate ballistic body armor and vehicles, eventually surrendered and exited the vehicle…

Williams was pulled over on his way to San Francisco to shoot members the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and Tides, an organization that advocates progressive social change through philanthropy, police said Tuesday…

It’s not clear why those two organizations were targeted except that conservative media commentators often accuse them of having left-wing agendas.

San Francisco Chronicle:

A 45-year-old parolee, described by his mother as angry at left-wing politicians, opened fire on California Highway Patrol officers on an Oakland freeway early Sunday and was hit by return fire while wearing body armor, authorities said…

Williams watched the news on television and was upset by “the way Congress was railroading through all these left-wing agenda items,” his mother said…

For those unfamiliar with the Tides Foundation, it’s a philanthropic organization that has provided funding to nonprofits engaged in economic and social justice work since 1976. The ACLU, of course, has for the last 90 years carried out its mission “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.”

Some obvious questions  arise: What “news” program was Williams watching that led him to conclude that the Tides Foundation had to be taken out in a hail of bullets? Why target the Tides Foundation? Where would he get such an idea to hit an organization little known outside the nonprofit sector?

The answer?  The odds are overwhelming that Williams had been watching the Fox News Channel.

According to research from Media Matters, since the premier of Glenn Beck’s show on January 2009, “Tides has been mentioned on 31 editions of Fox News programs, 29 of which were editions of  Beck’s show (the other two were on Sean Hannity’s program). In most of those references, Beck attacked Tides, often weaving the organization into his conspiracy theories. Two of those Beck mentions occurred during the week before Williams’ shootout.”

Only on Fox

“By contrast, since January 19, 2009, according to our Nexis search, Tides was not mentioned on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, or PBS. Not once. This search is not perfect — Nexis does not include, for example, MSNBC’s daytime coverage. But the contrast with Beck’s coverage is stark.

If only the late historian Richard Hofstader could see the latest, and easily one of the vilest, manifestations of what he called “the paranoid style in American politics.” It’s easy to see how a paranoid personality like Williams’, when exposed to Beck’s all-encompassing world-historical narrative, might feel that his world was being turned upside down, that he had no other choice than to kill the people he been identified to him on Fox as the ones responsible for his feelings of oppression.

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AG Gary King Thinking About Continuing His Battle Against Nonprofits

By Tracy Dingmann

It is unfortunate that a recent appeals court ruling has apparently not dissuaded Attorney General Gary King from contemplating a continuation of unfounded legal action against nonprofits in New Mexico.

On June 30, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld in its entirety a lower court’s ruling that the state of New Mexico has no power to force two nonprofits to register as political committees. The court based its decision on the fact that the nonprofits’ central purpose isn’t campaign intervention, and that their election-related expenses don’t make up a preponderance of their budgets.

It was an unambiguous ruling that affirmed the traditional role of nonprofits and upheld their right to free speech.

But in a July 19 article on the website with Heath Haussamen, King was quoted as saying he is “quite honestly digesting that case and trying to decide” whether to appeal it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In August 2009, a judge ordered the state to pay the nonprofits some $72,000 in attorney’s fees accrued through that time. The estimate of fees accrued during the state’s appeal to the 10th Circuit is not in, and it is unknown how much an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court would cost state taxpayers.

In addition to considering a Supreme Court appeal, King hinted to Haussamen that he is also considering ways to revise the state’s Campaign Reporting Act that would still inappropriately regulate nonprofits who engage in protected speech. 

Not all nonprofits though – just the ones King has decided were formed for the purpose of campaigning, because they dare to exercise their right to hold public officials accountable.

From the Haussamen story:

King said he’s not out to require disclosure from groups such as the League of Women Voters or Association of Commerce and Industry, groups that “really do provide information to either the public or to their members, and it’s not campaigning.”

We know some elected officials don’t like being held accountable – and they complain bitterly when their voting records are called out. King knows it too – complaints from legislators whose voting records were publicized were what motivated him to pursue this failed case.

It may be true that New Mexico’s Campaign Reporting Act needs work. But somehow reconfiguring and torturing it to make sure it punishes and shuts up the nonprofits King doesn’t like is not the kind of reform we need.

Let Freedom Ring: Nonprofits React To Court Ruling

By Tracy Dingmann

The decision handed down yesterday by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver affirmed what most people already knew about nonprofits – that the advocacy in which they engage is a vital part of the important services they provide to their communities, as well as to society at large. (You can read a copy of the ruling here.)

When Secretary of State Mary Herrera, at the direction of Attorney General Gary King, ordered the SouthWest Organizing Project and New Mexico Youth Organized (a project of the Center for Civic Policy) to register as political committees back in 2008, the groups sued to assert their First Amendment rights. The case was never just about those two groups – it was always about the ability of all nonprofits to advocate for the rights of those they serve.

The state is already on the hook for more than $70,000 in attorney’s fees, plus untold more for the time state employees have spent on the case.  That doesn’t count the money spent – fees on the part of the attorneys for the nonprofits and times spent by state workers – appealing it at the 10th Circuit for the past eleven months.

In the wake of yesterday’s decision by the higher court, Clearly New Mexico asked nonprofit leaders in New Mexico and nationwide to share their feelings about what it means for the continued good works of all nonprofits.

Here’s what they said:

Larry Ottinger, president of the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest:

“Nonprofits are our nation’s best vehicles for broad civic engagement. The 10th Circuit’s decision in this important case means that nonprofit voices will not be silenced through unconstitutional acts intended to intimidate ordinary people from getting involved in public decisions that affect their lives. With the economic crisis and political polarization, nonprofit advocacy with and for those who need it most is more important than ever.”

Aaron Dorfman, executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy:

“There is mounting evidence that when nonprofits engage in advocacy and community organizing, it brings clear benefits to communities. This decision affirms the important role of nonprofits in the civic life of our nation, and I hope it encourages organizations to be bold in their advocacy on behalf of those with the least wealth, opportunity and power. The decision also sends a clear message to grantmakers that it is perfectly appropriate to invest in nonprofits engaged in advocacy.”

Joan Lamunyon Sanford, director of the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice:

“Requiring non-profit organizations to register as political committees would have required us to list all of our members and supporters. As an organization that advocates for reproductive justice in an atmosphere of increasing violence and intimidation, our members would have had to choose between their personal safety or supporting women’s reproductive justice.”

Hank Hughes, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness:

“This decision by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirms the legality of the important educational role that nonprofit organizations play in our democracy. This decision is important because it means nonprofit organizations can exercise free speech about their issues even when the information they have to share is not complimentary about people in power. And it means that nonprofits can tell it like it is without fear of being punished or closed down by people in the government who don’t like their message.”

Ron White, executive director of the New Mexico Association of Grantmakers:

“The 10th Circuit Court has provided, what I believe can genuinely be thought of as, a sane prescription for what the lower court described as a “politically infirm” action. Foundations, community groups, and nonprofits can now all breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that raising our voices on behalf of the environment or the marginalized or the need for support services for constituencies dear to our missions, is well within our rights. We should all be pleased that the right for nonprofits to engage in limited nonpartisan advocacy, which is guaranteed under our charter, has been sensibly affirmed with this ruling.”

First Amendment still stands in NM, despite AG appeal

The Center for Civic Policy is disappointed that New Mexico Attorney General Gary King has chosen to appeal the recent decision by United States District Court Judge Judith Herrera in favor of New Mexico Youth Organized (NMYO) and the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP).

“It’s unfortunate Attorney General Gary King – the top attorney in the state – refuses to acknowledge that the First Amendment applies the same in New Mexico as it does in the other forty-nine states,” said Matt Brix, policy director for the Center for Civic Policy – which sponsors NMYO. “Attorney General King’s actions spell trouble for all New Mexicans who care about free speech.”

King’s decision will needlessly cost the taxpayers of New Mexico, said George Lujan, communications director for SWOP.

“The Attorney General’s actions also spell trouble for all New Mexico taxpayers who are concerned about the waste of literally hundreds of thousands of additional dollars on irresponsible and pointless litigation,” said Lujan.

In her decision two weeks ago, Judge Herrera carefully explained why criticism of elected officials is not something that government can regulate, except in the narrow circumstance when the criticism occurs near an election and is accompanied by a plea to vote for or against a candidate.

It is dismaying that Attorney General King has chosen to ignore Judge Herrera’s decisive ruling on First Amendment rights and will instead subject taxpayers to more expensive and unnecessary litigation.

More thoughts on Charter Task Force

Sitting through a two-hour meeting is not usually my idea of fun. But I have to say that attending the highly-charged City Charter Revision Task Force meeting on April 23 was pretty fascinating.

Charter Task Force meetings are usually sparsely attended, but this one was packed. In the audience were representatives of at least a dozen non-profit organizations who showed up to speak in opposition to a proposed amendment that would severely affect their public education and advocacy work by forcing them to register as measure finance committees – the city’s equivalent of political committees.

The move at the city level was similar to a failed effort during the recent state legislative session that sought to force nonprofits to register as political committees.

Both city and state measures are widely considered to be retaliation against several nonprofits, including the Center for Civic Policy, for communications sent out last year to educate the public about the voting records of elected officials.  Some of the elected officials later lost their reelection bids.

So much was said, starting with the long line of advocates who spoke passionately about how the proposed amendment would negatively affect their organization’s mission and bottom line, not to mention limit their own free speech.

Then came a report from the city attorneys, who said the amendment was redundant and unnecessary.

Finally, the charter task force members got to speak.  Developer Chuck Gara said he spearheaded the amendment in the name of election transparency, not as an attack on non-profits.

A visibly frustrated Gara said he had called on the city attorneys several times to write an amendment that would allow him to keep “a couple of bad apples” from ruining “the whole bushel.” At the same time, Gara said, he had no desire to censor nonprofits or hamper their missions.

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City Charter Task Force: What the Journal Won’t Tell You

coaI had the honor of serving on Albuquerque’s City Charter Revision Task Force, along with 13 other dedicated individuals. Our group ranged across the political spectrum with diverse interests and was most professionally chaired by former State District Court Judge Wendy York.

Based on the Albuquerque Journal’s story and editorial this week, you’d think all we did over the past eight months, consisting of 17 full Task Force meetings and numerous subcommittee meetings, was argue over the issue of nonprofits – the topic with which the Journal is so clearly obsessed.

Amazingly, the Journal failed to mention – in both its news story and its editorial – that the Task Force actually killed the proposed nonprofit amendment to the City Charter sponsored by Chuck Gara for lack of support and because of gaping holes in its application and constitutionality.

That’s right. Gara’s amendment was withdrawn. Only after the amendment’s withdrawal did the Task Force cast a symbolic vote to request the City Council look at the nonprofit issue, just as the Council will consider the tens, if not hundreds of governance issues, when it takes up the Charter next month.  But if the Journal is your only news source, you could hardly be blamed for believing that the Task Force’s sole accomplishment over these past eight months was sending this nonprofit issue up to the Council for “action” — even though the amendment was killed.

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A Transforming Force — Enlace Communtario

Maria Eugenia Leon -- a promotora at Enlace Comunitario

Maria Eugenia Leon -- a promotora at Enlace Comunitario

Successful social programs don’t always take a whole lot of money.

Sometimes they just take a bit of thought and a whole lot of heart.

Consider the promotora program at Enlace Comunitario, an Albuquerque-based nonprofit that provides services and counseling to those in the city’s Spanish-speaking immigrant community who are victims of domestic violence.

The promotora (literally, promoter) concept has its roots in the culture of Central and South America, where trusted members of communities are trained to work as health paraprofessionals among their own people, identifying health programs and guiding people toward healthier lifestyles.

Increasingly, governments and agencies in the United States are using the promotora model of health education as a lower-cost, culturally-sensitive way to improve health and overall quality of life in migrant communities all across the country.

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