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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 NMPolitics.net 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.

In looking at RGF, Haussamen identified several areas of concern, including:

  • An incendiary keynote speech at a Tea Party rally given by the editor of the NM Watchdog website (a project funded by RGF).
  • RGF’s co-sponsorship, along with NM Turnaround PAC, of a candidate training school. (Turnaround PAC has received most of its funding from NM Republican party chairman Harvey Yates.  Susana Martinez’s campaign manager serves on the Turnaround PAC board.)

Now in all honesty, it has to be said that the Tea Party speech delivered by Jim Scarantino was a doozie — a real barnburner (there’s an audio link below). He riffs mightily about tyrants and scoundrels and crooks  who are intent upon imposing the yoke of corrupt big government on free market loving peoples. Even a near fatal gaffe, when he sticks Mel Brooks on the torture rack in place of Mel Gibson in the execution scene from the movie Braveheart, can’t break the spell.

“Freedom” cries the dying William Wallace in Scarantino’s speech, while the imagination can’t help but take a quick detour to Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

But as you listen to the speech, you can get a better idea of what Scarantino’s purpose was by reading the May 2010 Albuquerque Journal interview with his boss, Rio Grande Foundation President Paul Gessing:

“Right now of course a lot of the talk’s on trying to work with and maximize the effectiveness of the tea parties and keep them on message and try to help guide that whole thing without trying to manage it.”

Gessing and Glass Houses

What we do find most amusing is how Gessing, the Tea Party message master, took extreme umbrage at the questions raised about RGF in Haussamen’s story.

This was is what he wrote on the subject on RGF’s website, Errors of Enchantment:

The two non-profits are left-wing organizations King wants to register are left-wing groups New Mexico Youth Organized, which is a project of the Center for Civic Policy (CCP), and SouthWest Organizing Project maintain that mailers like this one  sent out two to three months before the 2008 [sic]. I am not going to say whether the activities of these two organizations strays over the legal line or not, you’ll have to decide that yourself, but what I will say is that the Rio Grande Foundation has never come close to the lines these organizations have so clearly pushed.

Got that?  Oh, and did he remember to mention that he thinks NMYO and CCP are “left-wing?”

Kind of gives the impression that Gessing is thinking that all he needs to do  is put the old “left-wing” double whammy hex into one sentence to convince his readers that the two organizations must be guilty of, oh I don’t know, going too far!

Name calling aside,  the only other thing I can divine from this is that Gessing is somehow suggesting that what differentiates RGF activities from NMYO/CCP’s and SWOP’s is the latter’s use “mailers.” Could this be what he means by “strays over the legal line?”

He would be well-advised to review the 10th Circuit’s decision.

In reality, it is the content and context of nonprofit communications that is really relevant here — not the means by which the message is delivered.

Consider, if you will, the ask.

The SWOP/NMYO mailers asked constituents to contact their legislators and to urge them to support particular types of legislation prior to an upcoming session of the legislature.

Now consider for a moment, what would be made of a hypothetical mailer with a quite different ask – one using the following actual message and words from the RGF/NM Watchdog Tea Party speech – a speech promoted on the NM Watchdog website:

It is true that under the leadership of Bill Richardson and Diane Denish, New Mexico is suffering through the worst period of corruption in its history.

This contagion of corruption has infected the entire ruling party. Sometimes it surprises me by the people it touches. Even Diane Denish.

We need the Tea Party’s help to stand up to this contagion of corruption that is hurting New Mexico, that is hurting our children.

Remember this. Because the blood of patriots had been shed for us, we do not need torches and pitchforks to secure and defend freedom. We only need to vote the bums out.

Just wondering.



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