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Endorsed by the CForward PAC, How Progressive Are the Nonprofit Eight?

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Headlined to H4 9/28/12

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The First PAC for the Nonprofit Sector--CForward

In September, eight nonprofit leaders running for elective office received the endorsement of CForward, the 501(c)(4) organization and PAC founded by Robert Egger, a nationally known nonprofit advocate, with a mission "To support candidates who provide detailed plans for how they would partner with nonprofits, social enterprise businesses and micro-credit programs to create jobs and strengthen the economy". The eight CForward candidates all met the minimum threshold criteria of having worked for a nonprofit, served on a nonprofit board, included mentions of nonprofits in their campaign materials and platforms, and committed to appointing  nonprofit liaisons.  

What does it mean to be a candidate from the nonprofit sector promoting the nonprofit sector?  Do their candidacies mean anything for addressing the societal inequalities that have deepened during the nation's persistent economic recession.  The "Nonprofit Eight" are as follows: 

Sean Sullivan, a candidate for the Oakland, Calif. City Council:  A 10-year employee of Covenant House and a homeless advocate whose campaign website says he led a successful campaign to create a community center for homeless youth in Oakland's Jack London Square, his platform calls for expanded job training programs for youth, incentives for small businesses, downtown and commercial corridor revitalization, a more visible police presence on Oakland's streets, and, in a "broken windows" twist, programs "to address the lighting, street cameras, blight and other issues that affect our safety."

Andy Dinniman, running for reelection as state senator in Pennsylvania's 19th District:  A former commissioner of Chester County, Dinniman's campaign website says he has "worked to reduce government spending and to reform taxes that hurt our businesses" and his platform includes lowering the state's corporate net income tax rate, but requiring energy corporations that are digging into the Marcellus Shale formation for natural gas to pay host communities for the impacts of their activities and for environmental clean-up.   

Becky Massey, running for reelection to the Tennessee state senate, 6th District:  The executive director of Sertoma Center, providing vocational training, part-time employment, and residential services for intellectually disabled adults, Massey's platform includes stopping government overspending, opposing a state income tax, supporting gun rights, and adding that she is "solidly pro-life".
   
Nate Shinagawa, candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, New York State's 23rd Congressional District:  A nonprofit hospital administrator at Robert Packer Hospital in Ithaca, he pledges to support the Affordable Care Act, require insurance companies to spend at least 85 percent of their revenues on direct health care services, reward companies that create jobs in the U.S. rather than exporting them overseas, and expand access to Pell grants and work-study opportunities to help relieve college students' graduation debt.

Kate Bolz, running for the 29th District state legislative seat in Nebraska:  Bolz is a professional social worker employed by the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest and a former legislative assistant at Lutheran Services in America.  Her campaign website has brief mentions of her positions on issues such as tax fairness to help middle class families and small businesses, rebalancing the school funding formula in Nebraska to reduce the pressure on property taxes, and training workers to overcome the skills gap.  

Ellie Hill, running for reelection to the state House of Representatives, District 94 in Montana:  In 2011, Hill resigned after five years as the executive director of the Poverello Center, a Missoula-based homeless program providing shelter, transitional housing, food, and outreach services.  Arguing that "corporations are not people," Hill says she will push for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision, gay rights (in her statement, she says she will promote state policies that "respect"every person's private decisions about forming intimate relationships," including it seems in a somewhat obliquely written passage, same-sex marriage), and efforts to reduce greenhouse gases causing contributing to climate change.

Jefferson Smith, running for mayor of Portland, Oregon:  Describing himself as a "nonprofit entrepreneur" who founded the Bus Project (providing voter registration, get out the vote, and civic leadership training for young people) before becoming a state legislator, Smith supports transferring public moneys out of national banks into locally-chartered nonprofit credit unions, taking aggressive steps to help homeowners resist foreclosures, and revamping police department procedures (in line with the impending release of ongoing investigations of the Portland police by the FBI and others).
  
Sam Singh, candidate for the Michigan state House of Representatives, District 69:  The former president and CEO of the Michigan Nonprofit Association, currently senior consultant to the foundation-created New Economy Initiative in Detroit,   and former mayor of East Lansing,  Singh may be the best known within nonprofit circles among the CForward-endorsements, with a platform endorsing LGBT rights to partner benefits and marriage equality, support for transfers of technology to entrepreneurial start-up businesses, increased state aid to public schools (as distinct from the current state governor's use of the School Aid Fund for other governmental functions and to cut corporate taxes).

Their platforms run from vague platitudes to highly specific policy proposals and, interestingly, from relatively politically progressive platforms (Singh and Hill for example expressly identify swaths of their platforms as "progressive") to relatively conservative (with emphases on cutting state spending and, in one case, avid support for gun rights and opposition to abortion rights).  One of the candidates--Tennessee's Massey--is identified as Republican, though a reading Dinniman's platform for suburban Chester County would make one think that he is a Blue Dog Democrat running from the Philadelphia suburbs.  

So what is it that really makes these people candidates warranting the endorsement of the what is apparently the nation's only nonprofit-specific PAC ? What makes them stand out from the dozens of people who CForward considered but ultimately didn't give its stamp of approval?  What will it mean to Singh in urban Michigan or Hill in largely rural Montana that they can brandish a statement of support from CForward?  And what do nonprofit-aligned candidates for public office mean for the tenor and content of American politics?

The Politics of a Nonprofit Candidate

CForward is new, an experiment predicated on a latent force of 10 million nonprofit employees and 50 million nonprofit volunteers who might be mobilized to vote for candidates seen as supportive of public charities and attentive to what nonprofits can contribute to the economic advancement of their communities. It doesn't necessarily say nor even imply that these candidates are, as Howard Dean put it, in the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.  

Sam Singh, a CForward-endorsed candidate for the Michigan state house of representatives, personifies the CForward notion of economic development through, or at least with the significant involvement of nonprofits.  Singh has been an adviser recently to  the New Economy Initiative, a foundation-sponsored effort to transform the economy of Southeastern Michigan, including Detroit, through high tech and other investments.  In theory, nonprofits play a pivotal role in NEI, with Singh seen as a knowledgeable promoter of the roles that nonprofits can play.  

Nevertheless, what makes a nonprofit candidate is difficult to pin down.  Given Michigan's disastrous economy, the Michigan legislature isn't going to be exactly dishing out hefty slices of the state budget for social and cultural programs linked to nonprofits.  Singh knows that, and argues that the even fiscally strapped states like his cannot succeed with a "cut, cut, cut" strategy.  Rather, he thinks his role in the legislature would press for "putting the right resources on the able"to provide the services the public wants."  Singh has garnered an array of from progressive causes--the Equality Michigan Pride PAC, Clean Water Action, the Michigan Credit Union League Action Fund, and a number of Michigan chapters of labor unions including the SEIU, the Michigan Nurses Association, AFSCME, the UAW, the Teamsters, and the AFL-CIO.  By most accounts, the nonprofit sector leaned toward Obama over McCain in 2008. But is a nonprofit platform a political platform of the left?  

Five of the Nonprofit Eight including Singh agreed to discuss their candidacies with us, addressing questions about their politics and the overall politics of the nonprofit sector.  Some of them are make it clear that they see themselves as falling under the progressive banner.  

Like Singh, Ellie Hill embraces a politically progressive identity, citing her background as a grassroots activist and referencing issues and constituencies that rarely get much attention from mainstream Democratic candidates.  "It is because of my work in the nonprofit sector and my passion to demand that seat at the table that I have been empowered to advocate for social justice, inclusive communities, a moral imperative to fight for a clean and healthy environment, and argue for progressive tax reform and thereby leave my work in the nonprofit sector to a political life in the Montana legislature," Hill says.  "It is because of my colleagues and support in the nonprofit sector that I am empowered to fight for them, their missions, their employees, and their clients and to urge government to work towards fairness, justice, and macro-level change for the marginalized in our society."  

Shinagawa has the advantage of running for Congress against a Republican who voted for the Ryan budget and against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.   Moreover, despite significant Upstate New York interests to the contrary, he has pledged  to oppose the dangerous drilling process of hydro-fracking.  On the distinctly progressive side, he describes himself as "a strong supporter of public financing of elections and an end to corporate-personhood, ensuring transparency and fairness, no matter where the donation is coming from," a stance that puts him at odds with many Democrats as well as much of the nonprofit sector that opposes full disclosure of donations to 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations. Unlike the others in the Nonprofit Eight, as a candidate for a federal office, Shinagawa has garnered some national attention as a noteworthy progressive.  

Running for mayor in Portland, Oregon, Smith takes great pride in his co-founding of the Bus Project, a grassroots voter registration and leadership development group which he says has expanded from something he and a few of his friends created to a program now operating in four states.  While not endorsing any candidates, the Bus Project "s board has a progressive cast, with members from Democratic-affiliated unions such as the Oregon Education Association, the Oregon Nurses Association, and AFSCME, described as "superheroes" like a "Jedi Council without robes".  Focusing on Millennials, described as a "a giant mass of people who give a sh**" (their asterisks), the Bus Project says its--or its targeted constituency--"heart(s)" marriage equality and suggests social entrepreneurship as a source of innovative solutions for "climate chaos."  

Do the left-leaning platforms of Singh, Hill, Shinagawa, and Smith suggest that nonprofit candidates are automatically progressive?  Not totally, if you consider the politics of at least two of the candidates who we were not able to reach for this article.  At a minimum, Massey and Dinniman are budget cutters and lean conservative on social issues.  To call for governmental budget cutting is a tough message for public charities for which government revenues account for at least one-third of nonprofit finances.

On issues that might divide nonprofits from many progressives, one bellwether issue is President Obama's repeated proposal to cap the charitable deduction for wealthy taxpayers at the 28 percent tax level.  Nonprofits have been generally steadfast in their opposition to the President's proposal, even though the President wanted to use the additional revenues for health care reform and for job creation.  Only Shinagawa clearly voiced support for the proposal that the President hasn't even been able to get the support of his own party in Congress (even the Democratic Party platform adopted in Charlotte is silent on the issue).  Smith and Hill both lean toward the nonprofit orthodoxy that chipping away at the charitable deduction is bad policy even though the statistics show a minimal impact on charitable giving.  Singh would also leave it as it is, but knows that it will be a topic in comprehensive tax reform debates and would examine it in relationship to other tax incentives in that context rather than piecemealed out as a stand-alone item.  

Another is the question of disclosure of donations to 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations, currently the beneficiaries of unlimited contributions as a result of the Citizens United and earlier Supreme Court decisions.  Again, it is Shinagawa who calls for disclosure of contributions to (c)(4)s, while Smith calls for disclosures by Super PAC s which already do disclose.  Both Shinagawa and Hill object to the concept of "corporate personhood". 

Like others, Smith says he has "huge issues" with Citizens United decried "the secrecy that surrounds the work and activities of SuperPACs," but his platform falls short of Shinagawa's.  While saying that "voters deserve to know where [the] dollars [spent on political campaigns] come from," he doesn't place 501(c)(4) organizations in the same category as SuperPACs, even though the secrecy of SuperPACs which must report their donors is dependent in part in the donations they get from (c)(4)s--the (c)(4)s don't have to reveal their donors, and the SuperPACs therefore only have to reveal that they got their money from this or that (c)(4).  Leaving (c)(4)s out of the needed mix of mandatory disclosure allows moneyed interests to escape transparency.  

A core bellwether progressive issue that might be asked of all nonprofit candidates is where they stand on the Affordable Care Act.  An employee of a nonprofit hospital, Shinagawa grasps the nexus between the nonprofit aspect of the ACA and the progress policy health reform represents. "The Affordable Care act will help lower the staggering amount of uninsured across the country but is just a first step, and there is more work to be done to perfect healthcare policy," Shinagawa told us in an e-mail.  "The ACA will be helpful for non-profit health care providers to help lower their costs, and make sure every dollar counts more towards improving the health of their patients."  Smith gets it too, noting that at the state level, his home state of Oregon had already enacted some of the provisions of the ACA.  He committed to being leading the implementation of the ACA in Portland if he is elected mayor.  As a former homeless services provider, Ellie Hill asks as a practicing Catholic, "Who would Jesus deny health care."

Singh, Smith, Hill, and Shinagawa stand out in the list with reasonably progressive platforms.  Running for office in conservative Nebraska, Bolz seems to be reasonably progressive within her local political context.  For the most part, coming or representing health and human service nonprofits, the charitable work backgrounds of the Nonprofit Eight lead them toward the progressive side of the spectrum.  But that would hardly describe the public pronouncements of Dinniman and certainly Massey. 

Vetting Nonprofit Candidates 

CForward's Doug Knight told us by email that the PAC tried to "select candidates who best represent the values and voices of the larger nonprofit sector."  That "broad brush of the nonprofit sector," as Knight put it, can "participate in the political and election process"individually AND as a collective" much like businesses that identify with a subsector of the corporate sector and at the same time participate as members of the National Association of Manufacturers.  

In other words, nearly three-quarters of tax exempt entities filing Form 990s reporting less than $100,000 in total revenues share a core set of values with the 0.3 percent of nonprofits with annual revenues over $100 million, or, more concretely, your local food pantry  shares enough of a common agenda with Harvard University, because they are both 501(c)(3) public charities, that they would both fit under the same political banner.  

Knight answers the question about the progressivity of that nonprofit banner clearly:  "Nonprofits are progressive, and conservative, and independent. We are sometimes painted as "progressive" due to what often is perceived as the stereotype work of the sector (i.e. social justice and safety net programming)," he says. "But the sector is far more diverse than that. For every perceived left-leaning/progressive nonprofits (like a Planned Parenthood) there are perceived right-leaning/conservative (like a National Right to Life).  We hope to elevate the idea of collaboration with nonprofits on public policy challenges facing our communities is in itself, a victory and forward-thinking."

What kind of collaboration can occur between Planned Parenthood and National Right to Life?  The battle over ideological control of Komen for the Cure exemplifies the results of that meeting of progressive and conservative.  Massey and perhaps Dinniman are in the mix to show that CForward isn't taking a partisan line toward one political party or another, but they don't quite fit if the message is protecting the interests of the nonprofit sector in state legislatures and Congress where lawmakers seem increasingly disposed to follow the "cut, cut, cut" strategy that Singh opposes.
  
Like many other progressive candidates, the progressives among CForward's nonprofit eight have a long road to hoe.  Shinagawa faces an incumbent Republican who has raised $1.4 million, more than half from PACs and (c)(4)s, dwarfing his $500,000 campaign chest.  Singh, in contrast, is seen as "cruising to an easy victory in [his] Democratic-leaning district".  Smith seems to be running neck-and-neck with his opponent for mayor of Portland
For State Senator Massey, Tennessee's voter ID law that was used to deny one of Massey's own Sertoma Center clients--using an ID she had received at the Center--is still worth supporting despite its obvious inequities.  It is a position that is hard to reconcile as a value of the nonprofit sector.  

Earlier in September, Egger told the Chicago chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals that CForward had raised about $35,000.  As a PAC, CForward doesn't have a lot to offer the Nonprofit Eight financially.  Although CForward doesn't have much tangible to offer the candidates beyond Egger's national visibility as a speaker on the nonprofit lecture circuit, the Nonprofit Eight potentially can advance Egger's and CForward's agenda of a nonprofit sector with a political, electoral message beyond candidates mouthing "I (heart) nonprofits."  What CForward might discover, however, is that while there might be nonprofits that are nominally conservative in ideological terms, the functions of the nonprofit sector might be best advanced by candidates who are politically progressive on fiscal and social issues.  Otherwise, the value statement attributable to the nonprofit sector will end up being political slush.  

 

Rick Cohen is a commentator on the politics of nonprofits and foundations, writer for Nonprofit Quarterly, editor of NPQ's Cohen Report, former executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy


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In my regular columns, most of the reaction I get ... by Rick Cohen on Friday, Sep 28, 2012 at 7:20:31 AM