This Is a Charity?

Are the nonpartisans at CAE party animals in drag?

Two years ago I asked in the magazine Minnesota Law and Politics whether the conservative Minneapolis-based "think tank" called the Center of the American Experiment (CAE) deserved to be a tax-exempt charity under U.S. federal law. The reason I asked was that tax-exempt organizations are not allowed to engage in partisan politics, and it seemed to me as well as others that the Center had been skirting, or engaging in, such behavior for some time.

There was plenty of evidence then that the CAE had become primarily a Republican institution. Analysis of its membership, staffing, funding, programs, and editorial production all led to that conclusion. It is also used as a connective tissue between the national Republican/conservative movement and local Republican politicians. If that behavior is not considered partisan, then what is the point of making such a distinction?

The latest evidence of the CAE's partisan nature is the campaign and planned administration of Republican governor-elect Tim Pawlenty, who last week announced a team that he said would be his "board of directors," five of whom are central players at the CAE. Just weeks earlier the (now former) executive vice president of the Center, John Kline, had been elected Republican U.S. Congressman for Minnesota's second congressional district. A week before that, Center senior fellow Katherine Kersten used her Star Tribune op-ed column to spur voter indignation against Democrats for their Paul Wellstone memorial ("Wellstone tribute turned tragedy into a campaign prop," October 31, 2002). Months before that, former President George H.W. Bush spoke at the CAE's annual dinner. The question is not whether the Center is partisan. The question is, is it anything but partisan?

IRS regulations say there is frequently "no bright line" to signify when a tax-exempt charity has crossed over into impermissible partisan activity, but that doesn't seem to be an issue here. The Center has vaulted over the line and made a hard dash for the Republican heart.

Take the case of the Minnesota Policy Blueprint, the largest and most expensive project in the history of the CAE. The Policy Blueprint was the 1997 brainchild of Chris Georgacas, then head of the Minnesota Republican party. The plan seemed to mimic the national Republicans' Contract With America, the Newt Gingrich/Heritage Foundation partisan manifesto that some say helped Republicans capture the U.S. Congress in 1994.

Georgacas was to play the role of Newt Gingrich, and the CAE would play the role of the Heritage Foundation. The project began when Georgacas, ending his tenure as head of the state Republican party, was hired by the CAE to produce what was then called the "Georgacas Project." There he led a team of Republicans who essentially constructed a document that any Republican governor could use as a guide for implementing the Republican Plan. The person chosen to carry this torch was Norm Coleman, whom the Center had ushered into the Republican party.

To help him write this document, Georgacas picked former top Gingrich aid Annette Meeks as co-director. For the chairs of the 21 committees they chose 20 identifiable Republicans, many of them party apparatchiks, officeholders, or office-seekers--including Vin Weber, Michael Wigley, and Ron Eibensteiner, a CAE Board member and current chair of the Minnesota Republican party. Tellingly, the Center's one nominal (now former) Democrat, Tim Penny, was not involved in the project. While crafting the Policy Blueprint at CAE, Georgacas formed a Coleman for Governor exploratory committee and began raising money for the upcoming campaign, even from Center-associated people.

After much of the work on the Policy Blueprint was finished, Georgacas abruptly quit the Center to run Coleman's gubernatorial campaign. Georgacas and Coleman then chose another director of the Center, Republican State Sen. Gen Olson, to be the Republican lieutenant governor nominee, i.e. Coleman's running mate. Down the home stretch of the campaign Katherine Kersten kicked in yet again with an obvious endorsement of Coleman in her Star Tribune op-ed column titled "Coleman has a Better Plan for Minnesota," (October 7, 1998). Tax-exempt charities are not supposed to tell people whom to vote for. (They are also not supposed to give their tax-exempt moneys to a political party--as the Center's director, Mitchell Perlstein, admittedly did "by mistake" in CAE's early days.)

Jesse Ventura's 1998 defeat of Coleman and his inept Democratic challenger, Skip Humphrey, delayed but did not derail the Georgacas/CAE/Republican plan. Four years later Georgacas resurfaced, this time as the campaign manager for Republican gubernatorial nominee Tim Pawlenty. After Pawlenty's victory, Georgacas quickly became the new "advisory chairman" of a group loosely called the "board of directors," whose stated purpose, according to the Star Tribune, is to "recruit appointees to the Pawlenty administration, screen applicants for a few high-ranking posts, assist in planning inaugural events, [and] help map legislative strategy...."

Five of the 13 members of Georgacas's "board of directors" are from the CAE, including Meeks, Katherine Kersten, Peter Bell, and Michael Wigley. Wigley is a particularly extreme Republican partisan. He is head of the Great Plains Companies and sits on the CAE board. In 2000 he threatened to cut off his financing of the Minnesota Republican party if Republican Minnesota House Speaker Steve Sviggum was not fired for failing to hew to Wigley's virulent anti-tax views. Reporters are now scrambling for copies of the Policy Blueprint to see which way Pawlenty will turn. They needn't look far. A close analog of the Policy Blueprint is the 1998 Minnesota State Republican party platform, written by some of the same people.

Already there are ominous sounds. Pawlenty himself has said he would like to have Minnesota emulate Wisconsin's harsh welfare reform as an avenue to help rescue the hemorrhaging state budget, and his new finance commissioner has said the Republicans want to privatize a share of the state's workforce, something directly prescribed by the Policy Blueprint.

None of this means that the IRS will suddenly wake up and crack down on CAE. For many reasons, that is highly unlikely. I'm asking why the richest people and corporations among us are allowed to write off the costs of their politicking.

Republican critics sometimes retort that, in their view, there are other, left-leaning tax-exempt charities that are just as partisan as the Center. To this I say: Prove it.

Prove that the financiers of a tax-exempt charity are the same as those of a major state political party. Prove that the primary actors in that same political party are the primary actors in the tax-exempt charity. Prove that the same institution regularly plays host to the luminaries, national and state, of the same political party. Prove that the tax-exempt charity has written documents that are virtual mirrors of those of the state political party, and that they were designed as prescriptions for running state government. Prove that the tax-exempt charity has been used repeatedly as a springboard to elective office.

The truth is that there are no other tax-exempt charities as partisan and dedicated to partisanship as the Center of the American Experiment. The freeloading Center should admit the charade now and pay for its own politicking, instead of forcing the rest of us to pick up its share of the tab.

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