The battle over the nomination of former Missouri Senator John Ashcroft to be attorney general ranked among the nastiest political fights in recent memory. Those who opposed Ashcroft depicted him as a bully likely to trample on the rights of women, minorities, and workers; for their part, supporters accused his detractors of religious bias.
The battle was waged on editorial pages and over the airwaves; People for the American Way unveiled a dedicated nationwide advertising campaign to warn senators about the consequences of voting to confirm their former colleague. More interesting for private philanthropy is the fact that some of the wealthiest and most prominent private foundations in the country underwrote the entrenched interests that went gunning for Ashcroft.
Republicans likened the anti-Ashcroft campaign to a lynch mob, but the characterization is inapt: the groups were far better organized than that. At a packed January 9th meeting in Washington, representatives of some 90 groups—including Planned Parenthood, People for the American Way, the American Bar Association, and staffers from the Democratic congressional caucus—formulated their strategy. It was audacious to suppose that they could convince a majority of Ashcroft’s former Senate colleagues to reject his nomination, but they had to try. How could they wield sufficient influence to stop Ashcroft even as they stayed within IRS requirements that restrict political lobbying by nonprofit groups?
According to National Review Online, legal experts were on hand to explain to attendees how they could “tailor their roles in the stop-Ashcroft movement to make them appear completely within the law,” by characterizing their activities as “research” into Ashcroft’s background.
The groups then set to divvying up the assignments. The National Abortion Rights Action League would lead the charge on “women’s issues,” while People for the American Way would coordinate the campaign. Money was apparently no object: At a January 9th news conference (at which Ashcroft was depicted as soft on hate crimes and even willing to allow rat poison in drinking water), NARAL executive director Kate Michelman declared, “We’re going to spend whatever it takes.” An overall figure is not available, but a similar effort to defeat Robert Bork’s 1987 Supreme Court nomination cost an estimated $10 million.
The groups swung into action, and the early returns were impressive: the anti-Ashcroft campaign dominated the news for several weeks. Errant Democrats were quickly brought into line; when Senator Robert Torricelli of New Jersey praised Ashcroft’s nomination, he was deluged with phone calls from constituents urging a “no” vote. Was this a grassroots swelling of support? Hardly. As the Wall Street Journal reported, a “dozen volunteers settled into phones at NARAL’s headquarters to call New Jersey abortion rights supporters and urge them to pressure the senator.”
In the end, the movement to “Bork” Ashcroft drew blood, but not enough. On February 1st, the Senate approved his nomination 58 to 42, virtually along party lines.
Funding the Fight?
Whatever else the campaign may have lacked, it didn’t fail for want of funds.
Both NARAL and PFAW say they keep their charitable and lobbying arms separate. Ralph Neas, executive director of PFAW, says all anti-Ashcroft efforts were funded by PFAW’s 501(c)(4) lobbying arm, which he maintains is strictly separated from the group’s tax-exempt educational arm. “Not only was no foundation money used for [opposing Ashcroft] but no 501(c)(3) money [from the PFAW Foundation] was used. We don’t use it for lobbying.”
Often, lobbying was arguably disguised under the rubric of “education.”
For example, during the Ashcroft campaign, the People for the American Way Foundation’s Web site, “Right Wing Watch Online”—funded by money from private foundations—declared that George W. Bush’s campaign promise to be “a uniter, not a divider” was being “drowned out by his decision to nominate an ultra-conservative and favorite son of the Religious Right to the position of Attorney General . . . .”
The site continued that it “is safe to assume that the Religious Right will do everything in its power to rally its troops in support of Senator Ashcroft and, in turn, gain significant influence over one of the most powerful offices in the nation.”
In the end, Right Wing Watch directed
viewers to another PFAW-sponsored site, www.OpposeAshcroft.com, the Internet hub for anti-Ashcroft forces. There, concerned citizens could read up on Ashcroft’s background, contact local organizers involved in anti-Ashcroft activities, and print out a form letter to be sent to members of Congress.
OpposeAshcroft.com clearly envisioned advocacy, and it is not easy to see how the foundation-funded Right Wing Watch Online is different, especially since PFAW makes it easy to jump between the two. Yet PFAW legal director Elliot Mincberg insists that “Right Wing Watch is clearly a 501(c)(3) activity. None of it is lobbying or urging people to take positions on legislation but simply providing information on what the right wing has been up to.”
Flirting with Politics
What do the foundations that fund PFAW think about the possibility that their money may have been used either on anti-Ashcroft activities or to free up other monies to oppose the former Missouri Senator?
Most want to avoid the question entirely. “I have no idea,” says a spokesperson for the Packard Foundation, which gave $5 million to the NARAL Foundation in 1999 alone, when asked if its funding supported anti-Ashcroft activities. “I don’t know if it relates to that at all. I can’t comment on that.”
Neither the Turner Foundation ($20,000 to NARAL’s “Choice for America” campaign) nor the Tisch Foundation—bankrolled by media mogul brothers Laurence A. Tisch and Preston Robert Tisch—which recently gave $50,000 to the group, would return phone calls seeking comment. Ditto for the Archer Daniels Midland Foundation or the Samuel Bronfman Foundation ($25,000 each to PFAW) or the Slim-Fast Nutritional Foods Foundation, which gave $19,000.
Those foundations that will discuss their grants deny any culpability for the Ashcroft fight. Allen Greenberg, executive director of the Buffett Foundation, says he gave NARAL written instructions to use more than $1 million in grants only for the Choice for America campaign. Greenberg insists the grant is “not political. It had nothing to do with Ashcroft,” and adds that NARAL’s most recent quarterly report on the grant, for expenditures from October 1st to December 31st of last year, indicates no money was used to defeat the Ashcroft nomination.
Yet even some donors and grantees agree that the line between education and advocacy can be a thin one in a political fight like the Ashcroft nomination. The Alliance for Justice, a diverse coalition of liberal interest groups that includes such far-flung outfits as Ralph Nader’s Center for Law in the Public Interest and Marian Wright Edelman’s Children’s Defense Fund, was a vocal Ashcroft opponent. Funded in recent years by philanthropic mainstays such as the Ford and Turner foundations and the Open Society Institute, the alliance urged the Senate to vote down Ashcroft, whom it called “dangerous and divisive.”
Though John Pomeranz, the nonprofit advocacy counsel for the alliance, denies that it received funds specifically for the purpose of blocking the Ashcroft nomination, he admits that donors “certainly realize the alliance was publicly opposed to Ashcroft. They certainly have not told us they were against it.” Geffen Foundation president Andy Spahn is downright grateful for the ferocious battle waged by PFAW, whose educational arm received $25,000 from his foundation in 1998. “It sends an important signal to the administration” that Ashcroft’s nomination was so narrowly confirmed, he says.
Buffett Foundation director Greenberg, who previously worked for Ralph Nader and Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York, says he “agrees 100 percent” that charitable activities can often seem, in the broadest sense of the word, political. “It would be ridiculous to say we’re not interested in politics.” But Greenberg agrees that foundations should “stay far away from the line” between education and advocacy.
In the Ashcroft fight, was that line crossed? Maybe, maybe not. But with the line becoming fuzzier every day, perhaps it doesn’t matter.
Evan Gahr is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.