Douglas Shulman, the former IRS commissioner, should know a thing or two about 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) non-profits that are involved in politics. His wife works for one.
Shulman’s wife, Susan L. Anderson, is senior program adviser at Public Campaign, a 501(c)(3) dedicated to “sweeping campaign reform that aims to dramatically reduce the role of big special interest money in American politics.”
The group, while officially nonpartisan, is undeniably left-wing in nature, and has strong ties to some of the Left’s most influential players. Major donors to Public Campaign include notable liberal advocacy groups such as the Streisand Foundation, Healthcare for America Now!, and the Common Cause Education Fund. Its board members have connections to prominent liberal organizations such as Demos, Media Matters, and NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Public Campaign, not surprisingly, is strongly opposed to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, calling it “judicial activism and arrogance at its worst.” Nick Nyhart, the president and CEO of Public Campaign, said the justices’ decision amounted to “stomping on voters’ hope for change.” However, the group’s press shop was eerily silent on February 7, 2012, when President Obama reversed his opposition to Super PACs — provided they were organizations like Priorities USA Action, which would go on to run ads blaming Mitt Romney for a woman’s death from cancer. Public Campaign did weigh in on the IRS scandal, albeit in rather dismissive fashion. “There are legitimate questions to be asked about political groups that are hiding behind a 501(c)(4) status,” Nyhart told ABC News. “It’s unfortunate a few bad apples at the IRS will make it harder for those questions to be asked without claims of bias.”
Public Campaign has aligned itself with the Occupy Wall Street movement (in which Susan Anderson appears to have actively participated), as evidenced by Public Campaign’s 2011 annual report. “The Occupy protesters have dramatized the inequality of income and power in our society in ways we have not seen in decades,” wrote Nyhart. “Whether the problem is spiraling student debt, home foreclosures, unemployment, or an energy policy that favors Big Oil, the underlying problem is the same — a democracy that works for the few at the expense of the many.” Public Campaign’s research, he added, is “targeted and focused on the divide between the 1% and the 99%,” echoing the Occupy movement’s popular slogan.
Public Campaign barely attempts to hide its conventional left-wing agenda, and appears to believe that campaign-finance reform is a sort of “gateway drug” that will inevitably lead to the enactment of liberal policies. As Nyhart explains in the 2011 report: “We do research in tandem with policy and advocacy organizations to weave a collective narrative about how to fix our democracy.” This is echoed by Steve Kretzmann, founder and executive director of the environmentalist group Oil Change International, who writes that Public Campaign “has helped a lot of environmentalists understand that progress on our issues will not occur unless we address corporate political power over our democracy.”
In December 2012, Nyhart attended a secret meeting of prominent liberal groups in Washington, D.C., to coordinate a strategy for Obama’s second term. He reportedly discussed efforts to oust Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as part of a broader push for campaign-finance reform. In April, Nyhart spoke at an organized protest against the National Rifle Association.
For a group that complains about money in politics, Public Campaign has spent quite a lot of money to influence the political process. It has spent $231,537 on lobbying since 2009, and donated $525,000 to other groups in 2010 alone. The group also operates a 501(c)(4) offshoot, the Public Campaign Action Fund, which has spent $672,771 on politics since 2004. Major donors include Common Cause, MoveOn.org, the Communications Workers of America, and the SEIU.
Hedge-fund manager and Democratic superdonor S. Donald Sussman has also contributed at least $20,000 to the group since 2010. Sussman, who recently gave $50,000 to President Obama’s activist group, Organizing for Action, is married to Representative Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine. Pingree also happens to be the top recipient of Nick Nyhart’s personal political donations. He has given her $2,000 since 2007, accounting for nearly half of his total donations during that period, which have gone exclusively to Democratic candidates, including President Obama.
Of course, no evidence has been uncovered to suggest that Susan Anderson, or Public Campaign, had any influence on Shulman’s tenure as IRS commissioner, or had any role in the targeting. But, through them, prominent liberal forces had close proximity to the most powerful tax collector in the country.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.