New Politics Leadership Academy, a 501(c)3 “charitable nonprofit” hired 6 unsuccessful Democrat candidates, including Gina Jones and Dan Feehan, as “fellows,” purportedly to do vague research projects.
Raising legal concerns, the group’s founder and Executive Director said of the fellowships, “And we just thought if we could provide some transition time for them; four months, where they get a stipend, so they don’t have to like worry about paying their rent or their groceries or their mortgage, right, and also they get four months to rethink and reflect and work on and do research on things that they find would be valuable for them as political leadership development.”
Jones was paid $34,000, her only income over the past several years besides rent on homes she owns in Virginia, North Carolina and Washington, DC. Feehan was paid more than $119,000 for his fellowship. It’s unclear what work either did for the group.
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Unusual ‘fellowship’ paid high-profile repeat Democratic candidates between runs
October 6, 2020
Several repeat Democratic candidates in high-profile races who lost their 2018 bids for Congress got direct financial help from a nonprofit organization in the form of an unusual “fellowship” during the interim period before they launched 2020 campaigns.
New Politics is a 527 advocacy group that seeks to “revitalize American democracy by recruiting, developing, and electing servant leaders” — mostly veterans, but also those who were part of national organizations or worked in national security and intelligence — ”who put community and country over self.” It has an affiliated 501(c)3 charitable nonprofit called the New Politics Leadership Academy, which hosts a training program for prospective candidates and a fellowship program.
Six unsuccessful Democratic 2018 congressional candidates were named fellows in the inaugural fellowship class in January 2019, and four of them later launched campaigns in major races again this year: Amy McGrath, Gina Ortiz Jones, Dan Feehan, and Roger Dean Huffstetler.
A press release announcing the program gave vague descriptions of projects, such as, “examine the nature of today’s political engagement with rural voters” or to “conduct research on how to further close the rural-urban political gap.”
Gabriel Ramos, communications director for both New Politics and the New Politics Leadership Academy, told the Washington Examiner that the opportunity to become a fellow was extended to both Republican and Democratic former candidates.
“The expectation of these fellows was that they would work to advance and inform NPLA’s mission of ‘revitalizing our democracy’ through their advocacy, research, and engagement with our community,” Ramos said in a statement. “The fellows worked on several initiatives related to NPLA’s leadership development and educational mission — including projects that provided NPLA with quantitative research about the rural-urban divide and insight into how issues that are typically understood as domestic or state-level challenges, may ultimately affect national security.”
Previous comments from the group’s founder and director, Emily Cherniack, seemed to suggest that the fellowship endeavor is part of a creative way to give perpetual candidates a financial cushion in the brief period between runs for office in back-to-back election cycles.
In a 2019 podcast interview, Cherniack described the fellowship interview as a way to give candidates money for “rent or groceries or their mortgage.”
“What’s equally as important is the ones who don’t win, and what we have piloted and started this year is a fellowship program. And so what we realized was, a lot of our candidates who are not wealthy, have spent a year and a half not working, and they’re exhausted,” Cherniack said during the podcast. “And we just thought if we could provide some transition time for them; four months, where they get a stipend, so they don’t have to like worry about paying their rent or their groceries or their mortgage, right, and also they get four months to rethink and reflect and work on and do research on things that they find would be valuable for them as political leadership development.”
She also expressed frustration at candidates’ personal financial constraints in a tweet last year about a measure to reform campaign expenditure rules: “To legally use campaign funds to pay for childcare for candidates is a great step in right direction. It still doesn’t solve for candidates who can’t afford to not earn a salary for 2 years by running but one step at a time…”
Cherniack’s comments could spark legal concerns about the group’s tax status. Charitable 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations are legally barred from directly supporting candidates or legislation, or from its organization or operation, conducting a “ private benefit” rather than a public charitable one.
“Paying for political candidates’ monthly living expenses after a failed campaign is definitely not a charitable activity and raises a question of impermissible private benefit,” Ryan Oberly, a South Carolina lawyer and law school lecturer who specializes in tax-exempt organizations, told the Washington Examiner. “But, receiving taxable compensation for services rendered to the charity would be perfectly acceptable if the payments were reasonable and not excessive. The reasonableness analysis would be a determination based on the amount of hours worked, services provided, qualifications, and the payment for similar positions by other charities.”
“Even if the compensation is reasonable, a private benefit concern would exist if all the fellows were from the same political party,” Oberly added.
The four candidates in the 2019 fellowship who ran for office again each gave clear indications that they might run for office again in 2020 despite losing in 2018. They received a significant amount of money from the New Politics Leadership Academy for their fellowship.
McGrath, the Democratic challenger to Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and a former Marine pilot, previously ran for Kentucky’s 6th House in 2018 but lost to incumbent Republican Rep. Andy Barr. She had a large war chest of $9.1 million despite losing her bid and was frequently mentioned as a potential Senate challenger to McConnell.
A candidate financial disclosure form shows that she received $42,500 for the fellowship and $35,000 in consulting pay from New Politics, McGrath’s only listed non-investment income. She announced her 2020 bid in July 2019, six months after the New Politics fellowship was announced.
Ortiz Jones, a former Air Force intelligence officer, is the Democratic nominee for Texas’s open 23rd House district, which is being vacated by Republican Rep. Will Hurd. She unsuccessfully challenged Hurd for the seat in 2018, losing by just one point. That December, she told supporters in an email that she was “very likely” to run again.
Her June 2019 financial disclosure form shows that she was paid $34,000 by New Politics that year. That, aside from rental properties she owned, appeared to Ortiz Jones’s only earned income that year before announcing her candidacy in May.
Feehan, an Army veteran and the former principal deputy assistant secretary of defense, is the Democratic nominee for Minnesota’s 1st House seat. He is seeking a rematch against Republican incumbent Rep. Jim Hagedorn after narrowly losing to him in 2018. Feehan received $55,500 in 2019 from the New Politics Leadership Academy fellowship and $64,000 from them in the preceding year, in addition to a separate $120,000 salary.
Hagedorn has accused Feehan of violating federal elections laws, and last month filed a formal complaint about payments from the New Politics Leadership Academy and another organization with the Federal Elections Commission.
Huffstetler, who ran for Virginia’s 5th House seat this year but lost in the June primary, reported receiving $25,500 from the fellowship. He also sought the seat in 2018 but withdrew from that race before the Democratic primary.
The New Politics Leadership Academy fellowships did not necessarily look blatantly unethical, but that the appearance of being paid to wait for the next election round could raise ethical issues, according to John Pelissero, a senior scholar at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University and professor emeritus of political science at Loyola University Chicago.
“What is more unusual about this is that obviously this has been set up by a 527 organization to find a way to provide payment to, income to these candidates, or would-be candidates,” Pelissero told the Washington Examiner.
He also questioned the logic of the fellowship program.
“They have experience in running for office. They’ve been through a campaign. Does a fellowship makes sense?” Pelissero said. “They’ve already gained through practical experience what one might think the fellowship, the educational aspect of the tax-exempt fellowship program, would be designed to provide particularly to people who have not run for office before.”
The relationship between the charitable 501(c)3 organization and the 527 advocacy organization, too, Pelissero said. “If the New Politics Fellowship Program was just a standalone — someone created that with its lofty goals and made sense to have it as a tax-exempt organization — there’d be fewer questions raised about it then, given what we know now that it is basically an arm of a 527 organization.”
“New Politics Leadership Academy and New Politics are separate organizations that are funded and operated separately. NPLA is non-partisan and does not support or endorse any candidates for public office,” Ramos said of his organization in a statement.
Top contributors to the New Politics 527 organization include billionaire philanthropist Amos Hostetter, who gave the group $250,000 in 2018, and $100,000 in 2019 from the Walton Family Foundation, which was started by the founders of Walmart.
New Politics says that it is a bipartisan organization, though the candidates that it supports are largely Democratic. Out of 30 candidates listed on its website, five are Republicans: Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher; Peter Meijer, who is running for Michigan’s 3rd Congressional seat; Louisiana State Sen. Stewart Cathey; Michigan state House candidate Andrew Beeler; and North Carolina state senate candidate Mark Cavaliero.
The campaigns for McGrath, Ortiz Jones, and Feehan did not respond to requests for comment.