During the Virginia 2017 Democratic Party primary, one day I received a striking set of pamphlets in the mailbox that I summarized as “the good, the bad, the ugly.” Today was a redux of that, with a mailing from “Virginians for a Better Future” offered a “Welcome to a New Year and to a Better Future For Virginia.” That is, in many ways, a bright message to pull out of the mailbox. So things were looking good — for a moment, anyway.
The mailer provided a “US postage paid” card to send to Governor Ralph Northam at his “the Way Ahead” PO Box address. What is the message to send to Northam?
Please put Virginia’s future at the top of your agenda to focus on affordable health care, equal employment, and building the infrastructure we need to grow new businesses and create jobs.
To me, this paragraph reads like (moderate) pablum that can be read any which way one wants. Perhaps this is simply a caricature of Northam messaging. Or perhaps the “Virginians for a Better Future” wishes to “stuff the PO Box” with messages supportive of Northam in general. Either way, that paragraph has little to no meaning that I and others I’ve discussed this with can discern.
The mailer’s supporting material does little — well, essentially nothing — to lay out what is meant by the pablum. There are four bullets, three of which are the points in the paragraph and the fourth is “an agenda to take Virginia to new heights.” Who can say no, after all, to reaching “new heights?”
Perplexed at the pablum, I started head scratching. What is this all about? List building? Spending donors’ money? An astroturfing effort to show popularity for … got me (scratching head).
Part of that noodling/head scratching was trying to figure out who/what “Virginians for a Better Future,” located in “Keswick, Virginia,” is exactly. Then there was the connection to the 2017 Democratic primary mailers. Virginians for a Better Future provided the “ugly” that day — an attack ad against Tom Perriello and in support of Ralph Northam.
Fun fact: These mystery Virginians that want a better future are incorporated in Delaware https://t.co/GOufEKKUky
— Graham Moomaw (@gmoomaw) June 12, 2017
VBF spent $197,000 in independent (dark money) expenditures during the primary (or was it $184,255) for things like the anti-Perriello mailer and an anti-Perriello video posted on the Virginians for a Better Future website. Over six months later — and six months after Lt.Gov. Northam requested that this negative campaigning cease — not to mention with Tom Perriello having worked relentlessly to help Lt.Gov. Ralph Northam win the general election, the “Virginians for a Better Future” website STILL features that nasty attack ad. As for the site’s content, its last dated item is from May 10, 2017 (a link to a Blue Virginia post, no less). As for the “Virginians for a Better Future” Facebook page, it’s just as out of date, greeting visitors with a June 2, 2017 item.
Who “Virginians for a Better Future” actually is remains murky. As per Richmond Times-Dispatch reporting last year:
“Though the identities of the PAC’s backers are unclear, the ad campaign was created with the help of companies with ties to prominent Virginia Democrats backing Northam, including Gov. Terry McAuliffe and influential state Sen. Richard Saslaw of Fairfax County.”
“In mandatory filings with the state, the PAC identified Seattle-based Moxie Media as the company it paid for a roughly $60,000 direct mail campaign. Moxie’s website lists Brian Zuzenak, McAuliffe’s former political director who led Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in Virginia last year, as a partner at the firm…”
“…The address listed for the company behind digital video ads that have been promoted on Facebook matches the address for SBDigital, a D.C. firm that employs Saslaw’s former campaign manager, Sam Sterling, as its director of campaigns and new media…”
When asked about this, last year:
Saslaw said he doesn’t know who’s behind the PAC.
“I have no idea,” Saslaw said. “Never even heard of them.”
A month after the primary, the Richmond Times-Dispatch dug a bit deeper into How a shadowy nonprofit spent $184K in Virginia’s governor’s race with almost total anonymity.
Because the group is organized in a way that allows maximum secrecy, the identity of the donor or donors behind the ad campaign might never be disclosed.
“We’re trying to keep a very low profile on this,” Michael McShane, a little-known Democratic consultant from the Charlottesville area who serves as the group’s only public face, said in a brief interview last month.
McShane, who signed his name on official records as the group’s treasurer and incorporator, abruptly ended the phone call after being asked whether the group would disclose its donors. In follow-up messages, he said the organization has filed all paperwork required by the state.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch report tracked down material faxed from a law firm (Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom) and “a UPS Store in a strip mall outside Boston,” plus some material building on what The Roanoke Times had discovered. For instance, the Times-Dispatch laid how “Virginians for a Better Future” seems to have paid a web of people connected to then Governor McAuliffe and Senator Saslaw, though “Saslaw has also denied any involvement in the ad campaign and said he does not know who’s behind Virginians for a Better Future.”
“Virginians for a Better Future” is resting in the murkiness of Citizens United, enabling undisclosed donors to spend money however they wish, essentially, to influence political races. That murkiness contributes to the difficulty in trying to answer the “why this mailing” question.
The 501(c)(4) category allows groups to promote their views on civic issues and engage in some political advocacy, as long as influencing elections and running ads for or against named candidates is not the organization’s “primary activity.”
By sending out this pamphlet, perhaps “Virginians for a Better Future” is attempting to demonstrate that supporting/attacking specific candidates is not its “primary activity,” in part so that it won’t have to file paperwork that reveals more about just who these Delaware-registered individuals might be.
In any event, this is one Virginia voter who won’t be sending Governor Northam a postcard today — even if the postage was already paid for.