Former Virginia Gov. L Douglas Wilder. (Steve Helber/AP)
Douglas Wilder, the only African American governor in Virginia’s history, is no fan of the video endorsement Vice President Kamala Harris made for Terry McAuliffe, which is being played Sundays in hundreds of the Old Dominion’s black churches.
The ad, which ethics and legal experts say is a clear violation of IRS rules, is set to continue playing right up until the Nov. 2 gubernatorial election, as the Democratic Party pulls out all the stops to ensure black turnout. But a thumbs-down from the 90-year-old Wilder, a Democrat and highly respected voice in Virginia politics for decades, is significant.
“Well, it’s very good for her to do that, causing these churches to lose their tax-exempt status,” he quipped, referring to the Johnson Amendment, a rule that prohibits 501(c)(3) organizations, such as charities and churches, from engaging in any political campaign activity. “If this is legal, then it’s surprising to me.”
Wilder understands what’s at stake in the race between McAuliffe, who served as governor from 2014 to 2018, and Republican challenger Glenn Youngkin. Calling in Harris, the first African American vice president, to gin up black support shows Democrats know the race is deadlocked.
“In Virginia, the Democratic candidate has to have a strong turnout of black Americans. And if [McAuliffe] doesn’t get that, you’re going to see some problems,” Wilder said.
Wilder questioned whether Virginia Democrats have done enough to be able to count on black voters to turn out for McAuliffe.
“What reasons do they have to turn out?” wondered Wilder, who held the post McAuliffe seeks from 1990-94.
In the message, Harris urges churchgoers to vote for McAuliffe.
“I believe that my friend Terry McAuliffe is the leader Virginia needs at this moment,” Harris tells viewers, touting Democrats’ “long track record of getting things done for the people of Virginia.”
Harris adds: “So please, vote after today’s service. And if you cannot vote today, make a plan to go vote.”
It has drawn criticism from legal and ethics experts.
“[Harris’s] video is unequivocally expressing advocacy, so charities and churches should not be involved in its production or distribution. It would be a violation of the tax code for charities and churches to do so,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen, a government watchdog group.
Politicians have long attended Sunday services in key constituent communities in a transparent bid to court congregations. But the playing of a videotaped endorsement goes too far, said Rob Boston, senior adviser at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and editor of Church & State magazine.
“It doesn’t matter if they’re doing it on behalf of Democrats or Republicans — houses of worship and other nonprofits are not allowed to intervene in partisan elections,” Boston said.
In addition to violating the IRS code, Boston added, “No one wants their charities and houses of worship to be torn apart by partisan campaign politics.”
“Something this stark obviously raises a serious legal issue,” said Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust Executive Director Kendra Arnold. “Elected officials should have to respond to that and explain their behavior.”
Asked how the video came about and what considerations were taken to abide by federal laws, the vice president’s office referred the Washington Examiner to the McAuliffe campaign, which did not respond to a request for comment.
Democrats have surged a slew of boldfaced names to the state, including at “Souls to the Polls” events that target black churchgoers specifically. But there’s a difference between these turnout initiatives and Harris’s overt campaigning.
“Houses of worship and their faith leaders have robust free speech rights and can speak out on political and social issues. They can host candidate forums and distribute answers to candidate questionnaires; and encourage people to vote, including through voter registration drives and driving people to the polls,” said Boston. “As private citizens, faith leaders can support or endorse political candidates or even run for office.
“They just can’t, in their official capacity with a house of worship or nonprofit, endorse or oppose a partisan political candidate.”
Said Arnold, “It’s the distinction between supporting citizens’ right to vote and helping them access the polls, versus telling them who to vote for. It’s a stark difference.”
“Federal law is clear that nonprofits and churches cannot participate in political campaigns,” she added. “They can’t publish or distribute statements in favor of or in opposition to a candidate, period.
“The video itself is clear. I watched it, and it absolutely gave support for a candidate.”
Still, repercussions may prove elusive.
“Whether the IRS would actually enforce the tax code for any such violations is a different issue,” said Holman, a campaign finance expert.
“The agency has grown very timid in this realm ever since the political fallout of the IRS targeting controversy in 2013 when congressional Republicans accused the agency of enforcing these types of violations against conservative organizations.”
In 2017, the Justice Department settled with dozens of conservative groups after IRS officials admitted targeting groups with “tea party” or “patriot” in their name, confirming long-standing accusations that conservative applicants for tax-exempt status had been improperly scrutinized.
Before 2013, numerous cases had been filed against both progressive and conservative groups, Holman said. In Branch Ministries v. Rossotti, the plaintiff was a church that lost its tax-exempt status after publishing two newspaper advertisements urging people not to vote for Bill Clinton, deemed electioneering.
Washington Examiner Videos
Original Author: Katherine Doyle