An organization founded by ex-Sen. John Edwards was meant to fight poverty, but many clues suggest it instead focuses more on fighting partisan battles– and avoiding scrutiny by North Carolina taxpayers.
The Center on Work, Poverty, and Opportunity at the UNC School of Law was founded in 2005 as a sort of halfway house for Edwards to cool his heels in between presidential campaigns. Not then disgraced by scandal, Edwards brought in big money from former campaign donors to help found and fund the Center, while UNC lent its prestige and credibility to Edwards’ campaign to recognize the “Two Americas.”
While UNC officials and Edwards pledged at the time that the Center would be a non-partisan center for analysis focused on helping impoverished Americans, the record since then has shown that the Poverty Center acts a partisan institution that uses legal loopholes to try to avoid scrutiny of fundraising and donors.
According to an article by WRAL, during Edwards’ tenure as head of the Poverty Center the center received over $3.3 million in private gifts and pledges, which among other things helped to fund his $40,000-a-year salary. A large part of this money was donated by Michael Cucchiara, a Chapel Hill businessman and partner in Greenbridge Developments. During his almost two years as head of the center, Edwards attended just 20 events there. According to former Edwards aide Andrew Young in his tell-all memoir, The Politician, “On the rare occasions when he was at the center, he did mostly political work, including fundraising[.]”
Edwards left the Center in 2006 in order to begin a second run for President of the United States. After he left, the center was led by UNC Professor Marion Crain until 2008, and is now led by UNC Law Professor Gene Nichol. Nichol had been head of the UNC Law School before becoming President of the College of William & Mary. His rocky tenure at William & Mary included a furor over removing a cross from campus chapel and a campus event called the “Sex Workers’ Art Project.” Under fire, Nichol resigned and returned to the UNC Law School. Nichol has also run unsuccessfully for public office twice in Colorado, once for U.S. Senate, and once for House of Representatives, both times as a Democrat.
Since the departure of Edwards and the large named gifts associated with his leadership, the Center has been increasingly secretive about its fundraising and activities. In response to a 2011 Civitas Institute Public Records Request, Catherine Pierce of the UNC Law School responded that because the “Center’s programs and staff are funded entirely by private funds, its activities and associated work products do not fall under the jurisdiction of Chapter 132 of the North Carolina General Statutes.”
Chapter 132 is the North Carolina Public Records law. The law, however, states that it covers documents relating to “transaction of public business by any agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions.” There is no exception in the law based on the source of funding. The Poverty Center’s leadership seems to think it sits inside a legal bubble, immune to public records requests because they are funded by private dollars, but not required to file an IRS form 990 required by non-profits because the Poverty Center is part of the public UNC system. Thus it claims to be both private and public, depending on which serves its own interests. This absurdity prevents proper public scrutiny of funding and donors of a public institution working for increasingly partisan purposes. While the center ultimately turned over some documents, it never released requested information about its fundraising and budget, in defiance of public records request laws.
Secondly, while Ms. Pierce is correct that the center did not receive public funds in 2012, it received nearly a million dollars in public money between 2005-2009. This make her response either ignorant of the true facts, or deliberately misleading as to how the Center was funded.
The UNC Poverty Center’s partisan inclinations have been increasingly on display since 2010, when the GOP took over North Carolina’s General Assembly for the first time in over 100 years. At the time the poverty center was in the midst of planning a conference on poverty in North Carolina. An email from Nichol, sent just a few days after the 2010 elections on November 18, 2010, is worth quoting extensively:
Our thought, early on, had been to explore a wide array of public and non-profit practices and ventures which have proven effective in fighting poverty and wealth disparity. But, frankly, given the altered circumstance in Raleigh and Washington, it has now seemed more important, or essential, to change directions. It occurs to us [and, I know, to you] that we face an unfolding crisis in North Carolina for poor and working class folks. Accordingly, we propose to hold a large set of discussions, in mid-spring, to explore and develop and press an agenda for working people at a time of exigency in Carolina. (Emphasis added)
In short, the center scrapped a conference on measures they believed to be actually effective in fighting poverty and instead planned a partisan rally against the new GOP majority. Note that this email was sent in 2010. The Great Recession was two years old. More people were unemployed and joining social welfare programs than had been in decades. And what was the major crisis facing North Carolina’s poor? The new Republican majorities in Raleigh and Washington! This email served as the theme and inspiration for the conference.
It didn’t get any better or any less partisan from there. An email on March 18, 2011 referenced (NC NAACP President) “Reverend Barber’s rile-em-up keynote” and stated the conference should end with the “five things … that we ought to lie down in the street for.”
Strangely, no conservative academics or legislators were invited to be on any of the panels to give their opinions, though left-wing speakers from NC Policy Watch, the Z Smith Reynolds Foundation, NC Legal Aide, the NAACP, NC Justice Center, and many others were invited.
No questions were raised about welfare to work or the culture of entitlement. It must go without saying at the non-partisan UNC Poverty Center that conservatives have no place in the public policy discussion on the poor.
The March 28, 2011 conference was entitled: “A North Carolina Summit: Progress and Economic Justice in a Time of Crisis.” At the Conference itself partisan rhetoric flew hot and heavy. A video of much of the conference is attached at the bottom of this article, so you don’t have to take our word for it. See for yourself. Time stamps for quotes we’ve used are in parentheses after the quote.
Chris Fitzsimon of NC Policy Watch said:
The people that control the General Assembly now, and the right wing think tanks that support them seem to have more than a couple of different views of poverty and the people suffering in it: At the top, or rather the bottom, I should say, are the folks who blame the poor for their plight or deny that there are people living in poverty at all. They blame people with HIV, they blame underprivileged kids and their families, they blame people who have no money to see a doctor. They are also the folks who ask, shockingly, “how can a family be considered poor if they have a DVD player.” As if $39 at best buy means you have the means to be middle class.” (20:30)
Javis Hall (Director of the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change, NCCU) declared:
“We need to fight with every fiber of our bodies for people’s right to vote and especially against the Voter ID bill.” (30:55)
State Representative Angela Bryant (D-Halifax, Nash)
“I have worked for decades to focus on jobs, healthcare, education and access for communities of color and low income families and now I am in a situation where I am dealing with the majority who does not have any of those issues on their agenda, in fact, they are in favor of almost the opposite of what we’ve worked so long for.” (33:20)
During the keynote address the Rev. Barber stated:
“We need to expose the Art Pope and the Koch Brothers and trace it all the way back to the John Birch Society which sought to undermine the Civil Rights movement.” (59:50)
Along with the partisanship, a healthy dose of radicalism was present at the conference. Duke University law professor William “Sandy” Darity said as part of the panel on the Political Landscape and Economic Justice that: [t]he federal government should establish a national investment employment core, offering all citizens 18 and up, an employment guarantee at a minimum salary of $20,000 with $10,000 in benefits including medical coverage and retirement support.” (28:00)
Left unanswered is what jobs they are supposed to do, and how productive taxpayers are supposed to afford to pay people in economically unproductive make-work jobs. Statements like this don’t represent a serious attempt to deal with the questions of poverty; rather they are utopian dreaming.
In 2012, the Poverty Center, NC Justice Center, and the NC NAACP engaged in a “Truth and Hope Tour of Poverty” across North Carolina that drew national attention. In a blog post about the tour the Center stated that poverty was often caused by “specific government action or inaction.” Once again no conservative voices were included in the non-partisan tour, despite one of the main targets of the tour being ElectriCities, a program long decried by conservative leaders in North Carolina. According to the Salisbury Post, the Rev. Barber stated that “policies, budgets and priorities of governments and corporations keep people in poverty for the purpose of maintaining power and money in the hands of the few, with a disparate impact on women, children, seniors and other minorities.”
Although public funds have not gone directly to the UNC Center on Poverty since FY 2009, discretionary funds of the Dean of the Law School were used to promote the 2011 Conference and many other activities at the Center. It is impossible to tell whether the funds from the Law School Dean come from private or public money as they are held in the same accounts. But even if the center received no public dollars, it still benefits from the prestige and reputation of the public University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Law School.
Poverty is a serious issue in North Carolina. The great recession has resulted in hardship and belt-tightening in both North Carolina’s households and, to a lesser extent, our governments. It deserves to be treated as more than a partisan football by those who are supposedly leaders in this area.
Disappointingly, the UNC Center on Work, Poverty and Opportunity was plagued from the start with a highly partisan agenda. Making matters worse is the center’s lack of transparency about its funding sources, and a method of stonewalling legitimate public records requests for such information. North Carolina legislators and citizens concerned with true solutions to poverty, rather than partisan dogma, should disregard the rhetoric coming from this extreme left-wing source.