This article has been updated. See below.
North Carolina's newly elected Republican governor Pat McCrory hasn't been in office for even two months, and already progressive groups and their allies within North Carolina's state Democratic party have the long knives out. That is, if a leaked memo from the progressive organization Blueprint North Carolina is to be believed. The controversial memo was first reported on by the Charlotte Observer this past Friday. The Observer reported:
A group that sent out a memo with tips on how to attack Gov. Pat McCrory and other Republican leaders exercised “bad judgment” that could jeopardize its funding, the director of a foundation that finances the group said Friday.[...]
The memo was forwarded by Stephanie Bass, then Bluprint’s communications director, to the group’s nonprofit allies. The Observer obtained a copy.
Describing the control Republicans hold on North Carolina state government, it gave progressives a list of recommendations. Among them:
• “Crippling their leaders (McCrory, Tillis, Berger etc.).”
• “Eviscerate the leadership and weaken their ability to govern.”
• “Pressure McCrory at every public event.”
• “Slam him when he contradicts his promises.”
• “Private investigators and investigative reporting, especially in the executive branch…”
Those were among the talking points and action steps in a memo forwarded by Blueprint North Carolina, a partnership of advocacy and policy groups based in Raleigh.
The memo was emailed to groups last week with a warning: “It is CONFIDENTIAL to Blueprint, so please be careful – share with your boards and appropriate staff but not the whole world.”
Since the original story, the memo has begun to amass press coverage and possibly become a minor scandal in North Carolina politics. WRAL-TV Raleigh has posted an exhaustive analysis of the various different reactions to the memo (most recently updated Saturday), as well as a link to the text of the memo itself.
Conservatives, naturally, have reacted with outrage, while progressives have either distanced themselves or (in the case of Blueprint NC) defended the memo by claiming it is really an out-of-context mish-mash of various unrelated documents, cobbled together to make them look bad. Blueprint NC's director, Sean Kosofsky, called the memo a "James O'Keefe-style splicing of two radially different things" in an interview with WRAL-TV Raleigh.
Meanwhile, Republican officials have blasted progressives for their hypocrisy in attacking conservative organizations (like the North Carolina based Civitas Institute) for their close proximity to power, when progressive groups like Blueprint NC are (according to them) literally putting words in the mouths of Democratic leadership. They point (among other things) to certain poll-tested phrases in the memo, which they argue track (in some cases verbatim) with phrases from the actual Democratic response to Governor McCrory's state-of-the-State address, delivered by State Rep. Larry Hall of Durham this month.
So what is the truth behind the memo? Is it only a deceptively assembled leak designed to discredit political opponents, or does the evidence show something more disconcerting? Is there evidence of collaboration between groups like Blueprint NC and North Carolina's Democratic leadership, and if so, how strong is that evidence? To answer these questions, we took a look at the memo itself, and compared its contents to the relevant speech by Rep. Hall.
To begin with, one has to note the contents of the leaked memo. It consists of a three page strategy memo, a poll, several slides showing successful poll-tested language, a cover email introducing the poll (and warning staffers that it is "CONFIDENTIAL to Blueprint, so please be careful"), and a version of the speech by Rep. Hall which tracks almost perfectly with the actual speech (one or two different words are substituted in places, but without changing the meaning of any sentence). The poll was taken between January 29 and February 2nd. The email introducing the poll and the slides is dated February 15. Neither the speech nor the strategy memo have any dates written on them. While the cover email clearly comes from a staffer at Blueprint NC, the strategy memo makes no reference to the name of the organization that drafted it. Moreover, the strategy memo includes the words "DRAFT: NOT FOR DISTRIBUTION" at the top of every page, suggesting it is only a preliminary version of an unknown finished product.
This draft status may explain why the strategy memo section contains the most controversial language. For instance:
Nevertheless, there is no direct evidence to link Blueprint NC itself to the strategy memo section of the larger leak, other than its inclusion with the other documents. Blueprint NC claims that the strategy memo is a document from an old planning retreat by progressive groups, and this explanation is consistent with the relatively unofficial and cobbled together nature of the leak, as though it was drawn from a pile of documents handed out to conference participants. However, the source behind the leak, according to WRAL-TV Raleigh, was an attendant at this retreat, which was apparently organized by Blueprint NC. This does not mean that the memo was authored by Blueprint NC, but it does suggest that they may have approved of its contents prior to its being handed out.
In fact, Sean Kosofsky, Blueprint NC's aforementioned director, explicitly did agree with the broader strategy in the following email to WRAL-TV Raleigh:
Darn right. C3 nonprofits should absolutely try to stop bad policies that hurt the poor and hurt the environment, women and the middle class. If they need to exploit weaknesses of lawmakers, they should. I stand by that.
The meeting in December was of over 50 organizations. People bring their own idea. I am not going to claim or distance myself from things without greater context. The only thing that matters to Blueprint is what Blueprint does. I cannot speak for others. We cannot be held to what others do at meetings we are at. that is completely unfair.
I am not going to cherry pick ideas from that draft plan and say which ones we approve of or disapprove of. I will say this...The stakes are high for the people of NC. This governor and legislature are approving raises for their cabinet while gutting benefits for folks already injured by unemployment. Blueprint and our partners are passionate advocates for policy passed in the public interest, not passed for special interests. Our partners can educate the public, educate lawmakers and absolutely hold them accountable when they vote against the interests of the people of NC. the public should know that charitable groups can and do advocate strongly. they should. Blueprint doesn't lobby or do any public advocacy. This isn't about us at all.
So in other words, even if Blueprint NC didn't explicitly author the strategy memo section, it's probable that they agree with at least some of the ideas it proposes. Whether this includes the suggestion of "eviscerating" opponents is unclear, though certainly, based on the materials that do come from Blueprint NC, they appear to support branding Governor McCrory as an allegedly corrupt right-wing extremist as early in his term as possible. They also appear to want to keep that strategy a secret. From the cover email:
And from the polling data:
It is unclear why a progressive organization would seek to keep their intent to oppose an ideologically hostile politician from day one a secret. It is possible that they view such early and open opposition as politically unpalatable, or wish to avoid the perception of hoping for McCrory's failure (and thus second guessing the voters) early on.
However, the idea of a leftist think tank/advocacy group opposing a Republican politician is not, in itself, newsworthy. Which brings us to the question of how much influence Blueprint NC's ideas for phrasing had on the state of the State response speech by Rep. Hall.
When it comes to the speech's text, as already stated, it tracks almost perfectly with the text included in the leak. It also includes several phrases and ideas that appear to be drawn either verbatim or near-verbatim from the poll-tested language. This is especially true of Hall's attack on McCrory's education initiatives.
Hall on education spending:
Poll-tested language on same:
Hall on McCrory's proposal for online charter schools:
Poll-tested language on same:
The language is practically verbatim, which suggests that this particular bit of strategic advice was indeed influential on Democratic leadership in North Carolina. For Hall's full speech, you can watch below:
However, the question of whether Blueprint NC was the group that did the influencing is separate. The poll included in the leaked packet is not a poll done by Blueprint NC themselves, but rather by the Alexandria, VA-based Myers Research & Strategic Services consulting firm. Looking at Myers Research & Strategic Services' list of clients, Blueprint NC does not appear, while the North Carolina Democratic Party does. As such, it is far more likely that Hall's speech got its poll-tested language directly from the consulting firm itself, rather than from Blueprint NC.
But even if Blueprint NC didn't directly write the speech with in-house language, the fact that they got the poll without being clients raises the question of who sent them the poll in the first place. Given that the only North Carolina-based clients listed on Myers Research and Strategic Services' website are the North Carolina Association of Realtors and the North Carolina Democratic Party, it seems likely that one of these two must be responsible. And if the source was the North Carolina Democratic Party, this in turn raises the question of how much coordination there is between them and outside liberal nonprofits like Blueprint NC.
To be fair, it should be noted that even if there was coordination, this wouldn't necessarily be illegal or unethical. Many conservative firms interface with both national and state-level organizations, and cultivate connections to friendly political figures. The recent hiring of Senator Jim DeMint to lead the DC-based Heritage Foundation arguably shows that cultivating connections to power is as much a part of political nonprofits' mission as producing research or doing independent advocacy. However, it doesn't follow from this that Heritage controls the Republican caucus in either house of Congress, and no more does it follow that Blueprint NC exerts any control over the North Carolina Democratic Party. In fact, given that Blueprint NC may be the one getting forwarded polls, if any power dynamic exists, it would likely be the other way around.
So is it Blueprint NC's plan to "eviscerate" Republican leadership in North Carolina? It is possible, but also impossible to prove conclusively given the evidence available. Did they ghostwrite the state of the State response by Rep. Hall? Unlikely, but possible. However, even in the rosiest situation, this story appears to be a cautionary tale about separating official literature from third party suggestions, and about keeping company with overzealous fellow travelers. After all, "evisceration" probably polls poorly as a tactic.
Update: Readers may be interested to know that Blueprint NC is funded by the Open Society Institute, well known for having been founded by Left-wing billionaire George Soros. The group contributed $150,000 last year, and is the Blueprint NC's second most prolific funder.