If Democratic gubernatorial candidates Douglas M. Duncan and Martin O'Malley aren't careful, they may end up wearing signs on their chests that read "Punked by the NAACP."
If that happens, they shouldn't feel ashamed. The NAACP has been punking American taxpayers for years.
Last week, the nation's oldest civil rights organization released over 500 pages of documents it received from the Internal Revenue Service. The documents are part of an IRS investigation into the NAACP that began in 2004, after Julian "The Mouth" Bond, chairman of the organization, blasted President Bush in a speech that went several light-years over the clearly distinct line that separates partisanship from nonpartisanship.
And partisanship versus nonpartisanship is the issue here. The NAACP claims it is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. Because it is nonprofit and nonpartisan, donors to the NAACP can deduct contributions from their taxes. But the organization's actions have been highly partisan for at least six years.
You wouldn't know that from the reactions of Duncan and O'Malley last week. Both had harsh words for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., whose name appeared in the IRS files. In 2000, Republican donor Richard E. Hug dashed off what might have been - and certainly should have been - a testy letter to the IRS asking them to look into whether the NAACP had violated its nonprofit status. Ehrlich sent a letter after Hug, urging the IRS to answer Hug's request.
NAACP leaders have gone into victim mode since the IRS audit began, and it seems O'Malley and Duncan have gone right with them. "Political retribution," Duncan called Ehrlich's letter in a Sun article by reporter Kelly Brewington. "Dirty tricks" and an "abuse [of] power," chimed in O'Malley in the same article.
Even Rep. Charles Rangel got in on the act, and he's not from Maryland. The New York Democrat said Ehrlich's "hid[ing] behind a constituent's request is cowardly."
Rangel's the same guy who compared Bush to Bull Connor, the public safety commissioner of Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 who turned fire hoses and police dogs on black civil rights demonstrators. You have to wonder why Duncan and O'Malley want to be on the same page as Rangel.
But at least Rangel is an avowed Democrat and a member of Congress. He can be loud, stupid, demagogic and wrong in comparing Bush to Connor, but he has a right to be. Rangel makes no claim of nonpartisanship.
The NAACP does. And the claim is demonstrably bogus. Hug said his letter was prompted by the NAACP National Voter Fund "issue ad" in 2000 that ran just weeks before the presidential election pitting Bush against then-Vice President and Democratic candidate Al Gore.
The "issue ad" was the kind of "dirty tricks" politics that O'Malley finds so distasteful. It's one thing to differ with Bush on hate crimes legislation. It's another to do so in a way that implies he was at best indifferent and at worst callous about the 1998 dragging death of a black man in Texas, when Bush was the governor of the state. The "issue ad" couldn't have been more dishonest if it had Bush praising The Birth of a Nation as his favorite movie.
Bond tried to weasel out of the NAACP's ties to the ad. In a November 2000 letter to The Sun, Bond said the ad was put out by the NAACP National Voter Fund, which is a separate organization. But he went on to defend the "truth" of the ad.
Add to the "issue ad" Bond's pit-bull attacks on Bush and Republicans as the Taliban and neo-Confederates, and you have an NAACP that is highly partisan, not nonpartisan. Shouldn't elected officials demand investigations of nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations that act partisan?
Wouldn't Duncan and O'Malley demand it if a conservative organization claiming to be nonprofit and nonpartisan attacked Democrats the way Bond has attacked Republicans? (Some have pointed out that there are conservative nonprofit groups that put out partisan ads. If those ads are as offensive as that horrendous "issue ad," those organizations need to be reined in as well.)
We should hope they would. And we should hope that Duncan and O'Malley, since they had such harsh words for Ehrlich, would have equally harsh words for the NAACP National Voter Fund for that 2000 "issue ad." And harsh words for the NAACP board chairman who defended it.
Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for the O'Malley campaign, said he's not sure if the mayor, who's in Las Vegas this week, has seen the 2000 "issue ad." But he did give a statement:
"The mayor supports the right of nonprofits to speak without fear that members of Congress will use the IRS to put them out of business."
Jody Couser, a spokeswoman for the Duncan campaign, said that the Montgomery County executive does not recall seeing the 2000 "issue ad" but that he has read about it. Couser said that Duncan stands by his previous comments regarding Ehrlich and the NAACP.
So, it seems, does O'Malley. That's the right of both candidates. But if either or both of them believe that the NAACP is truly nonpartisan, there's an oil well in my Pimlico neighborhood I'd like to sell them.