BURLINGTON, Vt., Aug. 23 (UPI) -- A week before its launch, a liberal advocacy group started by former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders' campaign staffers as the next stage in the "political revolution" is facing a liberal civil war.
One-third of the 15-person team Sanders put together to run a nonprofit advocacy group focusing on issues of election reform and economic inequality have quit amid a heated internal debate about how the organization should be structured, who should run it and whether its existence as a nonprofit violated campaign finance laws prohibiting electioneering by such groups.
ABC News reported last week that former Sanders campaign manager and longtime adviser Jeff Weaver was tapped by Sanders' wife, Jane, to lead the new group "Our Revolution." Weaver's presence reignited an internal rift between old guard Sanders advisers like Weaver and the younger generation of political operatives who helped make Sanders a political sensation in the age of digital campaigning.
Among the most prominent departure was Kenneth Pennington, Politico reported. Pennington was Sanders' digital director, leading the team that helped connect a little-known septuagenarian senator with a passionate base of college students who were the foot soldiers in the Sanders revolution.
Politico reported Pennington and others who worked with him building the candidate's online presence and wildly successful base of small Internet-driven donors said Weaver was dismissive of their efforts, instead crediting the candidate's bold liberal agenda for the campaign's ascendancy. Pennington and four other staff members of the fledgling Our Revolution gave Sanders an ultimatum: if Weaver was put in charge, they would quit.
Aside from still raw campaign wounds, a principled debate over the direction of the charity group emerged. Our Revolution was founded as a "social welfare" group under the 501(c)4 designation in the U.S. tax code. Under the law, such groups are permitted to accept unlimited donations anonymously, but cannot exist with a primary function of political lobbying.
Interpreted practically, the group must spend no more than 49 percent of its annual donations on political campaigns or advertising.
Sanders' move to create a 501(c)4 is not a new thing for presidential candidates. President Barack Obama created a similar organization to continue using his campaign infrastructure to influence the political debate. What is unique to Sanders is how closely he could be involved with the group while still a sitting senator.
Typically, such organizations are run by political operatives and steer clear of direct electioneering, but in Sanders' case, his wife is chair of the Our Revolution board of directors and Sanders himself has been intimately involved in its creation and direction. The nascent group has already encouraged supporters to donate to the campaign of Tim Canova, the Florida lawyer mounting a primary challenge to Sanders foe Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Under federal law, a sitting lawmaker cannot encourage donations to any candidate greater than the individual contribution limit of $2,700, leading some tax law experts to question whether the group as structured is in violation of federal tax law.
Apart from the open legal question, Sanders faces an ethical question as well: He railed against the influence of uber-wealthy, anonymous donors to super PACs, many of which also register as a 501(c)4 in order to keep their donor lists private.
ABC News reported an individual associated with Our Revolution has not said whether it will disclose its donor list in order to avoid the appearance of hypocrisy.
Politico reported Weaver is leaning toward the more traditional political fundraising tools most groups use, including accepting large donations from wealthy contributors, something that was anathema to the Sanders campaign's "$27" ethos -- the average size of a contribution made to the Sanders campaign.
"It's about both the fundraising and the spending: Jeff would like to take big money from rich people including billionaires and spend it on ads," said Claire Sandberg, one of the younger Sanders hands who quit Our Revolution. "That's the opposite of what this campaign and this movement are supposed to be about and after being very firm and raising alarm the staff felt that we had no choice but to quit."