Home>Opinion>Garden State Initiative Right-Wing Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing

Garden State Initiative Right-Wing Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing

By Joshua Henne, May 03 2018 9:27 am

For the past few decades, all across America, right-wing corporations and billionaires like the Koch brothers have been stealthily funding organizations with a mission aimed at stacking the deck against working families.  Their goal is not to shape meaningful public policy, but rather to boost the bottom lines of their big business and well-heeled backers. These deep-pocketed groups are methodical, connected and committing serious resources to their regressive efforts.  All the while, they mask their true intentions.

Now they’re here in New Jersey via Garden State Initiative – an affiliate of the State Policy Network (SPN) and the latest cog in their well-oiled machine.

Garden State Initiative marks the 49th state in which an SPN group is rearing its head. In other states, these chapters have had years –even decades – to falsely brand themselves as mere “think tanks” to pundits, politicians and the political chattering class.  At least this time, here in New Jersey, we’re already onto their shtick…and their genuine purpose.  Everyone should know what Garden State Initative actually is and the danger it poses to democracy.

The SPN is a national network of ultra-conservative and libertarian “ideas factories” with connections to many secretive and right-wing funders.  Overall, the SPN has an $83 million-dollar annual budget. These organizations follow a similar blueprint – advocating for disenfranchising minorities, privatizing education, gutting environmental protections, eradicating workers’ rights and imposing a tax system at the expense of the middle-class.

On video, in writing and in fundraising solicitations, SPN has admitted their goal is to defund progressive organizations, unions and the government in order to advance Republican causes and candidates. Their grossly political objectives run counter to their 501(c)(3) tax-exempt-status.  While legally required to be non-partisan, in reality they’re manipulated to support and promote right-wing, cookie-cutter bills at the state-wide level.  These groups are established to give the illusion – to the public, reporters and uninformed elected officials – that legislation rolled out by right-wing bill mills is legitimate.

Just like their counterparts in other states, Garden State Initiative conceals its actual intentions. This SPN affiliate innocently bills itself as an “independent, free-market research and educational organization.” However, these groups have been described as less free actors and more like a coordinated collection of corporate cover organizations, bankrolled and steered by cash from undisclosed right-wing billionaires, regressive funders and big business players.

In other states, SPN affiliates go by similarly innocuous names like the Mackinac Center, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research or Yankee Institute for Public Policy. These front groups do their darndest to intentionally hide their funders via questionable “non-profit” statuses and untraceable grants.

For example, the Commonwealth Foundation – right across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania – has a main patron in the Scaife Foundation, a leading patron of the white nationalist movement and in pushing attacks against undocumented individuals for the better part of the last few decades. In the Pacific Northwest, the Freedom Foundation’s employees and staff received fellowship funding from the Alliance Defending Freedom – whose co-founder suggested AIDS is one way G-d punishes the LGBT community and which the Southern Poverty Law Center called “virulently anti-gay.”

Here in New Jersey, Garden State Initiative is headed by Regina Egea – who served as Chief-of-Staff to Governor Chris Christie. You might remember Egea as the head of Christie’s team overseeing the Port Authority when the George Washington Bridge was purposefully ensnarled in traffic jams. You might also know her as the other party in the infamous “deleted texts” with Christie, at the exact same time top Port Authority officials were testifying before the legislature that Bridgegate’s “traffic study” was a complete fabrication. Egea eventually told legislators she texted Christie her thoughts on this testimony …but later erased those messages. It’s no surprise the person chosen to lead New Jersey’s SPN chapter enjoys such deep experience misleading and hiding important information from the public.

We should all take anything we see from Garden State Initiative with a pound of salt.  Whenever you see a study, fact or quote from anyone affiliated with this group, please be wary of both the information and their true intentions.  Last year, in Kentucky – where the Bluegrass Institute operates – the Courier-Journal published an editor’s note warning the SPN affiliate “often peddles articles packaged as facts but based on questionable research methods. Readers must be discerning.” This is their modus operandi across the nation, so expect to see it here.

While SPN affiliates like to say they’re merely “ideas factories,” elected officials should be wary of using their data, retweeting their missives, appearing on their podcasts, circulating their information or legitimizing them in any way. This isn’t like dealing with fair-minded trade organizations, small business owners, or conservative-leaning constituents.  Because at their core, SPN affiliates like Garden State Initiative exist to wreak havoc in a partisan manner. And a whole lot of their work is rooted in dividing working people – often utilizing intimidation tactics or exploiting racial tension. SPN affiliates are not truly “think tanks,” no matter how vociferously they claim to be interested in policy. Rather, by their own admission, they exist to take advantage of tax-exempt donations in order to implement a radical political strategy.

With Garden State Initiative now on the scene as the SPN’s newest nefarious affiliate, we must be vigilant in calling out their efforts to divide New Jerseyans. With connections to Christie allies and the Koch brothers, we know they don’t have our state’s best interests at heart. We must drag them out from the shadows when they negatively influence public policy. We must expose the big money and bad ideas funneling in from out-of-state billionaires, corporate interests and right-wing networks. And we must shine a light, big and bright, so they don’t succeed in importing extremism here to the Garden State.

Joshua Henne is President of White Horse Strategies and can be found on Twitter at @JoshuaHenne.

This story originally appeared in the Asbury Park Press.

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