Opponents of the academic doctrine known as Critical Race Theory protest outside of the Loudoun County School Board headquarters, in Ashburn, Virginia, U.S. June 22, 2021.
Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters
A group that fueled attacks on critical race theory during Virginia’s hotly contested gubernatorial race has ties to several of former President Donald Trump’s allies, including Newt Gingrich and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson.
The group, 1776 Action, is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit “dark money” organization that isn’t required to publicly disclose its donors. Gingrich and Carson themselves aren’t listed among the group’s leaders, although people close to them, including family members and former top aides, have leadership roles.
Before this year, it was known as the American Legacy Center. It targeted Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election and congressional Democrats during the 2018 midterms.
The organization raised over $2.3 million from 2014 through 2019, according to their public 990 forms reviewed by CNBC. Records for 2020 and 2021 are not yet available. 1776 Action did not respond to CNBC’s requests for comment before publication.
The organization, which says it is committed to stopping “anti-American indoctrination,” is positioned to continue pushing its message during next year’s midterms and then perhaps the 2024 race as conservative forces increasingly take aim at critical race theory.
The group’s rebranding came as new fronts in the conservative-liberal culture war erupted over teaching about race and racism in schools.
Critical race theory is an academic approach to studying the impact of racism. It is taught at the college and graduate school level. More recently, conservatives have used the term to describe any anti-racism discussion or even any mention of race in schools. Republicans have largely opposed the teaching of critical race theory, and it was a pivotal issue in the Virginia election.
1776 Action took its name from Trump’s own 1776 Commission, a White House initiative that called its work a “rebuttal of reckless ‘re-education’ attempts that seek to reframe American history around the idea that the United States is not an exceptional country but an evil one.”
Republican Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia governor’s race after campaigning, in part, on pushing to ban the teaching of critical race theory in the commonwealth’s schools. While Youngkin kept Trump at arm’s length, the former president was outspoken in his support of the candidate – and for fighting critical race theory education.
In September, 1776 Action’s logo was featured at a Virginia event called the “Rally to Save Our Schools.” Youngkin said during the rally that he would ban the teaching of critical race theory if he became governor. Carson also spoke at the event.
The banner at the event featured logos of other similar groups, such as the Virginia-based political action committee Fight for Schools, which opposes the teaching of critical race theory. Data from the Virginia Public Access Project shows that 1776 Action group contributed $10,000 this year to the PAC, one of their most recent top donors. Two outside groups affiliated with Trump also gave to the Fight for Schools PAC.
1776 Action also published an over nine-minute video showing what the group says is Virginia parents pushing back on the teaching of critical race theory.
The group’s origins
The American Legacy Center was established in 2014. Virginia state records show an original board including Adam Waldeck, a former Gingrich aide on his 2012 campaign for president. Waldeck is now the president of 1776 Action. Waldeck was American Legacy’s executive director from its inception through 2019. Stefan Passantino, who went on to become deputy White House counsel under Trump, is listed as the attorney that represented the group when it filed articles of incorporation.
Waldeck recently discussed 1776 Action on Gingrich’s podcast. Waldeck told Gingrich that Hannah Smith, who won a school board seat in Texas and has opposed to the teaching of critical race theory, is now a member of their board of advisors. The interview also sheds light on a text messaging campaign the group unleashed during Virginia’s elections this year.
Mike Murray, who would serve as a senior advisor to Carson’s 2016 campaign for president, served on the American Legacy Center’s board from 2015 to 2017. Murray also worked on Trump’s 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns.
Murray is now the CEO of TMA Direct, a data management company that has worked for Carson’s campaign and American Legacy PAC, a political action committee affiliated with the American Legacy Center. American Legacy PAC was reportedly co-founded by Gingrich. Murray is not listed as a leader on 1776 Action’s website.
Carson’s son Benjamin Carson Jr. joined the American Legacy’s board starting in 2016 and remained on it through 2019, according to the 990 forms. 1776 Action’s website lists Carson Jr. son as a member of its board of directors.
A disclosure from 2016 lists another board member, Vincent Haley, who would go on to work for the Trump administration. He resigned from the group in 2017 to join the White House. Haley worked as a deputy assistant to the president, specifically as an “adviser for policy, strategy and speechwriting,” according to disclosure reports.
Haley’s first financial disclosure during his Trump administration tenure also shows his own ties to Gingrich. Haley was a vice president at Gingrich Productions before joining the Trump campaign, his filing says. He also had previous experience working as a producer for the “Billy Graham Film Project, LLC.” Graham was a massively influential Christian evangelist who died in 2018.
Haley is not listed as a 1776 Action board member.
Ryan Rhodes, a former member of Carson’s 2016 campaign, is on 1776 Action’s board and had also served on the board of the American Legacy Center.
Money and influence
Though American Legacy Center does not publicly list its donors, the operatives involved with it helped finance Republican campaigns, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Murray was the treasurer of the affiliated American Legacy PAC since it launched in 2010 through most of the 2016 election. Waldeck was briefly treasurer before the PAC closed in 2017.
The PAC contributed to Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2012 and Trump’s effort in 2016, according to data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. From 2012 through the 2018 midterms, the American Legacy PAC gave over $280,000 to Republican candidates.
The PAC raised over $9 million from its creation until it shut down in 2017. Top donors over the years included Jennifer Pritzker, a member of the wealthy Pritzker family, and Murray, along with other employees of his data firm, TMA Direct. Murray’s company received over $325,000 from the PAC before it closed.
While the American Legacy PAC is closed, its related organization, the American Legacy Center, persisted and took pro-Trump stances in the 2016 and 2018 election cycles.
During the 2016 campaign, the group took aim at Clinton’s handling of the 2012 attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, when she was secretary of State. In two ads posted on their still active YouTube account, the group blasts Clinton with commentary from Kristian “Tanto” Paronto, who was part of the security detail that defended against the attack. Those two spots were published in the summer of 2016, months before Trump defeated Clinton in the election.
A website sponsored by the American Legacy Center at the time lists Paronto as the chairman, according to internet archive the Wayback Machine.
The ad calls on viewers to “put America first,” evoking one of Trump’s slogans, and to “force your members of Congress to do their job.” It ends by encouraging people to go onto a website titled “Sovereignty Now.” Text of the archived site says “the 2018 midterm elections offer a clear choice between President Trump’s vision of strong borders and restored American sovereignty, and the radical Left’s vision of open borders and abolishing ICE.”