John Edwards is the most unabashedly populist candidate (so far…) in the race to November 2008, frequently utilizing class-infused rhetoric in his diagnoses of “two Americas.”

One of Edwards’ loftiest priorities is to eradicate poverty, and ostensibly to that end he founded the now-defunct Center for Promise and Opportunity in 2005.  The group’s rather vague mission statement read:

The Center for Promise and Opportunity (CPO) is dedicated to exploring new ways to expand opportunity and realize the promise of our country for all Americans. CPO’s mission encompasses much more than just proposing ideas — it will lead efforts to build public support for change, and will serve as an incubator for solutions, conducting real-world trials.

CPO has three overarching goals. First, CPO is committed to exploring new ideas to help Americans build a better life. Second, CPO will be an advocate for change, leading efforts to build support for policies and movements that will make America stronger. Third, CPO will work to prove the strength of its ideas, through pilot projects and partnerships.

As The New York Times reports, however, the organization’s day-to-day mission seems to have been sustaining John Edwards’ presidential ambitions.  This inconvenient truth seems to represent a flip-flop from CPO’s supposed purpose, which says nothing about promoting John Edwards.

The organization became a big part of a shadow political apparatus for Mr. Edwards after his defeat as the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2004 and before the start of his presidential bid this time around. Its officers were members of his political staff, and it helped pay for his nearly constant travel, including to early primary states.

While Mr. Edwards said the organization’s purpose was “making the eradication of poverty the cause of this generation,” its federal filings say it financed “retreats and seminars” with foreign policy experts on Iraq and national security issues. Unlike the scholarship charity, donations to it were not tax deductible, and, significantly, it did not have to disclose its donors — as political action committees and other political fund-raising vehicles do — and there were no limits on the size of individual donations. […]

Additionally, Edwards has gone a fair bit beyond the usual extent to which politicians funnel cash to their own interests — though it all appears to have been ambiguously legal.

[…] [I]t was his use of a tax-exempt organization to finance his travel and employ people connected to his past and current campaigns that went beyond what most other prospective candidates have done before pursuing national office. And according to experts on nonprofit foundations, Mr. Edwards pushed at the boundaries of how far such organizations can venture into the political realm. Such entities, which are regulated under Section 501C-4 of the tax code, can engage in advocacy but cannot make partisan political activities their primary purpose without risking loss of their tax-exempt status.

Because the organization is not required to disclose its donors — and the campaign declined to do so — it is not clear whether those who gave money to it did so understanding that they were supporting Mr. Edwards’s political viability as much or more than they were giving money to combat poverty.

Edwards partisans will no doubt assert that, as perhaps the only major candidate who avowedly supports “making the eradication of poverty the cause of this generation,” the ex-Senator’s political viability is the best way to force Washington into taking on the difficult class issues that hurt many hard-working Americans.  Edwards’ campaign certainly seems to think so:

“One of the Center for Promise and Opportunity’s main goals was to raise awareness about poverty and engage people to fight it,” Jonathan Prince, deputy campaign manager, said yesterday. “Of course, it sent Senator Edwards around the country to do this. How else could we have engaged tens of thousands of college students or sent 700 young people to help rebuild New Orleans? It’s patently absurd to suggest there’s anything wrong with an organization designed to raise awareness about poverty actually working to raise awareness about poverty.”

 “Of course, some of the people who worked for Senator Edwards in the government and on his campaign continued to work with him to fight poverty and send young people to college,” he added. “Perish the thought: people involved in politics actually trying to improve peoples’ lives.”

Edwards allies also note that the related and almost identically named Center For Promise and Opportunity Foundation has actively helped many low-income students afford to attend college:

 The Center for Promise and Opportunity Foundation, which started with $70,000 in 2005, gave out $300,000 in college scholarships in 2006, said Pamela Garland, the executive director of the College for Everyone Program that is part of the foundation. The center, often praised for helping poor students in Greene County, N.C., get into college, is on track to give out $476,000 this year, Ms. Garland said.

But some critics take a far less charitable perspective, decrying what they see as unethical gaming of the system:

“It’s a permanent campaign,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit group based in Washington. “It’s about shaking every money tree possible and finding every means to finance a permanent campaign. It’s like having different checking accounts, with different rules, and the goal of keeping your name and agenda in the public eye.” 

So is getting the word out about John Edwards a valid form of “making the eradication of poverty the cause of this generation?”  Or did Edwards flip-flop on the purpose of his organization?

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UPDATE 6.24.07

According to the Associated Press, John Edwards has issued new comments defending the Center for Promise and Opportunity:

Speaking to reporters after a town hall meeting Saturday night in Reno, Edwards denied accusations that the Center for Promise and Opportunity has been used to promote his presidential campaign.

Edwards noted his efforts on behalf of the center to raise the minimum wage in states, help low-income students attend college, organize workers into unions and engage young people in the fight against poverty.

“All of this was an effort to try to deal with the issue of poverty in America, which is the cause of my life,” he said. “What I’ve been doing is not only significant and there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s something I’m very proud of. Everything we did was not only completely legal but we did a lot of good.”

Asked if he would disclose a full list of donors to the organization, which is not required by law, Edwards refused:

“I will do whatever the law provides. That’s what I do on all these things.”

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