With two and half months to go before the Nov. 6 general election, Dr. Brad Buckley, the Republican nominee for the Texas House District 54 seat, has become the target of new attack ads from an anonymous state organization.
In a pair of Facebook ads circulated locally and three posts on its website, a Delaware-based nonprofit group named Reform Austin targeted Buckley as a “say one thing, do another politician” during his primary and general election campaign.
The group, which has targeted Republicans all over the state in its online blog posts and social media posts, has been mostly focused on criticizing GOP candidates for state office on topics as far ranging as health care access and property taxes.
But despite the wealth of content the group has posted in recent weeks, information on the money and donors driving Reform Austin is unclear.
On both its website and social media accounts, there are no listed headquarters, telephone contact numbers, board members, donors or staff. While the group claims 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service, there are no records of it filing annual financial reports or exemption applications.
For Buckley, a former Killeen school district board member, the renewed attacks could have little impact on his well-funded campaign against Democrat Kathy Richerson, of Bell County, in the Nov. 6 general election — but it could reveal some of the forces stacked against him if he wins office.
Who is Reform Austin?
While the group has a robust website and social media presence — with nearly 45,000 followers on Facebook alone — there is little identifying information on Reform Austin or the donors who pay its bills.
On its website, Reform Austin identifies as a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt nonprofit organization with the mission “to educate taxpayers on the records of their elected officials and the solutions that will lead Texas forward.”
But according to database searches with the Internal Revenue Service, which grants tax-exempt status to nonprofit groups, there is no formal record of Reform Austin, including annual financial reports or 990 tax-return forms.
The only piece of public information the group has filed was a registration application Feb. 21 with the Texas Secretary of State’s Office, which allowed the organization to conduct business in the state.
On that form, a few clues about the organization’s backers are presented.
According to its state application, Reform Austin, Inc., was incorporated in late January in Delaware through CT Corporation, an American subsidiary of Netherlands-based Wolters Kluwer, which offers registered agent and corporate compliance services with a speciality in Delaware incorporation.
Registered agents act as points of contact between businesses and the state in which they are incorporated, according to CT’s website.
The central benefit of incorporating in Delaware, according to Harvard Business Services, is that companies are not required to name their directors during the process of incorporation and can list a single director on its incorporation papers.
In most other states, businesses are required to name their directors, list more than one director or both.
According to Sam Taylor, director of communications with the Texas Secretary of State, if a corporation does not show up in IRS databases it could indicate it is awaiting federal approval of its application.
“The way it works is that in order to get that tax-exempt status in the first place, they have to come to us and get the registration paperwork,” Taylor said. “It probably means they’re still waiting for approval.”
The sole board member listed on Reform Austin’s state application is Rogene Gee Calvert, whose official address is listed in Washington, D.C. A Google search of the listed address shows the occupant as the Caplin & Drysdale law firm, which specializes in political law consulting and “tax controversies.”
Calvert is also a director at Outreach Strategists, a Houston-based political strategy and consultancy firm founded by Mustafa Tameez, a Democratic strategist who has been frequently featured on Fox News and is a contributing opinion writer for the Houston Chronicle newspaper.
Tameez did not respond to a request for comment by Twitter and email.
While Reform Austin does not have a contact phone number, the Herald sent a list of questions to the organization by email asking for its IRS documentation, annual finance reports, and lists of board members and donors. An unnamed representative from Reform Austin did not answer the Herald’s questions but did send a statement that read, in full:
“To create change and increase accountability in state government we need greater focus on those seeking public office. Reform Austin is a new nonpartisan movement dedicated to examining the record and rhetoric of politicians.”
Calvert could not be reached for comment by phone or email.
Benefits of anonymity
Although Reform Austin’s anonymity could rub local voters the wrong way, Stephanie Martin, an assistant professor at Southern Methodist University with a doctorate in communications, said withholding identities can help activists focus their message.
“Anonymous speech is a way to foreground a message so that the issues and the arguments are listened to,” Martin said. “Just because they’re anonymous does not imply sinister motive. But as a practical matter, most people will see something sinister in it.”
Though little is known about the actors driving Reform Austin, the editorial direction of the group is well established as dozens of online posts and a social media onslaught have raised the organization’s profile.
In addition to three online posts targeting Buckley’s statements on living wages and an about-face on taking campaign funds from a Republican Buckley called a “liberal,” the group has targeted Republicans running for office in every corner of the state.
Among the group’s many objectives are preventing state rules for paid sick leave, addressing maternal mortality rates and increasing access to health care coverage.
According to Martin, who specializes in corporate communications and public affairs, Reform Austin represents one of many progressive strategies to engage Texas voters in a general effort to swing the state back towards “purple” — or a closer mix of Republican and Democrat.
Whether their approach works is still up for debate.
“I think that progressive communication in Texas is going to try anything,” Martin said. “If Democrats are going to inch their way to a lighter shade of red, it’s going to come on the margins. “I think (Reform Austin is) actually a pretty inexpensive way to put an idea in front of people and get them to think.”
One of Reform Austin’s posts targeted Buckley’s acceptance of campaign funds from Rep. John Zerwas, R-Katy, who Buckley had previously called a “liberal” during his runoff campaign against Rep. Scott Cosper, R-Killeen.
In an online post Aug. 16, the group called Buckley a “friend of special interests” by taking a $3,000 contribution from Zerwas, borrowing heavily from prior Herald published reporting.
“As Texans continue to feel uneasy about the significant impact special interest money has on the legislative outcomes, Buckley has already shown that he can be easily convinced when it comes to taking money for his own campaign,” the post read.
On Thursday, Buckley addressed his acceptance of Zerwas’ money after publicly targeting him and his support for Cosper during the lead-up to the May 22 runoff.
“After a hard fought primary season, Republicans are coming together to support each other in the upcoming general election,” Buckley said. “It is of the utmost importance that the Republican party maintain a strong majority in the Texas House to continue an agenda of prosperity for Texans.”
Zerwas, a candidate for the Texas House Speaker role set to be vacated by Speaker Joe Straus, is a six-term incumbent and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
“The voters deserve to know the political leanings and history of a Cosper surrogate (Zerwas) that advocated strongly on his behalf,” Buckley said in an email in early May. “If Cosper doesn’t understand that the vote for Speaker is a public policy debate itself, then I don’t think he understands the job description of being a State Representative.”
Buckley’s flyer — with “Who is John Zerwas?” scrawled across the top — was the culmination of a bitter final few weeks of the District 54 runoff, in which Cosper swarmed voters’ mailboxes with barbs against Buckley, and Buckley responded with pointed flyers of his own.
On Thursday, Buckley also responded to a separate Reform Austin post accusing him of opposing living wages for Texans.
“A strong Texas economy with nearly full employment and a competitive labor market always increases wages due to market forces,” Buckley said. “Attempts by government to arbitrarily set wages will stifle growth and hurt the Texas economy and low income Texans.”
Meanwhile, the Democrat in the District 54 race has been running a quiet race of her own.
On Friday, Kathy Richerson told the Herald she had recently hired new campaign staff in an effort to get her message and the message of statewide Democrats out to as many people as possible.
“We’re just trying to meet people and spread some good news about what good candidates we have across the state,” she said.
Richerson, a retired real-estate agent and goat farmer in rural Bell County, has so far run a lightly funded campaign that faced controversy in January when the Bell County Democratic Party issued a scathing news release criticizing her performance in a forum hosted by the Herald.
Since then, Richerson has been focusing heavily on Lampasas County, she said, where much of the population is rural.
“I’ve been having a really good time,” she said. “I’ve been all over, and I’ve gotten to meet all sorts of people.”
Richerson said she attended a rally for U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, Aug. 16 in Lampasas and was impressed by the candidate’s poise. She said that rally — with supporters stretching past capacity at the Hostess House at Hancock Springs in Lampasas — told Richerson that Democrats in District 54 were ready for a change.
“We’re trying to make sure that people understand there are enough Democrats around here,” Richerson said. “They just need to turn up and vote. If they turn out, we can win.”