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Sue Lani Madsen: Southern Poverty Law Center looking for hate in all the wrong places

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, will write opinion for the Spokesman-Review on an occasional basis.  Photo taken Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015.  JESSE TINSLEY jesset@spokesman.com (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, will write opinion for the Spokesman-Review on an occasional basis. Photo taken Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015. JESSE TINSLEY jesset@spokesman.com (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Last weekend I ran into old friends who had just been named to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of anti-government radicals.

Once I might have swallowed SPLC propaganda without question. Not after 2013, when the SPLC pinned the Singing Nuns of Mount St. Michael to their “hate map” of extremist groups.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has become a fundraising machine disguised as a social justice charity.

The SPLC was established in 1971 by lawyer Morris Dees and his partner Joseph Levin in an act of contrition for defending a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Its original target was shutting down the KKK.

The organization was so effective that by the late 1980s the SPLC needed a new mission. They added neo-Nazi skinhead groups to their list as the traditional KKK waned, and their trademark Klanwatch became Hatewatch.

The SPLC assisted North Idaho human rights activists in prosecuting Richard Butler and his Aryan Nations group in 2000. The SPLC was the good guys.

That’s all I knew about them until the Singing Nuns of Mount St. Michael made the hate map, surprising their former human rights allies in North Idaho. I didn’t actually know any nuns, but they looked pretty harmless singing Christmas carols. Based on the Spokesman-Review coverage at the time, it seemed the SPLC had made a mistake. I figured they’d correct it.

But the Singing Nuns are still there. Now, a separate list of anti-government extremists on the SPLC’s Hatewatch blog also lists nearly every county commissioner from Pend Oreille, Stevens, Ferry and Okanogan counties.

Their listing makes even less sense to me than the Singing Nuns, because I know many of these commissioners. I know the label doesn’t fit Karen Skoog (Pend Oreille), Don Dashiell (Stevens), Wes McCart (Stevens), Mike Blankenship (Ferry) or Brad Miller (Ferry). I’ve never heard them advocate for the violent overthrow of the American government, even if they are frustrated with the U.S. Forest Service as an absentee landlord. It’s a false equivalence.

Under the legislative category is a good friend from rural Grays Harbor County, Jim Walsh. His wife, Jamie Walsh, is an architect and a professional colleague of mine. As vice chairman of the Washington State Republican Party, Jim’s been a peacemaker. His “hate” crime appears to be that he’s a Republican running in what used to be a safely Democratic legislative district, one that’s now ready to flip.

And then I spotted a neighbor on the list. I’ve worked professionally with Sheriff Wade Magers for more than 18 years. Wade is focused on efficient law enforcement on a tight budget, covering a whole lot of territory without a whole lot of deputies. Work, youth sports and volunteering with the Lions Club don’t qualify as hate crimes. When I called Wade to tell him he made the list, he was as surprised as I was.

They are all accused of embracing an “extremist ‘patriot’ agenda on federal lands.” I know these people. That’s a baldfaced lie.

Nurturing hate and creating fear are good ways to raise money, and the SPLC has been very, very good at raising money. Its 2014 filing with the IRS indicates revenue of $42.7 million and expenses of $37.5 million, in spite of high executive salaries, questionable fundraising expenses and high overhead. Though they’re a nonprofit and don’t report it as such, in essence, they made a profit of over $5 million in a single year.

Their fundraising success accounts for this recommendation from Serious Givers, a charity rating website: “Given its very high reserve ratio (reserves greater than 7 times annual spending), Southern Poverty Law Center does not appear to need donated support at this time.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center no longer deserves respect either.

Foreign Policy magazine, a 40-year-old publication with a mission to “question commonplace views and groupthink,” examined the methodology used to develop the Hatewatch list in a March 2013 article and concluded the SPLC is “not an objective purveyor of data.” How can it be, when the SPLC needs new enemies on the list every year in order to manipulate donors out of their money? They aren’t the good guys anymore.

Sue Lani Madsen can be reached at rulingpen@ gmail.com or on Twitter: @SueLaniMadsen.

This column has been updated to reflect the fact that the list of elected officials holding extremist views is on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch blog; Mount St. Michael is included on SPLC’s Hate Group list.