Mayor Mike Rawlings as 'Big Tax,' in the Conservative Response Team's attack ad against the bond package. (Credit: YouTube)

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A National Neo-Confederate Group Came for the Statue Removal, Stayed For the Bond Package

Why is a national organization throwing its weight behind opposing a municipal bond package?

Over the last couple days, a series of bizarre ads urging voters to vote against each proposition in the city’s bond package was uploaded to YouTube and aired over local radio stations. The ads were on behalf of a national group known as the Conservative Response Team, which says it has donors in Dallas but whose leadership operates in other states.

According to its Form 990—which it first filed with the Internal Revenue Service in 2015 as a 501(c)(4) social action group—it is technically based in Kansas City, Missouri, where its treasurer is located. Its president is the longtime Republican operative Rick Shaftan, who lives in North Carolina. Shaftan noted that it “doesn’t have a storefront” and operates across the country. The Conservative Response Team first arrived in Dallas when the City Council began discussing the removal of Confederate statues. The group bought radio ads maligning the council for its decision to bring down the Robert E. Lee statue in his namesake park.

In an interview, Shaftan said that the statues were why the group—which, on its Facebook page, declares its intent to “fight back anywhere, anytime against leftist kooks who want to attack our values”—stuck around for the bond package. On Election Day today, the group made unfounded allegations that Mayor Mike Rawlings was closing polling places. There is no proof that this occurred.

“The city has all this money to take down statues, so they clearly don’t need the money for the other stuff. That’s what our position is,” he said. “Especially because they’re going to take down more statues, right? They need the money to take down new statues, rename streets, parks, everything, schools—they need money for that.”

Renaming schools would fall under the purview of the school district, not the city. The bond package includes $1.05 billion for streets, parks, trails, city facilities, erosion control, Fair Park, and more. The city manager’s office has estimated that it cost $450,000 to remove Lee’s statue, and could be about $1 million to move the Confederate war memorial in Pioneer Park.

Earlier this week, Fox 4 reported that Republican donor and Dallas businessman Christopher Ekstrom was behind the ad. But each ad says it was paid for by the Conservative Response Team, and Shaftan says the group was emboldened “by donors that live in the city of Dallas” who “are fed up about this stuff.”  He declined to name these donors, and none of the group’s publicly-available IRS documents show who, locally, is donating. The group does not legally have to disclose who is giving it money. In 2015, in its last publicly available tax document, the group had $29,000 in the bank. Its grasp on the city’s municipal structure is also specious—the ads refer to the Dallas City Council as a “Commission.”

Conservative Response Team has largely showed up in communities considering removing Confederate iconography. In 2015, it made about 40,000 robocalls to South Carolinians as the statehouse was weighing whether to remove the Confederate flag. More recently, Shaftan admitted changing a Washington Post headline on Facebook to reflect that a Virginia gubernatorial candidate supported removing Confederate statues when the candidate maintained the opposite.

The post was shared 400,000 times, according to this Associated Press report, generating considerable hand-wringing among Facebook users who didn’t bother to click the link. Shaftan is also the former aide to a Republican New Jersey Senate hopeful who campaigned against then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker in 2013. Shaftan was fired after a profanity-laced, homophobic rant against Booker became public. Booker later won that race. (When asked to confirm this, Shaftan called me a “leftist” and hung up.)

In 2015, the Conservative Response Team’s IRS filing shows that the far-right troll Charles “Chuck” Johnson served as its vice president. Shaftan said that Johnson—who was banned from Twitter in 2015 for perceived threats to other users and, more recently, has been raising money for the shuttered racist website The Daily Stormer—is no longer with the group. The two have appeared in public together numerous times.

Confederate iconography removal, gubernatorial races — a municipal bond package seems a little below the organization’s standard advocacy horizon. But Shaftan insists the statues aren’t the real motivator here. The donors and supporters—a list of whom he said he “didn’t have in front of” him before referring me to the group’s Facebook page—wanted it to speak up.

“We have a donor network of conservatives who are fed up with all nonsense going on,” he said. “It goes from political correctness to taxpayer rip-offs, all of which intermingle.”

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