April 1, 2021 — Veterans for Responsible Leadership — Member Update

It’s been a productive few months at VFRL. Following the inauguration of Joe Biden, we all breathed a collective sigh of relief as the chapter was closed on Donald Trump’s term and the immediate threat to the peaceful transfer of power abated. For those of us paying close attention, sadly, the January 6th insurrection was shocking but not altogether surprising. The systematic mis and disinformation that precipitated the event — the Big Lie that the election was stolen, the participation by veterans, and many lawmakers’ reaction to it (or lack thereof) reaffirmed just how much more work we have to do.

In the time since, VFRL has been giving great consideration to the challenges facing our country, the root causes of the recent turmoil, and the type of group our fellow citizens need us to be. There are, of course, a myriad of issues facing veterans and our country, and addressing any number of them would be a noble endeavor. However, our movement is in its early stages and we are not yet a large group. While we are rapidly growing, committed, and capable, we must be disciplined in our focus and relentless in our execution. The efforts we undertake also depend on our structure.

Questions in the Facebook group have indicated that some in this group may not be aware of how we’re organized, so we should clarify. The legacy entity formed by Dr. Dan Barkhuff in 2017, Veterans for Responsible Leadership, is a Virginia nonstock corporation registered with the FEC as an independent-expenditure political action committee, otherwise known as a Super PAC. Up to and including the 2020 general election, this group, through VFRL, focused its efforts on supporting and defeating candidates, with our greatest effort aimed at defeating Donald Trump and electing Joe Biden. When the risk of militant extremism that threatened election integrity and the peaceful transfer of power presented last Fall, our group determined that the risk of participation by veterans in political violence required action. To address this risk and others we launched the Veteran Code of Conduct to be a North Star to guide veterans and assist them in continuing to serve with honor. This effort is overseen by VeteranCode.Org — also a Virginia non-stock corporation, and planned as a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt social welfare organization.

During this period we also engaged with aligned organizations like Common Defense to be prepared to mobilize resources like media, manpower, businesses, etc. in the event that these threats materialized. In considering how VFRL can best be of service to our country moving forward, it became clear that we must broaden our focus beyond Restoring Leadership through political activism to include Rebuilding Civil Society, and generating a movement through National and Local Action. To enable this, more organizing will be necessary, and we are working with advisors to put in place a 501(c)(3) charitable organization 501(c)(19) veterans organizations to establish a national member-based organization with local chapters.

Many of us believe this is the mission of our lifetimes, and we’re committed for the long road ahead. As veterans who understand the importance of service to country, we’re up for the challenge, and we’re uniquely positioned to play a leading role. To succeed, we must also succeed at building a movement. And we’ll need your continued help to do it.

With that backdrop, an introduction to programs and an update on status follows, as well as some answers to frequently asked questions.

New Volunteers. About a month ago, we put out a call for volunteers, and the response has been overwhelming, with almost 100 of you putting your hands up. We will continue to post new ways to get involved as our programs develop but please reach out to us at volunteer@vfrl.org any time. Many thanks to all those who’ve committed to jumping in and giving your time and talents to this cause.

Local Chapters are forming now. VFRL local chapters will be the lifeblood of our movement (more on their mission below). Please reach out to your regional coordinator per the map and they’ll get you connected with the right local chapter:

Midwest james.powers@vfrl.org

South tracy.figlan@vfrl.org

West elaine.godzak@vfrl.org

Northeast Ritter.haaga@vfrl.org

Restoring Leadership.

After some deliberation our leadership team determined that the soundest strategy following on the success of 2020’s election cycle was to begin to develop a strategy to have influence in House races in 2022. As a growing organization, we have a unique opportunity to directly influence race in newly created districts, a byproduct of the Congressional reapportionment process. These seats have no incumbent and as a result will be financially attractive for an organization of our size to make a meaningful impact. Within the confines of that general strategy, we’re standing up several workgroups to try and address the work that will need to be done in the next several months to make those efforts successful.

Political Accountability, Endorsements & Scorecards and the Candidate Development Workgroups will come together to build a structure for a successful outcome in 2022. Political Accountability will focus first on developing a playbook for local chapters to execute both in the national congressional races we’ll target but also in local races as well. Endorsement & Scorecards will begin its work on developing scorecards that will drive potential endorsements. To kick those efforts off, we’ve begun talks with experts in the field of leadership to try and figure out a way to categorize and then quantify leadership qualities so we can select the right candidates. Finally, the Candidate Development Workgroup will focus on developing a plan to train candidates we partner with so they know what they’re getting into and can be successful in doing so.

Rebuilding Civil Society.

We’ve spent the time since the insurrection at the Capitol defining a strategy to channel our horror at that event — and the fact that so many veterans participated. We believe that VFRL can expand our voice (meaning the collective voice of all veterans who want to see a return to policy debates based on fact and reason) and take on the underlying challenges facing American democracy. We view rebuilding civil society as reinvigorating the role of citizens, especially veterans, to stand up for our institutions and work for our country to be the America we know we can be.

Our first project is to staunch the flow and push back on militant extremism, especially among veterans. We will be rolling out some simple, shareable facts under the hashtag #vetsforfacts on a weekly basis and we hope that you will help us amplify those posts and the fight against mis- and dis-information. We’re also in the early planning stages of our first event — a Veterans Counter-Extremism Summit — which will be hosted by VFRL and put our community’s hat fully in the ring to lead this critical mission.

Local Action & Chapters.

In 2021, we will focus on building up 30 local chapters across the country. We will focus on electoral districts with veteran concentrations that VFRL will choose to influence in the 2022 mid-terms. After electoral districts are defined and VFRL identifies its target races, we will select five local chapters to focus on building a strong ground game to support these key national congressional candidates. All local chapters will also focus on down-ballet and municipal candidates.

While we will continue to think and mobilize nationally, VFRL chapters will be how we will impact our nation at a more local and customized level. As each community has a different need and political climate, our local VFRL chapters will find how to best impact their communities and enlist their veterans. We’re excited to work with our first cohort of local chapter leaders to build up their local teams. We’ve also partnered with veterans from the Industrial Areas Foundation who are seasoned organizers, and have offered to train and mentor our chapter leaders as we grow.

Frequently Asked Questions.

What did VFRL do in the 2020–2021 elections?

We went in big to defeat Donald Trump, elect Joe Biden, and restore some much needed honor and responsibility to the White House. We view Donald Trump, his cronies, and Trumpism as an existential threat to our Republic and an essential hurdle to overcome in order to have any hope of continuing the arc of creating a more perfect union.

  • We focused on the key swing states of PA, NC, GA, and FL. Our strategy was to use data to target people receptive to our message with a multimedia campaign so that it was continuously reinforced
  • We mailed ~10,000 handwritten postcards and letters (by our members) and another ~100,000 mailers
  • We put up 11 billboards in four states and we parked a mobile billboard in front of the Trump hotel and other key spots in Washington, DC for two days
  • We reached millions of people through targeted social media campaigns
  • We produced and distributed through social media three hard-hitting videos highlighting some of Trump’s major failings that we as veterans were uniquely positioned to weigh in on: the treatment of African Americans and women and animus toward veterans, especially POWs
  • Dr. Dan Barkhuff was featured in two more that the Lincoln Project produced
  • And importantly, we published 22 videos that our members made, telling their stories, and talking to their fellow Americans about why they needed to vote for Joe Biden and defeat Donald Trump. These videos were powerful, and essential, and everyone who did one should feel proud
  • We also had the opportunity to take on two of Trump’s key enablers in the Georgia Special election:
  • We focused on three north Atlanta counties and ultimately added a fourth
  • Our campaign was similar to the Presidential and we used largely the same playbook except that:
  • with a Facebook political ban in place for much of the race, we focused on other platforms like Pandora and iheart radio
  • We introduced mass texting and text banking, connecting with 50,000 voters, and engaging about 16,000 of them in dialogue (again, all our members having these dialogues).
  • We produced a video called Leaders Eat Last — again bringing the veteran perspective to a key issue. One Georgia member also provided an excellent testimonial.

Where can I find VFRL’s media library?

Our YouTube channel is here. Note, though, that YouTube was not our primary channel for distribution (Facebook, Twitter, and Pandora were), so the viewership statistics are wildly low. These videos collectively have been viewed many millions of times.

What is the group’s mission statement?

Veterans for Responsible Leadership (VFRL) is a diverse nonpartisan organization whose mission is to uphold the integrity of American democracy from those who seek to undermine and subvert its institutions, the rule of law, and electoral system for personal or political advantage. We exist to advance adherence to our founding ideals through shared sacrifice, civic engagement, and political leadership.

When and why was this group founded?

  • We believe in the values we lived while in the military and we strive to perpetuate those values among all US veterans.
  • We also insist that our elected officials uphold the Constitution and embody the values of integrity, civility, and transparency.
  • VFRL’s 2020 priority was to overcome the damage of Trumpism to our country and our values by first voting him out….we succeed in the battle but the war is to remind Americans, and especially veterans and elected officials, what our core values are.
  • The US military and its veterans are one of the few remaining non-partisan institutions that still holds the trust of our citizens. We risk losing that if the stories are all about a portion of veterans who have been led astray by racism, fascism, or authoritarianism.
  • The protestors with military backgrounds who violated the nation’s Capitol do not represent the majority of veterans, but they do represent the threat of extremism, nationalism, and white supremacy to active duty personnel and veterans.
  • Is there a higher percentage of veterans in these movements than the general population? From our perspective, it doesn’t matter. Any percentage of militant extremists is too great for our veteran community. We need to fight it, tooth and nail, until every veteran receives the support they need to resist radicalization.
  • We’ve created the Veteran Code of Conduct, which you can read at veterancode.org, as a North Star to guide veterans to continue serving their country with honor. There was nothing honorable about the invasion of the U.S. Capitol.
  • We’re working on other ways to actively engage veterans in defending values-based leadership in politics, media and civil society. We want to be a positive, non-partisan face of veterans in the media.

I have an idea for a program or platform that I’d like the group to adopt or execute, how can I get it implemented?

Local chapters are most often the best way to innovate and incubate new ideas, so usually that’s the right place to start. But for any program to be successful, it needs to be based on sound logic and thorough planning and have a committed group of members to carry it forward. We recommend that you answer these questions and fill out this logic model in as much detail as possible and share it with your chapter leadership. If you’d like to propose a national program or platform that isn’t appropriate for local incubation, please send the completed Case for Support, Logic Model, proposed Budget and any additional details you’d like to submit for consideration to proposals@vfrl.org for evaluation.

How is the group organized and will there be any changes to this structure in the future?

VFRL is a Virginia nonstock corporation registered with the FEC as an independent-expenditure political action committee, otherwise known as a Super PAC. Group members are working with legal advisors to create a comprehensive structure that will enable our membership to best serve the country and our fellow citizens. It may include a 501(c)(19) veterans organization, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, and/or a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt social welfare organization, which VeteranCode.Org has filed its intent with the IRS to be.

How many members are in the group?

About 5,000.

Who are VFRL’s executives?

VFRL’s executives can be found on the website homepage, here.

Is VFRL affiliated with the Lincoln Project?

No. While VFRL and the Lincoln Project had compatible goals and VFRL leaders communicated (and continue to communicate) regularly with some Lincoln Project employees and leaders, we had no knowledge of any of the internal issues that have come to light post-election. That said, we are pleased that they are choosing to be transparent by hiring an outside firm to review their organization, and have named Fred Wellman, a veteran and friend of VFRL leadership, as its new Executive Director. We wish him and The Lincoln Project well as they chart their course for the future.

Do VFRL executives get paid?

No. VFRL is a (nearly) all-volunteer organization, excepting only VFRL’s full-time Deputy Director of Operations. We anticipate that more full- and part-time staff and leadership will be needed in the near future as VFRL continues to grow.

Where can I find VFRL’s FEC filings?

You can find them at this FEC link. Note this Daily Beast article that referenced VFRL as an example of a veterans PAC with an ultra-low fundraising to elections activity spend ratio ($191 : $238,000). This was possible, in part, because VFRL’s activities in the last election cycle were funded largely by high-dollar donors like The Lincoln Project. While VFRL will continue to spend judiciously and to the greatest extent possible on political communications in furtherance of its mission, we do expect a modest increase in spend on fundraising activities as we increase our grassroots activities and roll out fundraising campaigns seeking small-dollar donations. That said, we have every expectation that we will continue to be held up as an example of exceptional fiscal stewardship.