In September 2019, phones across Philadelphia pinged with cryptic text messages seemingly calling for criminal-justice reform while recruiting plaintiffs in a discrimination lawsuit against the city.
“Philadelphia courts are soft on illegal immigrants and hard on African Americans. Let’s push back on City Hall,” read many of the texts, sent to a list of more than 120,000 Black independent and Democratic voters. The message directed recipients to a site called USACriminalJusticeReform.org, which decried Philadelphia’s “sanctuary city” status and District Attorney Larry Krasner’s commitment to consider immigration consequences for undocumented defendants in nonviolent cases.
In January 2020, a class-action lawsuit was filed.
But it was against the right-wing radio host who commissioned the text campaign, which the recipients alleged amounted to illegal robo-dialing.
“These uniform text messages, which were designed to appear to be initiating a two-way communication on issues of public importance, were, in actuality, one-way communications designed to elicit personal information for use in promoting defendants’ purported expertise and value to political campaigns," wrote lawyers for the named plaintiffs, four Philadelphia residents.
That suit is still pending in federal court, but depositions and discovery in the case finally clarify what was behind the text campaign.
According to the documents, obtained by The Inquirer, the campaign was a proof of concept to convince wealthy donors that the organizers could use texts to recruit Black voters for President Donald Trump’s campaign. The effort also aimed to test messaging around criminal justice reform that pitted Black voters against immigrants, a strategy that echoes sentiments seen in the president’s speeches criticizing “deadly sanctuary cities that protect criminal aliens.”
The California-based Campaign Solutions Group, which handled the text blast, was commissioned by Kevin Jackson, the Missouri-based creator of a conservative site called the Black Sphere, author of a book called Race Pimping: The Multi-Trillion Dollar Business of Liberalism, and a former Fox News personality who was fired in 2018 for describing people who accused then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of rape as “lying skanks." Neither Jackson nor Campaign Solutions president John Mabie, who was also named in the lawsuit, responded to requests for comment.
A report on the project is subtitled: “Summary prepared for August Busch.”
“The goal (I assume) is to motivate and inspire August Busch to provide BIG BUCKS for future outreach efforts ... that will ultimately produce change and promote racial justice in Philadelphia,” John Mabie, president of Campaign Solutions, wrote to Jackson. “We need to look at this initial $20K investment as our ‘ONE SHOT’ — ONE CHANCE to impress August Busch.”
The emails do not specify which August Busch. August Busch III, the former Anheuser-Busch chairman, is among the nation’s most generous individual donors to Republican candidates and committees, giving $2.7 million since 2019, including $500,000 to Trump Victory. His son August IV donated $2,500 to Vice President Joe Biden’s fundraising committee. Attempts to contact Busch III were unsuccessful, and a lawyer for Busch IV did not respond to a request for comment.
According to the presentation prepared for August Busch, only 1.3% of text-message recipients responded positively; the rest responded negatively (often colorfully so) or not at all. A spreadsheet of responsive texts included only a couple explicitly pro-Trump messages. Even so, in emails honing the report, Jackson suggested that Mabie revise his initial summary, which said there was “some support” for Trump, to state: “We saw surprising support of President Trump.” The final report called the texts “undoubtedly” effective, adding, “We believe cell phone outreach could influence up to 4 percent of the black vote in the 2020 election cycle.”
At various points in the planning documents, the campaign is also described as the Philly IRLI Project, and emails are copied to staff at the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI), the legal affiliate of the anti-immigration organization Federation for American Immigration Reform. IRLI provided a statement denying any involvement or funding role in the text campaign. However, IRLI did review Jackson’s claims for possible litigation.
“It was alleged that Philadelphia prosecutors were dropping or reducing charges for illegal aliens to avoid immigration consequences, but not doing the same for American citizens, which is unlawful," the statement continued. ”We communicated to Mr. Jackson that if he had proof of these allegations and a plaintiff, we would consider litigating such a violation of rights."
No such litigation has been filed, IRLI said. And it’s not clear if the effort succeeded in winning funding for additional text campaigns. The site USACriminalJusticeReform.org, which has dedicated pages for Atlanta and Philadelphia, does not appear to have been recently updated.
The outcome of the class-action lawsuit over the mass texts is expected to hinge on a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is slated to hear another case about automatic dialing in December.
One of the plaintiffs, Bryan Mercer, executive director of the nonprofit Movement Alliance Project, said the lawsuit has at least brought a sense of closure: “A year after the fact, it feels good to start getting some explanation of what this was all about. It looks like it really was about him trying to bolster his career as a Republican operative.”
Another, Candace McKinley, an organizer for the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, said uncovering what she saw as a ham-fisted sales pitch was “underwhelming."
But she’s hoping that, by taking action, she can deter similar campaigns from flooding voters’ phones.
“People were upset about it, because there were people trying to meddle with elections and unduly influence voters in this way,” she said. “I wanted to do something small to push back against that.”