Two weeks after a push by conservative national organization Turning Point USA to get Jackson residents to protest a Town Council workshop and to vote for two candidates for the council and mayor’s seat, little is known about the group’s interest in Jackson politics.
But the group’s move has caught the attention — and drawn the ire — of some members of the town’s governing body.
One councilor, Arne Jorgensen, said the group was “choosing to erroneously, incorrectly mislead people, to get people riled up and scared.”
On Aug. 16 and 17 some Jackson residents received automated robocalls that claimed to be “a public safety alert” and encouraged people to rally at the Aug. 17 Town Council workshop to “show that Jackson Hole backs the blue,” referring to police. The calls — there were several versions that went out, but all had the same general message — erroneously stated that the council was slated to discuss defunding the police department.
The calls ended by stating that they were “paid for by Turning Point Action” — an offshoot group — and listed a local phone number to call. Several calls by News&Guide reporters to the number listed rang and rang and were not answered by either a live person or a voicemail. Turning Point USA’s own website states that the group “is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is to identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote freedom.” Turning Point Action, meanwhile, as a 501(c)(4), can legally campaign for or against political candidates under IRS regulations.
Similar to the robocalls, some Jackson residents received texts that also incorrectly stated: “Meeting Notice: ‘Defunding Jackson Hole Police’ 3pm TODAY, Town Hall (150 E. Pearl). Come tell Mayor Muldoon/Councilwoman Morton Levinson NOT to defund police.”
Some others received texts on Aug. 17 and Aug. 18, the day of the primary election, urging votes for Michael Kudar for mayor and Jennifer Ford for Town Council, both of whom were write-in candidates. Kudar’s campaign was successful and he will appear on the November general election ballot against Hailey Morton Levinson; Ford was ousted by fellow write-in candidate Jessica Sell Chambers to get her name on the ballot.
In fact, however, defunding the police was not among the items listed on the agenda for either the council’s afternoon workshop or the regular meeting later that evening, which Mayor Pete Muldoon pointed out at the beginning of the workshop. The mayor also noted that the council would not be taking public comment at the workshop, which is common practice except for when a listed agenda item is being voted upon.
As a result of the calls and texts, several dozen people, including quite a few from the Jackson Hole Tea Party, descended on the Aug. 17 afternoon workshop to rally support for police and the town’s funding of the department. Some held signs indicating their support for the police department, and some addressed the crowd.
Among those who spoke were Bob Culver, who heads the local Tea Party, and wealthy Jackson Hole businessman Foster Friess, a well-known supporter of conservative political candidates and advocate for conservative causes and evangelical Christian efforts.
Friess has backed Turning Point USA since meeting its founder, conservative political activist Charlie Kirk, in 2012 at the Republican National Convention. Kirk persuaded Friess to fund the organization, which was founded that same year, when Kirk was 18 years old, according to the Atlantic Monthly.
Though Friess did mention Turning Point Action, the political action committee formed by Turning Point USA, during his address to the crowd at the Aug. 17 rally, he has since told the News&Guide that he did not fund or help organize the robocalls. He said he learned of the pro-police gathering from a friend. Friess, who is possibly Turning Point USA’s largest donor, added that he doesn’t know who funded or organized the robocalls.
“I assure you, if I did I would tell you,” Friess said, adding that “possibly one of the other Teton [County] families who love America and support our police alerted TPUSA of what was going on in Jackson.”
Friess said that he is in no way involved in any of Turning Point’s day-to-day planning or operations and “did respectfully decline to sit on their board.”
Emails to Turning Point USA — that is the only contact method listed on its website — inquiring about their interest in Jackson’s political scene were not returned by press time Tuesday. Calls and text messages to Culver also were not returned by press time.
Culver did, though, defend the content of the robocalls in an emailed Jackson Hole Tea Party newsletter on Aug. 21. The newsletter points to PowerPoint slides No. 7 and No. 8 from Town of Jackson Community Development Director Tyler Sinclair’s mid-year review presentation to the council at the Aug. 17 workshop.
Slide 7 was titled “Proposed efforts — ‘Review of Police Department,’” while slide 8 was titled “Council Priorities — ‘Review of Police Department budget and structure.’”
“The facts are set out in the town workshop Power Point slides, proving the ‘RoboCalls’ were not erroneous — they were referring to possible discussion not fully disclosed in the published agendas,” the newsletter states.
Councilors Jorgensen and Jim Stanford, and Mayor Muldoon, however, refute that the council was to discuss defunding the police department on Aug. 17.
The Turning Point site says its “mission is to educate students about the importance of fiscal responsibility, free markets and limited government. TPUSA activists are the community organizers of the right.” The organization claims to have a presence on over 2,000 high school and college campuses.
However, nowhere on its site does Turning Point USA, which has no connection in any way to the Jackson pregnancy resource center by the same name, talk about trying to influence local, nonpartisan council elections.
Councilor Jorgensen said he doesn’t know why Turning Point USA or Turning Point Action would be involved with local Jackson politics. And he took issue with their tactics of “engaging in trying to buy elections in Teton County” and spreading what he said is false information regarding the council’s funding of the police department.
Jorgensen said Turning Point was culpable for the defunding messages: “That’s irresponsible. And that’s on them; it’s not on us. Regardless of the emails I’ve been getting, that topic was not on the agenda that night or that day.
“The fact that it is funded by a national organization out of [Phoenix, Arizona], I find it ironic that many of the people who are behind it would go ballistic if it was another topic that was funded by something out of [Phoenix]. It’s frustrating, and it’s not how local politics should happen.”
Jorgensen said he has no problem with people coming to Town Hall to protest. In fact, he encouraged people who have concerns to communicate them to the council, adding that he has done so in the past.
“But when it is done under the pretext of incorrect information, and getting people unnecessarily anxious, that’s wrong ... and that’s unfortunate because it’s not the type of community we are,” he said.
“‘Defund the police’ has not been uttered by the Town Council, certainly not collectively, other than by individuals, myself included, to express how frustrated we are about the term. That’s just not what we’re doing. We’re not defunding the police. ... Our job is to provide oversight on all of the town budgets, and the police department is just one of those. We will do a budget review and a policy review and do the oversight that is our job, and no one should feel threatened by that.”
As for the texts that went out supporting Kudar as a write-in candidate for mayor and Ford as a write-in for council, Kudar said on his website that he heard complaints, but was adamant that he was not behind the messages. He said all communications from his campaign, whether by call or text or otherwise, will contain the “Paid for by the Michael Kudar for Mayor” disclaimer, as required by law.