From ads to Twitter: How one group turned Trump on TVA

By Kristi E. Swartz, Jennifer Yachnin | 08/26/2020 07:27 AM EDT

An executive order earlier this month reveals how little-known groups with divisive views can catapult into President Trump’s orbit — and drive energy policy — with the right media strategy.

In this Aug. 3 photo, Mark Meadows, assistant to the president and chief of staff, hands President Trump a note saying that he has just spoken with the Tennessee Valley Authority CEO, who said he would reverse course and suspend plans to outsource 200 information technology jobs. Kevin Lynn, founder of the U.S. Tech Workers nonprofit, is seated in front of Meadows.

In this Aug. 3 photo, Mark Meadows, assistant to the president and chief of staff, hands President Trump a note saying that he has just spoken with the Tennessee Valley Authority CEO, who said he would reverse course and suspend plans to outsource 200 information technology jobs. Kevin Lynn, founder of the U.S. Tech Workers nonprofit, is seated in front of Meadows. Doug Mills/picture alliance/Consolidated News Photos/Newscom

This story was updated at 5:10 p.m. EDT.

Kevin Lynn candidly admits he had no direct links to President Trump earlier this year, when he decided to take on the Tennessee Valley Authority over reports it was preparing to outsource 20% of its federal workforce.

The nonprofit group he founded, U.S. Tech Workers, aims to limit visas given to foreign technology workers and has been dogged by accusations of nativism. By early May, Lynn had found little support among federal lawmakers for fighting TVA over its plan to lay off about 200 workers.


But three months later, Lynn appeared with Trump at the White House as the president signed an executive order aimed at preventing federal agencies from replacing U.S. jobs with foreign labor (E&E News PM, Aug. 3). Trump bantered with Lynn about a 30-second TV spot that U.S. Tech Workers ran in mid-July in Tennessee, Alabama and Washington media markets — one that bashed TVA for proposing to hand over federal jobs to "companies that use foreign workers."

The case shows how even little-known groups with polarizing views and backgrounds can catapult into Trump’s orbit with the right media strategy. And the U.S. Tech Workers campaign continues to reverberate for the nation’s largest public power utility, TVA, which has been thrust into the political spotlight.

In an interview with E&E News this month, Lynn credited catching Trump’s ear with two platforms the president is known to favor: television and Twitter.

"The ad did get the president’s attention, he tweeted about it, and it wasn’t long after that that the White House had reached out to me to see if there could be a get-together between the president and the workers," Lynn said.

U.S. Tech Workers, founded under the umbrella of the Washington-based Progressives for Immigration Reform (PFIR), has ties to deep-pocketed immigration opponents and has been called a hate group by civic and environmental organizations including the Sierra Club and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). But by winning Trump’s involvement, Lynn and his group ultimately got TVA to stop outsourcing information technology jobs.

A split among environmentalists

Lynn created U.S. Tech Workers in 2018 as an offshoot of PFIR, where he serves as executive director. In addition to dealing with labor issues, PFIR markets itself as an educator on the "unintended consequences of mass migration" and lists environmental and conservation policies among its key concerns.

The group is an outlier in the green movement — asserting that population controls are necessary to protect the environment, a position largely abandoned by major organizations at the turn of the century over concerns it was anti-immigrant (Greenwire, June 5).

"The early environmental movement in the U.S. really understood that there was a connection between population growth and the environment," said Lynn, who previously headed the Pasadena, Calif.-based chapter of Democracy for America, the left-leaning organization created by Howard Dean following his failed 2004 presidential primary bid.

Lynn points to the Sierra Club, which historically endorsed population controls as a way to protect the environment. One former chairman of the Sierra Club’s now-defunct National Population Committee, Michigan ophthalmologist John Tanton, would go on to found the Federation for American Immigration Reform in the 1970s. The SPLC classifies FAIR as a hate group and has tied Tanton to U.S. white nationalists.

Following a series of failed efforts by anti-immigration activists to seize control of the Sierra Club in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the environmental group has shifted to embrace comprehensive immigration reform and paths to citizenship (Greenwire, March 23, 2004).

"The people that looked at population lost," Lynn said.

PFIR doesn’t work with other environmental advocacy groups — although not for lack of effort.

"We have tried, but our stand on immigration tends to alienate us," Lynn said, even as he touted his own work on local environmental issues in his hometown of Lancaster, Pa. "It makes it very difficult for people left of center to work with us."

The Sierra Club’s Dan Millis, who serves as the borderlands program manager, offered a sharp assessment when asked about PFIR’s work.

"Progressives for Immigration Reform are neither progressive nor are they for immigration reform," Millis told E&E News. "They are a hate group, part of the John Tanton network of nativist, white supremacist immigration restrictionists."

Lynn disputed that association to Tanton in an essay published on the U.S. Tech Workers website earlier this year, arguing that his organization’s support of limits on immigration does not mean it is anti-immigrant.

In the same piece, he also took issue with the SPLC’s classification of U.S. Tech Workers as a hate group, calling the nonprofit "hobgoblins."

"As the son of an immigrant, I always found it peculiar that the SPLC would view my organization as anti-immigrant," Lynn wrote. He told E&E News that his mother emigrated from Ireland.

‘Restrictionist’ views

But Lynn’s organization does share a funding source with many of the groups that Tanton launched before his death last year at the age of 85.

The Pittsburgh-based Colcom Foundation, established by Mellon industrial and banking fortune heiress Cordelia Scaife May, donates to numerous anti-immigration groups including FAIR, Numbers USA and the Immigration Reform Law Institute.

A spokesman for Numbers USA objected to the description of his organization as "anti-immigration," arguing the group supports reduced use of green cards but not a full halt to immigration.

The Colcom Foundation’s most recent tax filings, covering mid-2017 to mid-2018, show PFIR received $544,000.

A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette analysis of the Colcom Foundation found the organization directed more than $33.8 million to immigration-focused organizations during that same period.

Lynn, however, fired back at critics who accuse his organization of "green washing," or pursuing immigration restrictions under the cover of concern for the environment.

"We’re actually pretty sincere about wanting to preserve what we have and hopefully reclaim spaces that will support ecosystems," Lynn said. "It’s a nonstop fight to stop development."

PFIR recently weighed in to oppose the Trump administration’s effort to overhaul the National Environmental Policy Act, a landmark law that requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impact of projects.

Lynn testified at a Washington hearing against proposed changes to NEPA earlier this year. Environmental groups have largely opposed the reforms as an attempt to gut the law that governs the construction of infrastructure and energy-related projects (E&E News PM, Feb. 24).

"I think it’s important to maintain NEPA in its current form, perhaps even give it more teeth," Lynn said. "We need to prevent the hacking away at its ability to regulate."

In his testimony before the White House Council on Environmental Quality earlier this year, Lynn argued that the NEPA review process must be expanded to those agencies responsible for executing immigration policies.

"A significant part of the reason why environmentalists have been able to turn away and ignore the environmental consequences of our mass immigration policies is because of the failure of all federal agencies implementing immigration policies to follow the mandates set forth by NEPA," Lynn testified.

Despite the nonprofit’s self-described interest in environmental policies, Lynn acknowledged it doesn’t have a to-do list of legislative priorities.

"We are, of course, when it comes to immigration, restrictionist in that respect because to us, you have to look at the aggregate," he said, pointing to issues like energy consumption and urban sprawl.

An advertising success

At first, Trump gave Lynn’s TV spot a chilly reception.

"Another one of many Fake T.V. Ads, this one about the Tennessee Valley Authority, which for years has paid its top executive a ridiculous FORTUNE. Not run by the U.S., but I have long been fighting that crazy ‘salary’ & its [policies]. Strange ad paid for (?) by ‘U.S. Tech Workers,’" Trump, who was unfamiliar with the group, wrote on Twitter.

"They throw up this ad, and Trump completely misinterprets it and calls it ‘fake news,’" said Southern Alliance for Clean Energy Executive Director Stephen Smith, who had also pushed back against TVA’s move to outsource jobs.

The ad "was clearly set up for [Trump] to do this," Smith told E&E News, noting that he had heard of U.S. Tech Workers but wasn’t aware of its specific plans.

"They were barking up the right tree to get Trump to engage. I don’t think in their wildest dreams they thought he would do what he did."

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Jeff Lyash. Photo credit: Tennessee Valley Authority
Jeff Lyash. | Tennessee Valley Authority

Gay Henson, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 1937 union that represents 2,200 white-collar TVA workers, didn’t object to the commercial as long as there were no union workers in it. Still, she said she was guarded when Lynn called her about it earlier this summer, mostly because she didn’t have time to research U.S. Tech Workers beyond a cursory online search.

"I told him, ‘I don’t know all about your group, I can’t really just partner with you,’" said Henson, a project control specialist at TVA’s Sequoyah nuclear plant. "I don’t think we believe the same things on the other things" like immigration, she added.

The ad also highlighted TVA CEO Jeff Lyash’s $8 million salary, while Henson said her own message "was about the workers."

"But [Lynn] wanted the story about the CEO’s pay because that would get the president’s attention," she added.

Then the White House called the union, she said.

Besides signing the executive order, Trump removed TVA’s board chairman and another member, the last remaining Obama-era appointee. He then lashed out at Lyash’s pay.

TVA’s CEO said he would suspend the process to outsource the IT jobs. The utility then fully reversed course on its decision.

Lyash, a veteran utility executive who has led TVA for more than a year, has justified his multimillion-dollar compensation because of the size and scope of the job. His salary is in the bottom quartile of peer utility CEOs (Energywire, Aug. 5).

TVA rescinded its decision to outsource the IT jobs on Aug. 6, after Lyash and interim TVA board Chairman John Ryder met with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and White House counsel Pat Cipollone.

"We were wrong in not fully understanding the impact on our employees, especially during the pandemic. We are taking immediate actions to address this situation. TVA fully understands and supports the Administration’s commitment to preserving and growing American jobs," Lyash said in a statement that day.

Henson of Local 1937 said she’s still talking with the White House about TVA’s process to rehire and retain the union workers who were scheduled to be laid off.

"They want to make sure we’re not left out of the equation," she said.

Parallel push

When asked about Lynn and attack groups, TVA pointed to a recent statement: "TVA’s mission of service is as relevant today as it was nearly 90 years ago when it was created … to serve the people of the Tennessee Valley to make life better. Collectively, our 10,000 employees across seven states are committed — each and every day — to improving the quality of life for the 10 million people we serve."

But PFIR isn’t the only TVA critic trying to grab the president’s eye.

The Tennessee Valley Energy Democracy Movement is fighting any desire to privatize TVA, something that nearly every administration has floated, including Trump’s.

The movement viewed TVA’s decision to outsource workers as another potential shift in that direction, said Bri Knisley, an outreach coordinator with the grassroots environmental group Appalachian Voices, which is part of the coalition.

TVA was founded as part of the New Deal, but some say the agency has strayed from its mandate to focus on energy, environmental stewardship and economic development. Its lack of renewable energy is one example, some argue.

"This is not what TVA was put together to do," said Ben Allen, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based biologist who is also part of the Tennessee Valley Energy Democracy Movement. "Its original mission was very different than it was today."

TVA has defended its generation mix, saying its long-term energy plan is in line with efforts to cut carbon emissions 70% by 2030 (Energywire, Aug. 5).

Allen said his group has tried to work with more than environmentalists. For example, Allen is a scientist and has been organizing through a local chapter of Science for the People, which rose out of the anti-war movement in 1969 and has morphed into a science activist organization.

"Sure enough, this outsourcing campaign emerged, COVID is happening, and suddenly we’re getting word that TVA is trying to outsource 200 jobs," he said.

Members of the group figured they had an uphill battle to convince TVA to keep the union workers. But they pushed forward with protests and efforts to get city councils from Memphis to Nashville to adopt resolutions in support of the workers.

They noticed when U.S. Tech Workers started weighing in.

"We had brief contact with them," Allen said. "But they are doing their thing, we’re doing our thing."

What’s more, the two groups differ politically, Allen said. He describes Science for the People as a progressive group and U.S. Tech Workers as the opposite.

He cited U.S. Tech Workers’ effort to turn TVA’s original decision to outsource its IT jobs into a campaign against immigration and H-1B visas, which are awarded to specialized foreign workers for jobs in the United States.

"That, for me, was an undertone: the politicization for them," Allen said. "[Stopping] the outsourcing, that was the win we were going for."

Allen and Appalachian Voices’ Knisley described their group and U.S. Tech Workers as "two parallel lines."

U.S. Tech Workers continued to push the narrative about foreign jobs and foreign workers. Knisley said the issue was really about public jobs versus private jobs. That point got lost in the politics, Allen said, but both groups got their desired outcome.

"This is absolutely their most successful campaign," Allen said.