In what was portrayed in the press as a hopeful homecoming story, author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance, who was still basking in the success of his best-selling memoir Hillbilly Elegy, announced in 2017 that he would be returning to Ohio to help combat the rust belt’s opioid crisis and other social issues. “I’ve talked about these problems and I came to the conclusion that maybe I should be doing something to solve them,” Vance told The Columbus Dispatch at the time, while explaining what motivated him to start splitting his time between D.C. and the area where he grew up. Four years after the launch of Our Ohio Renewal, the nonprofit appears to have done very little to help struggling Ohioans, but its founder, a former conservative Donald Trump critic, is now gunning for MAGA voters in the state’s Republican Senate primary.
According to an Insider investigation of the nonprofit’s tax filings, in 2017, more of its expenditures went to “management services” fees for its executive director, Jai Chabria, than to efforts aimed at reducing addiction or helping addicts. During that first year of its existence, Our Ohio Renewal raised $221,135, with about $50,000 being spent on programming and $63,425 going to Chabria, a former John Kasich adviser who Insider says is now working for Vance’s Senate campaign. The only notable outreach efforts listed in the nonprofit’s 2017 tax filing is an expenditure of $45,000 that was spent on a study of the “social, cultural and general welfare needs of Ohio Citizens,” per Insider.
Interestingly, a spokesperson for the Ohio Opioid Education Alliance, what Insider says is the largest in-state anti-opioid coalition, informed the outlet that they had never even heard of Our Ohio Renewal. It is also difficult to find evidence of the nonprofit’s day-to-day work, as its Twitter account has been dormant for more than three years and its website is offline, Insider notes. (Our Ohio Renewal declined to respond to questions from Insider about its programs and finances.) “It’s just not my instinct to care about the website,” Vance said during a 2019 interview with Columbus Monthly. He did assure the magazine that his group is still focused on “conducting and promoting research into innovative ways of combating the epidemic and its fallout.” For instance, as the Monthly reported at the time, the nonprofit was funding a yearlong residency for a research fellow from the American Enterprise Institute––a conservative D.C. think tank where Vance was a part-time scholar in 2019––to live in southern Ohio and work with a local social services agency.
However, some critics aren’t buying Vance’s philanthropic effort. Doug White, a nonprofit and fundraising expert, told Insider that the group “is a charade.… It’s a superficial way for him to say he’s helping Ohio. None of that is actually happening, from what I can tell.” (Insider writes that the group told the outlet it has “commissioned a survey to gauge the needs and welfare of Ohioans,” but that Vance’s campaign did not offer any documents verifying the project.) As noted by White, the group’s lackluster fundraising numbers are the most eye-raising detail found in its tax filings. “It’s a pittance, given what they said they want to accomplish,” said White. “This is a very small operation. They’re not doing much. I don’t think it rises to the level of fraud, but they are sitting around doing nothing.” The group’s donation numbers over the past three years have been so minuscule––less than $50,000 annually––that it has not had to report its activities and finances to the IRS since 2017, according to Insider.
In a 2017 interview with The Washington Post, Vance insisted that helping America’s struggling heartland was his utmost priority for the foreseeable future––even more so than seeking elected office. “I’m not going to say that I’m never going to run,” he said, adding that his real focus is on solving the “opioid crisis and [bringing] interesting new businesses to the so-called rust belt—all of these things are valuable, if not more valuable, than running for office.” In August of that year, Our Ohio Renewal launched with a short announcement that managed to promote the founder’s book and read more like a brand-endorsement deal than a nonprofit mission statement: “Our Ohio Renewal is dedicated to promoting the ideas and addressing the problems identified in J.D. Vance’s #1 Bestseller, Hillbilly Elegy, related to divides along racial, economic, and cultural lines,” the statement read, per Insider.
The probing of Vance’s philanthropic work comes as Ohio voters are just starting to get to know the Senate candidate. He has presented himself as a jobs creator, as well as a crusader against Big Tech even as Facebook board member Peter Thiel has pumped $10 million into a super PAC supporting his candidacy. (Vance also used to work for Thiel.) He dives into culture-war issues on Twitter and Fox News, where he also apologized for past criticism of Trump. Regardless of whether Vance’s attempts to reingratiate himself with struggling Ohioans are sincere or not, it appears that they have not yet helped his election hopes. In June, Ohio Senate candidate Josh Mandel’s internal campaign data showed Vance polling at third place among the six GOP hopefuls, with 6% of the vote.
The early, unofficial polling data did show that 34% of respondents were still undecided, but a Politico piece on the Ohio Senate race noted last month that despite Vance’s national media profile, he still has work to do in getting on Ohioans’ radar. “I think this is a candidacy that looks really good to the Twitter crowd, and that looks good to folks who aren’t in Ohio and are thinking about the glide path that J.D. Vance has been on,” observed University of Cincinnati professor David Niven, who previously worked for former Democratic Ohio governor Ted Strickland. “But I don’t know that rank-and-file Ohio Republicans have given him a moment’s thought.” In response to the Politico report, Vance’s campaign spokesperson Taylor Van Kirk said, “As a true political outsider, we have been overwhelmed with grassroots support since J.D. got in the race a few short weeks ago. Unlike career politicians, J.D.’s voice is authentically aligned with Ohio’s working class.”
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