By Barbara Holzer
This article appeared in the July/August 2015 edition of Public Citizen News.
Born in Minneapolis and raised in Albuquerque, N.M., Emily Peterson-Cassin arrived in Washington, D.C., in 2006 to attend Georgetown University Law Center, a move that changed her life in more ways than one. She met her future husband while studying social justice and criminal law, and then found the job she’d hoped for since coming to D.C.
Emily is the coordinator of Public Citizen’s Bright Lines Project — an initiative in the Congress Watch division that presses for a clear definition of what constitutes political activity for nonprofits.
The Peterson-Cassin household — including Dolly and Michelle, the backyard chickens known for superior eggs — is about to expand. Emily will be a first-time mom this summer. She’s expecting her baby boy to arrive by the Fourth of July.
Q: Tell us about your journey to Public Citizen.
Peterson-Cassin: Before I trained as a litigator, I worked as a community organizer in college and a union organizer once I graduated. As an attorney at my previous job, I sued corporations and financial institutions for mismanaging their employee pension plans. I soon realized I missed the direct impact I used to have as an organizer, and that led me here. Now I get to use all my skills and passion to make a real difference in how democracy works.
Q: What do you do as the Bright Lines Project coordinator?
Peterson-Cassin: The IRS currently uses a highly subjective standard to decide if a group calling itself a nonprofit is involved in political activity. That standard has allowed nonprofits willing to game the system to pour “dark money” into elections, while cautious nonprofits have to spend their scarce resources on lawyers to figure out how to engage in our democracy without endangering their nonprofit status. The IRS is currently undertaking a rule that could solve these problems — and that, in a nutshell, is my primary focus.
Q: What’s the biggest hurdle faced by the Bright Lines Project?
Peterson-Cassin: The hardest part right now is overcoming the assumption that tax rules are too boring and unimportant to focus on. But it’s easy for me to remain enthusiastic, because I know how much of a difference good rules will make. Plus, the battle is much bigger than a single IRS rule. A good definition of political activity for nonprofits will affect the way the charitable sector can engage in our democracy across the U.S. and ensure that our charities truly can speak for those whose voices wouldn’t be heard without them.
Q: What do you do for fun?
Peterson-Cassin: I’m an avid quilter and enthusiastic — if not always successful — gardener. I try to solve problems creatively and with a bit of whimsy. For example, I was recently in San Francisco to speak at a conference and was meeting friends for dinner. I had only my large legal briefcase with me, which wouldn’t work for a night out. So I borrowed the black drawstring bag from my hotel room, which was the perfect evening purse, except that it had the word “hairdryer” embroidered on the side.
— Interview by Barbara Holzer