News: CJ Exclusives

Cooper’s office creates new position for longtime executive from top N.C. left-wing foundation

Gov. Roy Cooper’s office is creating a new position and filling it with a longtime staffer from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, one of the top philanthropic funders of left-wing causes in North Carolina.

The position, called a philanthropy liaison, will be filled by Joy Vermillion Heinsohn. Heinsohn currently serves as assistant director for the Reynolds Foundation and has been with that philanthropy in some capacity since 1998. Heinsohn officially leaves the Reynolds Foundation Feb. 5, and her first day in the governor’s office will be March 1.

According to a news release Wednesday, Jan. 27, the new role is “grant-funded,” although it is not obvious who the funder is. Questions from Carolina Journal on specific duties for the position, plus information on its source of funding, were not returned Thursday. CJ has filed an open-records request with the governor’s office to obtain any grant agreements surrounding the position.

Z. Smith Reynolds actually broke the news Monday, Jan. 25, with a two-paragraph note on its website from Executive Director Maurice “Mo” Green.

In a statement to CJ, Senate Majority Leader Kathy Harrington, R-Gaston, noted that having an outside entity fund a state employee “presents numerous conflict of interest” challenges. “Who will she be accountable to: the taxpayers or the liberal organizations funding her position?” Harrington said.

In a letter to Reynolds Foundation staff, Heinsohn outlined portions of what her new role will entail.

“The philanthropic sector in NC is rapidly growing and changing, with several new foundations on the scene with financial assets that our state has not previously seen,” she wrote. “Simultaneously, our state and nation continue to reckon with issues of racial injustice, democracy, climate justice, education, and economic inequality in ways that now are overlayed with a pandemic and its repercussions. … Moving forward, building partnerships will be central to my new role in state government, which will focus on connecting state government and philanthropy to strengthen our collective ability to improve the quality of life of the people of North Carolina.”

In the past, Heinsohn has been candid about her political views. In an interview from October that identified her as “a Democratic voter from the small city of Winston-Salem,” Heinsohn called for “bringing decency back to the White House” and hoped that North Carolina would vote against former President Trump.

The Reynolds Foundation is a stalwart funder of left-wing nonprofits and activism in the Tar Heel State, including partisan causes such as Blueprint NC. Blueprint NC was responsible for a 2013 memo calling on progressive groups to “cripple” and “eviscerate” Republican legislative leaders. The Reynolds Foundation gave $2.1 million to Blueprint NC between 2009 and 2013 alone.

Heinsohn’s hiring comes six months after the Reynolds Foundation pledged to give $50,000 to a task force created by Cooper to study racial equity in the criminal justice system.

The hiring also appears to be another step in recent moves by the Cooper administration to tap talent from left-wing philanthropies for official government posts. In August 2019, Cooper appointed Damon Circosta to the state Board of Elections. Circosta, who was subsequently made chair of the SBE, is executive director of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, another top supporter of left-wing activism in North Carolina. Longtime Capitol Broadcasting Company CEO Jim Gooodman chairs Fletcher’s board of directors. Goodmon’s wife, Barbara, serves as the foundation’s president.

David Bass is a freelance writer for Carolina Journal.