The left’s secret club
By: Kenneth P. Vogel
April 24, 2014 05:00 AM EDT
Some of the country’s biggest Democratic donors — including Tom Steyer and Jonathan Soros — are huddling behind closed doors next week in Chicago with union bigwigs and progressive superstars like Bill de Blasio to plan how to pull their party — and the country — to the left.
The setting is the annual spring meeting of the Democracy Alliance, a secretive club of wealthy liberals that’s the closest thing the left has to the vaunted Koch brothers’ political network.
The DA, as the liberal group is known to insiders, is increasing its ranks of rich donors for the first time in years and is gearing up to spend huge sums on political data, voter registration, ground organizing and advertising to influence the 2014 midterms and 2016 presidential elections. Potentially more significant, the groups’ donors also could play an important role in determining whether the post-Barack Obama Democratic Party embraces the rising tide of progressive populism or hews to a more cautious, centrist course — in other words, whether the Hillary Clinton wing or Elizabeth Warren wing will seize the reins.
The Spring Investment Conference will feature a number of Clinton allies and others associated with the centrist wing — including Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Kentucky Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes and Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. But the conference — which kicks off Sunday night at a Ritz Carlton ballroom with a dinner keynoted by de Blasio — is also seen as a coming out party of sorts for the group’s progressives, who have expressed some measure of dissatisfaction with what they see as a level of timidity on their pet issues from the Obama White House.
According to a conference agenda obtained by POLITICO, panels will focus on elevating progressive issues like income inequality, climate change, drug reform, gun control, abortion rights and the death penalty.
It’s not all serious business, though. Social events include a wine party featuring selections from wineries owned by DA donors, a private curator-led tour of the Art Institute of Chicago and a performance by “The Daily Show” co-creator Lizz Winstead, who the agenda says will deploy her “comedic genius” to take a “light-hearted look at the conservative Right and the decay of the Fourth Estate.”
DA conferences are typically kept hush-hush, with locations tightly held, press barred from the sessions and participants prohibited from discussing the proceedings.
Invitations are coveted by all manner of Democrats. Several representatives from Obama’s orbit are expected at the Ritz, including White House Political Director David Simas and campaign adman Larry Grisolano. They’re participating in a panel on winning health care strategies in state races, while Organizing for Action, the nonprofit group formed from the remnants of Obama’s campaign to push his second-term agenda, is hosting donors for an open house at its headquarters. And former Obama political guru David Axelrod is slated to deliver a speech titled “Reflections on a Career in Journalism, Politics, and the Obama Journey.”
The courting of rich Democrats in Chicago comes as some of the party’s top names continue a discordant character assault on major conservative donors as eroding the very fabric of American democracy. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has repeatedly blasted the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch as “un-American” and accused them of “actually trying to buy the country.”
Democracy Alliance partners, as the group calls its members, pay annual dues of $30,000 and are required to contribute a total of at least $200,000 a year to recommended groups. Since its inception in 2005, the DA has steered upward of $500 million to a range of groups, including pillars of the political left such as the conservative media watchdog Media Matters, the policy advocacy outfit Center for American Progress and the data firm Catalist — all of which are run by Clinton allies.
While those groups will be represented in Chicago, DA insiders and observers are watching the conference closely for signs of a leftward tack away from the Democratic Party’s strategy.
Steyer, the San Francisco hedge fund billionaire trying to raise money for a planned $100-million midterm spending spree on behalf of environmentally minded candidates, is hosting a session called “Putting Climate Change at the Forefront of American Politics,” and is expected to hold one-on-one meetings to solicit checks from interested DA partners.
And the conference will mark the beginning of a new DA leadership regime that is replacing the Obama and Clinton loyalists who had been running the organization.
“I anticipate the Democracy Alliance becoming both more progressive and more aggressive in the coming years,” said Erica Payne, who helped found the club, and now runs the Agenda Project, a progressive communications nonprofit. “That will disturb centrist Democrats, but it will be healthy and productive for the country. They need to be challenged on these things.”
New DA President Gara LaMarche, who comes from the ranks of liberal philanthropy, is regarded as more independent from the Democratic Party than his predecessor Kelly Craighead. A former Clinton White House staffer and longtime Hillary Clinton assistant, she had helped raise money for Obama and Democratic super PACs closely linked to party leaders.
And in June, the board is expected to elect a new chair to replace Rob McKay, an heir to a Taco Bell fortune who has been chair since 2006. McKay, an early Obama supporter, sat on the board of Priorities USA, the super PAC that boosted Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign and this year switched its allegiances to Clinton in advance of a hoped-for 2016 presidential campaign.
National Education Association executive John Stocks, is among the leading candidates to replace McKay, DA sources say, and would be the group’s first chair who is not a major donor and who hails from organized labor.
Stocks and McKay did not respond to requests for comment, while LaMarche rejected the idea that the DA is turning sharply left, let alone that it intends to pull the Democratic Party in that direction. Rather, he wants to help the group be a place for donors to work things out privately.
“Our contribution to the debate about the direction of the Democratic Party post-Obama is more to be a forum where those discussions can take place than an interest group pushing a certain set of positions,” he said. “It’s about having more focus and impact and asking ourselves about where the accumulated dollars of these progressive donors will be best spent in the coming years.”
He added, “With respect to electoral politics at the presidential level, the DA has to be like Switzerland.”
LaMarche worked as an official at the Open Society Foundations, which were founded by leading DA donor George Soros, and then at the Atlantic Philanthropies. Under his leadership, the DA has recruited 10 new partners this year after years of stagnant or declining membership.
Payne called LaMarche “a visionary leader with enormous intellectual and institutional stature, not to mention deep relationships with very serious money people.” Citing income inequality, Wall Street reform and climate change as areas in which DA partners want Democrats to be more aggressive, Payne suggested they would rebel against Clinton if she tapped the same officials who shaped economic policy in her husband’s administration and then again in Obama’s.
“A lot of this is about whether Bob Rubin and Larry Summers will control the economic policies of the Democratic Party or whether leaders more like Elizabeth Warren will set the agenda,” Payne said. “Democracy Alliance members, broadly speaking, are not Rubinites.”
The group suffered from the perception that it put its thumb on the scale for Obama during his bitter battle with Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary, when a few DA donors quietly steered big sums to pre-super PAC outside groups supporting Obama. Some of Clinton’s loyalists left the group in disgust.
Now, many leading players in the DA are aligned behind Clinton, including Houston trial lawyers Steve and Amber Mostyn, billionaire financier George Soros, as well as David Brock and Harold Ickes, the founders of Media Matters and Catalist, respectively.
But there are others who are considered likely to support a liberal alternative like Warren. Despite insisting she won’t run, the Massachusetts senator continues to generate 2016 interest from liberals, and was lobbied to reconsider by some DA partners when she attended the group’s November meeting at Washington’s Mandarin Oriental hotel. After Warren firmly rejected their entreaties, the DA members began discussing other liberal alternatives, according to a source with knowledge of the Mandarin meeting. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which helped coax Warren into running for the Senate in 2012 and then boosting her campaign, and now is trying to do the same for her in the 2016 presidential race, was recently added to a DA roster of suggested grantees. And health care tech entrepreneur Paul Egerman, who was Warren’s national finance director, last year became the DA’s treasurer.
As the 2012 Republican presidential primary demonstrated in stark terms, recent federal court cases including the 2010 Citizens United decision have created a landscape in which a single megadonor or small group thereof can upend a primary by spending huge sums to try secure a nomination for their favored candidate.
The DA was formed in 2005 partly to try steer big liberal money away from elections. Founding donors including Soros, McKay and insurance magnate Peter Lewis (who died in November and will be honored in Chicago) were somewhat disillusioned after donating the lion’s share of the $200 million spent by outside groups trying to defeat President George W. Bush the preceding year, and their goal was to use the DA to channel cash into think tanks and advocacy groups intended to help liberals win the long-term war of ideas rather than any given election.
The DA in recent years has reintegrated political spending outfits into its portfolio, including recommending donations to Democratic super PACs run by allies of Obama, Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
LaMarche acknowledged “there is a degree of irony, obviously” in liberal participation in big money politics while decrying it. But, he said “most progressives live with that irony by not wanting to unilaterally disarm in the system that we have. They have to live in the system that we have, and try to win in the system that we have, while at the same time putting a lot of energy into trying to change that system.”
The Democracy Alliance has steered cash to groups pushing to limit the role of money in politics, and the Chicago conference includes a panel on money-in-politics reform moderated by Soros’s son Jonathan, though George Soros is not expected to be in Chicago. Jonathan Soros co-founded a super PAC called Friends of Democracy that in 2012 spent $2.5 million — donated largely by Soros and his family — boosting candidates who support campaign finance reforms including enhanced disclosure, and it plans to spend as much as $6 million in 2014.
While Friends of Democracy discloses its donors, many DA-recommended groups do not, because they are registered under a section of the Tax Code — 501(c) — that doesn’t require such disclosures. And the DA seeks to guard its donors’ identities, escorting a POLITICO reporter from a 2010 meeting.
But David Donnelly, who is sitting on the panel with Soros and helps run Friends of Democracy and a separate campaign finance reform nonprofit, rejected a suggestion that the DA’s own secrecy undermines its support for groups pushing disclosure.
“You’re talking about a story on it, so what’s the secret?” he said. “I’m not sure what the secret is about who we are and what we do. So I’m not sure there’s a whole lot of there there.”