Editor’s Note: Details of the WFB’s Democracy Alliance exposé can be found here.
The most influential money-mover of the modern labor movement is also affiliated with the secretive Democracy Alliance.
Karen Ackerman launched two of the most expensive political operations of the 2004 and 2008 elections as political director of union giant American Federation of Labor-Congress Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). The union spent $150 million to defeat President George W. Bush in 2004 and pledged $200 million—more than 40 percent of the $450 million spent by labor groups that year—to elect Barack Obama in 2008.
Ackerman’s ability to generate massive political capital made her a star of the left, leading to a $143,000 payday in 2011, as well as multiple invitations to the White House. It also made Ackerman a natural target when hedge-fund titan George Soros and insurance magnate Peter Lewis helped launch the invitation-only collection of wealthy Democratic players known as the Democracy Alliance in 2005. Documents obtained by the Washington Free Beacon show that she accepted the group’s call to action.
"The Democratic Party’s base is a collection of interest groups that share no obvious connection and can even come into direct opposition: environmental groups and labor, for example," conservative elections expert Jay Cost said. "The value of the Democracy Alliance is uniting these disparate interests behind common causes."
Ackerman is attempting to replicate the Alliance’s success within the labor movement. After leaving the AFL-CIO in June, Ackerman created the Progressive Majority Table, a group that helps coordinate political spending for 11 unions and progressive interest groups.
The Table is an "informal collection of groups" that meets monthly to discuss campaign strategy, including spending, according to a liberal activist familiar with its operations. Much like the Alliance, it is not a registered political advocacy group, nor does it show up on any campaign expenditure report. The Table bears no relation to groups bearing similar names, such as the Progressive Congressional Caucus or Progressive Congress.
Ackerman has kept the group under wraps. She has not created a website or listed a headquarters for its operation. She also failed to respond to multiple requests for comment.
"Organized labor has an incentive to keep that kind of operation quiet," Cost said. "They don’t want the scrutiny that comes with that level of contribution—especially when it engages in what amounts to legal money laundering."
Ackerman has attempted to lay the blame for big election spending at the feet of business groups, rather than union groups.
"The corporate side will always have more to spend than the union side," she told the New York Times in 2010, despite the fact that labor groups spent millions more on the election than the Chamber that year. The Wall Street Journal has estimated that union groups spent as much as $4.4 billion on elections between 2005 and 2011.
The Table arrived on the political scene at a crossroads for the labor movement, as unions have divided along public and private sector lines and their influence in union families declines.
In 2004, Ackerman’s get-out-the-vote effort drove unions of all stripes to the polls. Union households made up almost one out of every four voters that year and voted Democratic by a 19-point margin. When Scott Walker’s bid to rein in public sector unions spurred a recall election in June, the Republican governor won nearly half of non-union members living in union households, according to exit polls.
Ackerman’s group hopes to unite the private sector workers who are unhappy with the ever-increasing taxpayer benefits garnered by their public sector counterparts.
While Ackerman’s tactics have taken her out of the spotlight she enjoyed while at the AFL-CIO—Politico named her one of Washington’s principal movers and shakers in 2011—her new shadowy role may be even more effective.
"Instead of taking to the media to try to silence the other side, these leftist groups are finding new ways to make it easier to raise money for the Democrats," said Jacob Laksin, author of The New Leviathan.