Steven Phillips: Election Wrangler

Democracy Alliance board member heavily involved in organizing minority voters
Steven Phillips / pacplus.org

Steven Phillips / pacplus.org

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Prolific fundraiser and ­champion of racial politics Steven Phillips is working with a secretive group of wealthy liberals to drive voter turnout for President Barack Obama.

Phillips, who made millions as a trial attorney filing racial discrimination suits against profitable businesses in San Francisco, sits on the board of the Democracy Alliance, an invitation-only collection of the nation’s top liberal moneymen.

Members contribute $200,000 per year to liberal nonprofit groups, such as the Center for American Progress and Media Matters. Phillips helps to choose the select few groups that receive funding from the Alliance’s multi-million dollar pool. Those groups are increasingly political, rather than policy-focused, and have come to include the Obama-affiliated Super PAC Priorities USA.

The addition of groups such as Priorities USA led founding billionaire Peter Lewis to renounce the group in the spring.

“They focus on whether this gets Democrats elected,” said Jacob Laksin, author of The New Leviathan. “Initially, it was created to dispense money to progressive groups, but now it’s an engine for the Democratic Party—I don’t think the leadership is particularly troubled by that.”

Phillips has a long history of using nonprofit organizations to help boost the election prospects of Obama and other liberal candidates. He was among the president’s earliest backers and spent at least $350,000 throughout Obama’s primary race against then-rival Hillary Clinton and general election against Sen. John McCain.

In 2007, Phillips created the group Vote Hope, a play on the president’s campaign slogan that brought in big-money donations to purchase advertisements and organize campaign volunteers. The 527 group benefitted handsomely from Phillips’ ties to the Alliance; fellow members Wayne Jordan and Quinn Delaney donated to the group.

Phillips later ignored requests from the Obama campaign to disband Vote Hope after it drew scrutiny for helping major donors evade legal limits on campaign contributions.

“The rise of this type of political entrepreneurship comes from the campaign finance laws themselves,” said conservative elections expert Jay Cost. “The reforms close down certain paths and channels for money flow, but people find new places for it to go.”

Vote Hope was not Phillips’s only election-year venture. In 2008, he converted his five-year-old nonprofit, PowerPAC, into a campaign operation.

The group, described as “a statewide social justice organization working with community organizations and activists to build political power in California,” did more to empower the Democratic Party than it did the voters in the minority communities it claimed to serve.

PowerPAC raised more than $10 million from mostly high-dollar donors to mobilize minority voters in swing states such as New Mexico. The PAC’s mega-media buys also helped drive black turnout in North Carolina in 2008 and turn the state blue for the first time in more than 30 years.

He has launched similar efforts for the 2012 election, creating PAC+, a Super Pac that is developing ads for minority communities in six swing states.

Phillips did not return requests for comment.