An influential former tobacco lobbyist helps steer tens of millions of dollars to liberal causes through the secretive Democracy Alliance.
Ted Trimpa currently sits on the board of the group after a lengthy career as a lobbyist and power broker in Colorado, where the group was born. In April 2004, Trimpa sat down to lunch with former Colorado State University President Al Yates to discuss the future of political activism.
The concept of pooling together the resources of wealthy liberal patrons in a select few groups was born at that lunch. The tactic had an immediate impact on state politics in Colorado. The Colorado Democracy Alliance financed messaging and campaign operations for left-wing groups independent of the state’s weak Democratic Party.
"They basically said, ‘We’re going to take over this state and we’re going to need a shadow party to do it,’" said campaign finance expert Bradley Smith. "They were quite successful."
The Alliance helped turn the conservative-leaning state in a liberal direction. Colorado has elected two liberal senators and a Democratic governor John Hickenlooper since 2004, and has experienced one of the most drastic party switches in the presidential election. Barack Obama captured nearly 54 percent of the popular vote in 2008, compared with the 52 percent of Coloradans that voted for George W. Bush in 2004.
The key, Trimpa explained in a 2007 interview with the Atlantic, was shifting major national donor attention away from "glamour giving" and to "the right state and local races."
Trimpa’s effectiveness in Colorado has led to a lucrative career in political lobbying. He was named one of the top "government relations" lawyers in the country in 2008 and later left the powerful Hogan & Hartson law firm to begin his own Washington D.C. lobbying firm, TrimpaGroup.
Trimpa earned his fortune advocating for causes with which some of his liberal allies might take issue, including nearly $2.4 million from the Vector Group, a cigarette manufacturer, between 1999 and 2008. He has also worked on a number of lobbying contracts for oil, student loan, and telecommunications companies.
His lobbying career has entangled him in some troubled companies, as well. He took in nearly $300,000 from Lightsquared, a telecommunications firm run by major Obama donor Philip Falcone that went into bankruptcy after it emerged that the company may have received preferential treatment from the administration.
Trimpa has called for full political disclosure of political donations to activist and independent 527 groups that are able to take in unlimited contributions, but the Alliance discloses neither its members nor the recipients of its donations and forbids those associated with the group from speaking publicly about its operations.
"The Democracy Alliance is extremely shady, and it’s certainly inconsistent with the message of transparency that the left is preaching," said conservative author Jacob Laksin. "The Alliance allows its rich donors to cover their tracks."
Trimpa has won the ear of a number of Alliance members. He served as a political adviser to foundation maven Tim Gill, who has pumped millions into the gay advocacy groups that Trimpa—himself openly gay—has supported.
Gill’s multi-million dollar fortune pales in comparison to the billions that the Alliance can tap into to sway elections. As a board member, Trimpa helps assign the "favored status" designation that can bring tens of millions to liberal activists or Democratic campaigns.
The Alliance generated at least $100 million for liberal groups between 2005 and 2008, according to the Capital Research Center, and also helped launch influential nonprofit groups such as the Center for American Progress and Media Matters. Following the Republican midterm sweep in 2010, the Alliance’s board and members decided to throw its weight behind Democratic Super PACs.
"For Obama’s reelection effort, they have become wrapped up in tying themselves to the election message," campaign finance expert John Samples said.
The beneficiaries of Alliance cash have also expressed awe in the young attorney’s ability to win elections and gain footholds in vulnerable districts. CAP founder John Podesta, a former lobbyist and Clinton staffer, praised Trimpa as a problem solver with a proven record, according to the Denver Post.
That reputation has made him a highly sought commodity in liberal politics. Along with his seat on the Alliance’s board, Trimpa sits on the board of the liberal powerhouse ProgressNow with fellow Alliance members Rob McKay and Doug Phelps.
Neither Trimpa nor the Alliance returned emails for comment.