Ellen Susman: Stand By Your Man

Wife of legendary trial lawyer sits on board of shadowy liberal group

Ellen Susman /
September 20, 2012

A prominent Texas feminist helps funnel tens of millions of dollars to Democratic causes through the secretive Democracy Alliance.

Veteran broadcaster Ellen Susman serves as a board member of the shadowy liberal clique that serves as the middleman for wealthy donors and leftwing causes. Members of the invitation-only group pledge annual $200,000 donations to a select group of Democratic charities and Super PACs chosen by the board.

The Alliance has focused on giving the majority of its cash to groups with close ties to the White House, including the Center for American Progress, Media Matters, and Priorities USA, the pro-Obama Super PAC. The group does not disclose its donors or recipients who are prohibited from speaking to the press without Alliance approval.

Neither Susman nor the Alliance returned requests for comment.

Susman and her trial lawyer husband, Stephen, contributed nearly $670,000 to Democratic candidates and election PACs since 2007, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. They donated nearly $15,000 to the Obama campaign, $206,200 to the DNC, and more than $190,000 to Democratic congressional campaign committees.

Such private donations do not include millions of dollars in grants from the couple’s Susman Family Foundation, "which supports a national progressive agenda specifically in the areas of justice, the environment and media," according to the Democracy Alliance’s profile of Ellen Susman.

The family foundation has made lucrative contributions to several Alliance-endorsed institutions, including $60,000 gifts to Media Matters and CAP between 2008 and 2010.

It is unclear if these donations helped fulfill the Susman’s commitment to the Democracy Alliance.

Campaign finance expert John Samples said that contributing through charitable foundations is a good guise for political philanthropy, especially if it is done in the name of a little known third party, such as the Democracy Alliance.

"In those kinds of circumstances, disclosure [of the Alliance] would detract from the content of the message that the donor wants to advocate," he said. "It takes the focus off the person donating and puts it on the issue or the group."

Obama hailed Susman’s foundation in 2011 when he nominated her to serve on the President's Advisory Committee on the Arts for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

"Ellen Susman is President of the Susman Family Foundation, which supports a variety of programs relating to the arts, justice, and the environment," stated a White House release announcing the nomination.

The Susman Family Foundation reported $2.9 million of income in December 2011, most of which came from Stephen Susman, who is one of America’s most successful trial lawyers.

For the past 25 years, Susman has been included in The Best Lawyers in America list. He was most recently named as one of the top 483 lawyers in the world by Who's Who Legal: The International Who's Who of Business Lawyers. He is a partner at Susman Godfrey Inc. and launched his career in grand fashion when he secured a $550 million judgment in a paper antitrust case just 15 years after passing the bar exam.

Stephen Susman did not return requests for comment.

Ellen Susman is heavily involved in a number of political causes in addition to the Alliance. She sits on the board of Texas Tribune, a non-profit news service funded in part by two former Democratic lieutenant governors. The organization pushes its stories into struggling newspapers seeking to fill their pages with political news.

"The focus on media is very important to the left," said Jacob Laksin, author of The New Leviathan. "I don’t think the left has to work extra hard to get a sympathetic message across to the mainstream media, so you get these groups at the edges of media to get their message out there."

Susman has used her connections to help raise money for some of her pet causes. She is on the board of Annie’s List, an organization that seeks to elect Democratic women in Texas, along with top Obama bundler Naomi Aberly and Alliance member Amy Fikes.