Politics

Democracy Alliance Targets Moderate California Dems

Donor club plots ways to undermine centrists blocking left-wing legislation

Sandra Fluke
Sandra Fluke / AP

The left’s leading donor club is marshaling high-dollar donors, labor unions, and birth control activist Sandra Fluke to target moderate state legislators in California, according to internal documents.

Attendees of the Democracy Alliance’s fall donors conference last month huddled in the Washington, D.C., Mandarin Oriental hotel to discuss ways to neutralize a group of centrist Democratic legislators that have succeeded in blocking scores of measures pushed by the Alliance and its ranks of wealthy political donors.

"Conservative corporate Democrats in California’s state legislature … rejected key progressive legislation in 2015, including environmental, labor, anti-poverty and women’s issues," the Alliance wrote in materials handed out at the conference.

Alliance partners, as its donors are known, and representatives from some of the groups that its wealthy members support held an event "to discuss how progressive donors, organized labor, and key organizations are building aligned progressive infrastructure to beat back corporate Democrats, pass progressive policies, and prepare for statewide elections in 2018 and beyond."

Recent reforms to California’s electoral process were designed to reduce the influence of hardliners in both parties. The result in a state where Republicans are generally confined to the minority has been the election of a number of centrist Democrats dubbed the "Mod Squad."

Rather than back Republicans in a state reflexively hostile to the GOP, businesses in California are increasingly turning to friendlier Democrats. The Alliance credits the resulting bloc of loosely organized legislators with sinking most of the left’s Sacramento agenda in recent years.

"The Chamber of Commerce, through the mod squad, killed 18 out of 19 target bills in 2015, 25 out of 27 in 2014, and 37 out of 38 bills in 2013," according to agenda documents. "This success rate is a result of conservative business interests and Republican donors strategically, and successfully, investing in electing business-friendly Democrats in Democratic seats."

To discuss the problem and potential solutions for the Alliance’s cadre of wealthy political donors, a handful of those donors sponsored a session at the November conference titled "Building a More Progressive California."

The event’s featured speakers were Ludovic Blain, executive director of the Progressive Era Project, a group of California political donors founded by Alliance partner Steve Phillips; and Sandra Fluke, the birth control activist who rose to prominence in 2012 and now runs the California arm of the group Voices for Progress.

Neither group responded to requests for comment on their activities in California.

Voices for Progress was one of a number of left-wing organizations that pushed for a measure this year to dramatically restrict fossil fuel use in California.

That legislation, known as SB 350, contained language that would have mandated 50 percent cuts in petroleum use in California by 2030. But that provision was removed after it failed to marshal enough support among California’s moderate Democratic voting bloc.

"I'm trying to make sure the well-being of our poorest communities isn't sacrificed for the sake of clean air," centrist Democratic assemblyman Adam Gray told the San Jose Mercury News after that language was stripped. "I shouldn't have to choose between good jobs and clean air for my constituents. We deserve both."

The Alliance’s ranks of wealthy California liberals are livid at what they see as capitulation by members of the political party that they generally support. They attribute the Mod Squad’s agenda to its financial supporters in the business community.

However, Alliance donors themselves are also financial heavyweights in California state politics.

Six of the 12 individual donors who organized the Alliance’s California strategy session together donated roughly $920,000 to state-level candidates during the 2014 election cycle, according to campaign finance records.

Eleven of the 12 are also major contributors to federal candidates during the current election cycle. According to Federal Election Commission records, they’ve given about $935,000 to candidates, party organs, and independent political groups this year.

Efforts to retake statehouses and advance progressive legislation therein were a major theme of the Alliance’s November conference, where donors were encouraged to support a network of financially opaque groups working to affect policy and elections at the state level.