Top Donors Help Steer Democracy Alliance’s 2016 Strategy

Documents reveal the inner workings of the left-wing donor club’s new state-level campaigns

voting booth
April 21, 2015

Wealthy liberals who "make significant investments" in Democracy Alliance-backed projects will help guide strategy in 2016 and beyond for the left’s most powerful network of political moneymen, documents obtained by the Washington Free Beacon reveal.

High-dollar donors to a new Democracy Alliance effort focused on building Democratic power in the states will be appointed to a panel that will help direct millions in contributions to state-level political and advocacy groups, those documents state.

Alliance president Gara LaMarche said in an email that the group has not yet determined what the contribution threshold will be for a spot on SEI’s advisory board, saying "we have not determined answers to those governance questions yet." He declined to address questions about disclosure of the group’s donors.

The names of those donors will likely remain a secret, even as the Alliance tries to drum up populist opposition to the post-Citizens United campaign finance landscape that it blames for corrupting American democracy.

The Alliance is ramping up its efforts to win back governorships, state legislatures, and, eventually, federal policymaking positions ahead of key elections and the 2020 congressional redistricting process.

"As an alliance of donors across the country, the DA is uniquely positioned to … help to direct resources from out of state donors to key parts of the country, in partnership with local funders," according to documents obtained at the organization’s biennal conference last week in San Francisco.

The new push involves five initiatives dubbed "2020 State Funds." The Democracy Fund will focus on voting rights, the Inclusive Economy Fund will push for minimum wage hikes and other liberal economic policies, the Climate Change Fund will push carbon restrictions and green energy subsidies, the New American Majority Fund will target key electoral demographics, and the State Engagement Initiative will work on state-level elections.

According to briefing materials provided to partners at last week’s conference, the strategy will target a dozen states: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

All 12 "have important federal and state races on the ballot next year," according to briefing materials handed out at the conference. "They will be front and center in 2016" and "could benefit from added capacity and resources in this critical election."

Four of the State Funds are new efforts, rolled out at last week’s conference. The SEI, headed by DA consultant Frank Smith, was created in 2013 through a partnership with the Committee on States, a DA-aligned group that aims to spend $100 million annually by the end of the decade to advance Democratic candidates and policies at the state level.

The SEI’s investment recommendations will be devised in part by the executive directors of the Committee on States and DA-backed groups State Voices, Progress Now, and America Votes, according to Alliance documents.

High-dollar DA donors can also have a say in how the money is distributed. "Donors who make significant investments can join the SEI advisory committee and participate in decision making," the documents note.

The SEI is a 501(c)(4) "dark money" group, meaning the names of those donors will likely not be made public. While the Alliance has pledged to reduce the opacity of its work in steering hundreds of millions of dollars to political, policy, and advocacy groups, it has also taken steps to keep the identities of its donors secret.

"The Democracy Alliance has assured its Partners from the beginning that their participation will not be made public by us, and our legal structure was designed, among other reasons, to protect that promise," the group told its donors last year.

Alliance partners, as its donors are known, must contribute at least $200,000 annually to its portfolio of nearly 200 groups. The Alliance never handles the money—it just recommends organizations for partner support—making it difficult to trace the group’s role in financing those groups.

The Alliance’s portfolio of supported organizations grew this year, but it encouraged partners to steer funds to a select few organizations focused on state-level fights, including the 2020 State Funds.

Dark money will be increasingly prominent in the Alliance’s work on the state level, even as that work decries the corrosive influence of money in politics, according to internal documents.

The New American Majority Fund (NAMF), which will register and turn out young people, single women, and people of color in key elections, will also do much of its work by way of groups that do not disclose their donors.

"There will be a particular intentional focus on growing and strengthening c4 organizational capacity," according to Alliance documents. "The development of c4 capacity in these constituencies has lagged."

The NAMF will itself have 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) arms, as will every State Fund but SEI, which will only have the latter, according to DA documents.

The Funds’ structure was devised by DA’s board and a number of "Partner Advisory Panels." The group met with "dozens of progressive thinkers and leaders" and organized "seven forums around the country in which more than 80 percent of the DA Partnership participated" to come up with its five-year strategy.

Alliance documents also credit the group’s 2020 Vision Committee, which includes DA board members Patricia Bauman, Farhad Ebrahimi, Paul Egerman, and Weston Milliken, and Kathleen Welch, a Democratic consultant who has worked with the DA on climate and energy issues.

An advisory board governs each Fund. Representatives from the five Funds will meet periodically to discuss strategy and coordination. They have all "met at least once and been consulted individually and by email multiple times," according to those documents.

DA staff will help align their activities and promote the Funds among the group’s donors.

"Although donors may have different points of entry into state work, we need all of the infrastructure that will be supported to be strong, well-resourced, and aligned," Alliance documents state.

Update: The story has been updated with comment from the Democracy Alliance.