Founded in the spring of 2005, the Democracy Alliance (DA) is a non-tax-exempt, nonprofit, self-described "liberal organization" that serves as a funding clearinghouse for progressive groups. DA does not accept donations outright, but rather solicits contributions from left-wing millionaires and billionaires (whom it calls "partners"), and then serves as a "pass through" that funnels their money to its "favored organizations."
Political operative Rob Stein, who served as chief of staff to Commerce Department Secretary Ron Brown during the Bill Clinton administration, conceived the DA project and was its first managing director. DA's founding mission was "to build progressive infrastructure that could help counter the well-funded and sophisticated conservative apparatus in the areas of civic engagement, leadership, media, and ideas."
Stein began working on the project shortly after the Republican Party had gained eight House seats and two Senate seats in the 2002 midterm elections. Lamenting that he was “living in a one-party [Republican] country, Stein at that point resolved to study the conservative movement and determine why it was winning the political battle. After a year of analysis, he concluded that a few influential, wealthy family foundations -- most notably Scaife, Bradley, Olin, and Coors -- had spearheaded the creation of a $300 million network of politically influential organizations. Stein featured these facts in a comprehensive PowerPoint presentation titled “The Conservative Message Machine Money Matrix,” which mapped out, in painstaking detail, the conservative movement's networking strategies and funding sources.
Next, Stein set out to show his presentation, mostly in private meetings, to political leaders, activists, and prospective big-money donors of the left. He hoped to inspire them to join his crusade to build a new a financial clearinghouse dedicated to offsetting the efforts of conservative funders and injecting new life into the progressive movement. At each presentation, Stein asked the viewer to pledge that he or she would keep confidential the substance of the proceedings, so as to give the project a chance to coalesce and gain some momentum without excessive public scrutiny.
Stein officially filed DA's corporate registration in the District of Columbia in January 2005. By that point, he had shown his PowerPoint presentation to hundreds of key people in private meetings. Stein recalls that during those sessions, he consistently observed “an unbelievable frustration” by big Democrat donors who felt hopelessly unconnected to one another, even as they longed to be part of a strategic coalition that could work collaboratively and cohesively. This was particularly true of the billionaire financier George Soros, thus it was most significant that Soros quickly and enthusiastically embraced Stein's concept.
In April 2005, Soros brought together 70 likeminded, carefully vetted, fellow millionaires and billionaires in Phoenix, Arizona, to discuss Stein's ideas and expeditiously implement a plan of action. Among the attendees were former Clinton White House aides Mike McCurry and Sidney Blumenthal, and Schumann Center for Media & Democracy president Bill Moyers. Most of those in attendance agreed that the conservative movement represented “a fundamental threat to the American way of life.” And, like Soros, a considerable number of them looked favorably on Stein's analysis and concept. Thus was born the Democracy Alliance.
According to journalist Joseph Klein, the nascent organization “received significant support from some of Hillary Clinton’s most important backers including Susie Tompkins Buell and her husband, Mark Buell, and financier Alan Patricof.”
Moreover, DA reported that one of its officials was Jonathan Adler, who served as a regional campaign coordinator for Mrs. Clinton’s successful 2006 Senate re-election campaign.
DA's managing director, Kelly Craighead, was, according to Newsday’s Glenn Thrush, “one of the Clintons’ closest friends.” In the 1990s Craighead had worked as an assistant to President Bill Clinton and as director of the advance team for Hillary, who was then the First Lady. Craighead subsequently worked for Mrs. Clinton's U.S. Senate campaign in 2000. The depth of the friendship between Craighead and Mrs. Clinton is evidenced by the fact that Hillary, acting as a justice of the peace, performed Craighead’s 2001 marriage ceremony to political consultant Erick Mullen, a former aide to Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York and a former informal advisor to Mrs. Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign.
DA's partners, who are accepted into the Alliance by invitation only, include both individuals and groups. New partners must pay an initial $25,000 fee, and $30,000 in yearly dues thereafter. They also must give at least $200,000 annually to the "favored organizations" which the Alliance endorses. Donors metaphorically “pour” these requisite donations into one or more of what Rob Stein refers to as DA's “four buckets” of fundraising: ideas, media, leadership training, and civic engagement. The money is then apportioned to approved left-wing groups from each respective category.
No grants were pledged at DA's April 2005 gathering in Phoenix, but at an Atlanta meeting three months later, DA partners pledged $39 million, about a third of which came directly from George Soros and Peter Lewis.
Since approximately 2006, DA members and staff have been working to establish subchapters of their organization in all 50 states. Their most successful effort to date was in Colorado, where the local DA has funded such varied enterprises as liberal think tanks, media “watchdog” groups, ethics groups that bring forth so-called public-interest litigation, voter-mobilization groups, media outlets that attack conservatives, and liberal leadership-training centers. The initial results were striking: Whereas in 2004 Colorado had a Republican governor, two Republican U.S. senators, and five Republican House members (out of seven), by the end of the 2008 elections the state had a Democratic governor, two Democratic U.S. Senators, and five Democratic House members (out of seven).
Critics have noted that the massive funding that DA steers toward leftwing groups is inconsistent with the Alliance's professed desire to get big money out of politics. But DA's partners justify this contradiction by maintaining that their own donations are intended to advance a selfless, high-minded, moral crusade to improve America as a country, whereas conservative donors are allegedly motivated only by a desire to enrich themselves by supporting groups that promote policies like tax cuts and reduced business regulations.
Former Stride Ride president Arnold Hiatt, who donated $1.9 million to Democratic super PACs in 2012, once put it this way: “The people who are giving money into politics here [At Democracy Alliance] are interested in changing the system. They’re not interested in getting return on investment.”
DA President Gara LaMarche, for his part, said in 2014: “George Soros isn’t trying to get a tax break or relief from regulation or whatever. He is basically saying, let’s have a system where somebody like me would be taxed more heavily.” By contrast, LaMarche explained, conservative donors treat their political giving as “a business expense” that “coincides with self-interest in a narrower sense more than it does on the progressive side.”
DA partners also depict their own big-money donations as necessary in order to compete effectively with conservatives. David Axelrod, who delivered the keynote speech at an April 2014 DA conference, explained at that time: “Most of these people [DA partners] would love to put themselves out of business. Most of these people would prefer a country in which big donors didn’t play as large a role in our politics. But so long as money in politics is required, there are going to be people on both sides who are willing to step up and provide it.”
In early 2011, DA launched a project called New Media Ventures, which described itself as "the first national network of early-stage investors who are investing their time and money into new, cutting edge, start-ups focused on building progressive change."
In 2011-12, DA members debated whether it was preferable to focus on electing Democrats in the next cycle, or on building a lasting infrastructure. By logical extension, they debated whether they should fund: (a) organizations closely aligned with the Democratic Party, or (b) groups operating outside the party and working to move it further leftward.
As of April 2014, some 180 groups were listed on the “Progressive Infrastructure Map” of organizations that DA encouraged its donors to support.
Under the leadership of its board chairman, Rob McKay, DA's major objective today is to "provid[e] an innovative opportunity for individuals to leverage their progressive philanthropy by connecting their own efforts with those of other investors/donors, high-impact organizations, and visionary political strategists and leaders." This use of a "collaborative giving strategy," says DA, "helps form a more integrated and cohesive progressive community."
Each year DA holds two major conferences which include panels that promote leftwing views on a variety of issues like income inequality, climate change, drug reform, gun control, abortion rights, and capital punishment.
DA is known to consist of at least 100 donor-partners. While claiming to support transparency in politics, the Alliance historically has been quite secretive regarding the identities of its members, the locations where its events are held, and the substance of what is discussed at those events. DA also bars reporters from those events.
Nevertheless, the Capital Research Center has managed to compile the names of some of the more significant current and former DA partners (in addition to George Soros and Rob Stein). A large percentage of them have significant ties to Soros that extend well beyond their shared membership in the Democracy Alliance. To view a list of particularly notable individuals who were DA partners as of 2011, click here.
Notwithstanding DA's secrecy about the identity of its partners, a May 2014 investigative report by the Washington Free Beacon revealed that the following individuals had become new DA partners in 2013 and 2014:
Adam Abram (2014) is the founder of the James River Group, chairman of Franklin Holdings, chairman of Piedmont Community Bank Holdings, and former president of Adaron Group. From 1990-2013, Abram donated more than $110,000 to Democrats.
Paul Boskind (2013) is the CEO of Deer Oaks Mental Health Associates and a theater producer. From 1990-2013, Boskind donated almost $200,000 to Democrats. In 2012 he bundled between $100,000 and $200,000 for President Obama’s reelection campaign, and he served on the DNC’s national finance committee.
Larry Cohen (2013) is president of the Communications Workers of America.
Amy Goldman (2013) is an author, horticulturalist, and heiress to the massive fortune of the late New York City real estate magnate Sol Goldman. From 1990-2013, Amy Goldman donated more than $6 million to Democratic candidates, party organs, interest groups, and independent expenditure groups like Priorities USA, House Majority PAC, Planned Parenthood, and Organizing For Action.
Heeten Kalan (2014) is a senior program officer at the New World Foundation.
George Kohl (2013) is the senior director of the Communications Workers of America.
Keith Mestrich (2014) is the president of Amalgamated Bank
Philip Munger (2014) is a New School professor, and the son of Berkshire Hathaway vice chairman Charles Munger (whose estimated net worth as of 2014 was $1.2 billion). From 1990-2013, Philip Munger donated more than $700,000 in political contributions -- all to Democrats or liberal/left interest groups like Organizing For America.
Rick Segal (2014) is CEO of the financial services firm Seavest, Inc. Between 1990 and 2013, he made $165,000 in political contributions to Democrats. He also bundled between $250,000 and $500,000 for President Obama's 2012 reelection campaign.
Ryan Smith (2014) is an individual about whom little, if anything, is known.
Henry van Ameringen (2014) is president of the Van Ameringen Foundation, and heir to the fortune of Arnold Louis van Ameringen, who founded International Flavors and Fragrances. From 1990-2013, Henry van Ameringen donated more than $900,000 to Democrats. He is also a major promoter of gay rights and the legalization of marijuana.
Randi Weingarten (2013) is president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Dirk Wiggins (2014) is the founder of Code for Progress, a former director-of-targeting for Field Strategies, and a former outreach director for the Florida Democratic Party.
In mid-November 2016 at Washington’s luxurious Mandarin Oriental Hotel, DA sponsored a three-day, closed-door meeting attended by George Soros, the leaders of many left-wing activist groups and labor unions, and congressional luminaries like Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren, and Keith Ellison. High on the list of priorities at this conference was a discussion of how to go about derailing Republican president-elect Donald Trump's “100-day plan,” which the Alliance characterized as “a terrifying assault on President Obama’s achievements — and our progressive vision for an equitable and just nation.” In an email he had recently sent to his allies and donors, DA president Gara LaMarche said that the Washington conference would focus on assessing “what steps we will take together to … take back power, beginning in the states in 2017 and 2018.” Raj Goyle, a Democratic activist who was also involved with DA, concurred that “progressive donors and organizations need to immediately correct the lack of investment in state and local strategies.” This strategy of focusing on state and local politics dovetailed with the then-recent announcement that former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holderwould be chairing the newly formed National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC).
For a list of all current DA board members and staffers, click here.