Who is Progress Kentucky?

Curtis Morrison at a 2009 rally protesting Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). (Photo courtesy of Jim Pence)
Curtis Morrison at a 2009 rally protesting Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). (Photo courtesy of James Pence)

When a young Democrat named two activists tied to Progress Kentucky as the men behind a leaked tape of a Sen. Mitch McConnell strategy session, it was the second time in just a few months that this tiny group had made national news.

Progress Kentucky was formed in December of 2012; by the end of the year the super PAC had raised a whopping $1,000. Yet they've been featured in the Senate minority leader's first campaign ad and now one member is cooperating with authorities in an FBI investigation. Who are these people?

"It's no surprise that these two apparently bragged about recording the meeting, because they are equal parts attention-craved and totally incompetent," said Joe Sonka, a political columnist for the alt-weekly Louisville Eccentric Observer.

Curtis Morrison and Shawn Reilly, the two men accused of taping a private conversation from the hallway outside McConnell's Louisville headquarters, are the kind of local activists who in an earlier age would almost certainly not be in the national news. (Through an attorney Reilly has said he is cooperating with investigators and was at most a witness; Morrison is declining to comment. However, on his personal blog Morrison noted a Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics request for an FBI investigation into McConnell.)

Update: Jacob Conway, who named Reilly and Morrison to news organizations now says he may have only talked to Morrison about the recording, not Reilly. He stands by his account of what Morrison told him -- that one of the men held a recording device outside the door of the office while the other held the elevator door.

Until February, Progress Kentucky mostly held small protests against McConnell around the state, including this Christmas protest at his home shot by James Pence:

Both are described by those who have worked with them as smart, aggressive and passionate -- the kinds of activists who think outside the box but might also cross a few lines they shouldn't.

"I would be very surprised if they intentionally did anything illegal," said Andrew Horne, a lawyer and Iraq war veteran who ran against McConnell in 2008 but dropped out during the Democratic primary. Reilly and Morrison both volunteered for his 2006 House campaign (he lost in the primary to John Yarmuth). "But I wouldn't be surprised [if they were] pushing the envelope. ... There's a fine line between aggressive and stupid, criminal."

Legal experts say that the makers of the tape could be charged with a crime; it depends on whether they were trespassing on private property and whether the McConnell staff had a reasonable expectation of privacy during the meeting.

"Nobody else is doing it. So let's start a superPAC and make it a grassroots effort," is how Reilly explained the group's genesis in an interview with the Huffington Post earlier this year. Early on the group was trying to work in concert with tea party activists to field a primary challenger to McConnell.

A viable challenger has yet to emerge. But the group found national infamy in February, with a racially-charged tweet tying McConnell's outsourcing policy to his Chinese-American wife, former labor secretary Elaine Chao. In the wake of the flap over the tweet, Morrison resigned from the group. (The McConnell tape was recorded in early February, before the offending tweet.)

Both have a long history of involvement in progressive causes. Reilly was a field organizer for Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, a MoveOn.org-linked group, during its series of protests in the summer of 2007. One protest was held outside McConnell's house. Morrison was active in the local Occupy movement, which protested social and economic inequality, and a vocal opponent of attempts to move protesters out of a local park.

"When masses assemble peacefully and debate ideas, their will is inevitable. Consequences for denying their will, dreadful. Permitting public protests, no matter how disagreeable their politics, is the less painful of the options available to authorities," he wrote in a 2011 op-ed for the Courier-Journal. "And haven't we waited long enough for our voices to be heard?"

Morrison wasn't afraid to take on his own party or allies. Around the same time, Morrison filed a complaint against Democratic Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, alleging that he improperly used donations for his inaugural to pay off campaign debt. He also highlighted a Facebook post from the owner of a popular gay bar comparing President Obama to a monkey, a post that divided the local gay community.

Both Morrison and Reilly ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in 2012. The seat Reilly was aiming for got redistricted to new territory. Morrison, who had initially planned to run for Louisville Metro Council, was defeated in the primary. Reilly served as vice chairman of the Louisville-Jefferson County Democratic Party’s 34th legislative district before resigning to run Progress Kentucky. He and his wife were delegates to the Democratic National Convention last year.

But in the months before they took on McConnell, the leaders of Progress Kentucky had a slightly more obscure target: bridge tolls.

Reilly co-founded the group Say No To Bridge Tolls to protest fees to pay for two new bridges to Indiana. Morrison, a local community activist, served as the group's communications director. A fellow anti-toll activist remembers that Morrison "documented everything that happened at meetings through video and audio, looking for weaknesses in the opponents' strategy."

Dan Borsch, a Louisville restaurant owner who co-founded the bridge project, said he had a "falling out" with both men over "general disagreements on how to handle yourself in public."

"I just felt like they wanted to do their own thing and not listen to other people's advice," he said.

The anti-toll movement failed.

While participating in various local movements, Morrison was also a prolific blogger, and his political writing got him a job freelancing for Insider Louisville, a new online news organization. Over time, founder Terry Boyd said, Morrison had transitioned from an opinion writer to more of a straight reporter -- a shift only helped by his resignation from Progress Kentucky.

But when Conway's accusations broke Thursday, Boyd told Morrison his career there was over. "I heard it on WFPW, I walked into the office and I said we're done," Boyd said. Morrison "just packed up his stuff and left. He didn't clarify anything and I didn't want to know." On the Web site, Boyd explained, "Curtis has the makings of a solid reporter, under adult supervision ... It was my mistake to keep Curtis without an explicit guarantee he wouldn't indulge in politics."

Progress Kentucky's treasurer, Doug Davis, has resigned from the group, telling NBC News, that he "did not and do not condone any allegations of illegal activity that might have taken place." Another member, Keith Rouda, has not responded to requests for comment.

On the tape, McConnell and his staff discuss lines of attack to use against actress Ashley Judd, a potential opponent who has since announced that she will not run for Senate

While they are well-known to local community activists, Morrison and Reilly are at best a mystery and at worst an annoyance to state Democrats. Kentucky Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo said he had never heard of them.

"Other than agitating Sen. McConnell, I don't know what they're doing that's helping anything," said veteran in-state Democratic strategist Jimmy Cauley. "They're pretty much out there on the fringe of anything I know of as the Kentucky Democratic organization."

Attempts to raise money for Progress Kentucky went nowhere. Established Democrats assumed the group would disappear. Instead, they've ending up handing McConnell exactly what he wants -- a liberal villain.

Rachel Weiner covers cops and courts in Arlington and Alexandria.
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