A New Alliance Of Democrats Spreads Funding
Monday, July 17, 2006
An alliance of nearly a hundred of the nation's wealthiest donors is roiling Democratic political circles, directing more than $50 million in the past nine months to liberal think tanks and advocacy groups in what organizers say is the first installment of a long-term campaign to compete more aggressively against conservatives.
A year after its founding, Democracy Alliance has followed up on its pledge to become a major power in the liberal movement. It has lavished millions on groups that have been willing to submit to its extensive screening process and its demands for secrecy.
These include the Center for American Progress, a think tank with an unabashed partisan edge, as well as Media Matters for America, which tracks what it sees as conservative bias in the news media. Several alliance donors are negotiating a major investment in Air America, a liberal talk-radio network.
But the large checks and demanding style wielded by Democracy Alliance organizers in recent months have caused unease among Washington's community of Democratic-linked organizations. The alliance has required organizations that receive its endorsement to sign agreements shielding the identity of donors. Public interest groups said the alliance represents a large source of undisclosed and unaccountable political influence.
Democracy Alliance also has left some Washington political activists concerned about what they perceive as a distinctly liberal tilt to the group's funding decisions. Some activists said they worry that the alliance's new clout may lead to groups with a more centrist ideology becoming starved for resources.
Democracy Alliance was formed last year with major backing from billionaires such as financier George Soros and Colorado software entrepreneur Tim Gill. The inspiration, according to founders, was a belief that Democrats became the minority party in part because liberals do not have a well-funded network of policy shops, watchdog groups and training centers for activists equivalent to what has existed for years on the right.
But the alliance's early months have been marked by occasional turmoil, according to several people who are now or have recently been affiliated with the group. Made up of billionaires and millionaires who are accustomed to calling the shots, the group at times has gotten bogged down in disputes about its funding priorities and mission, participants said.
Democracy Alliance organizers say early disagreements are first-year growing pains for an organization that has decades-long goals. Judy Wade, managing director of the alliance, said fewer than 10 percent of its initial donors have left, a figure she called lower than would be expected for a new venture. And she said the group's funding priorities are a work in progress, as organizers try to determine what will have the most influence in revitalizing what she called the "center-left" movement.
"Everything we invest in should have not just short-term impact but long-term impact and sustainability," she said. The group requires nondisclosure agreements because many donors prefer anonymity, Wade added. Some donors expressed concern about being attacked on the Web or elsewhere for their political stance; others did not want to be targeted by fundraisers.
"Like a lot of elite groups, we fly beneath the radar," said Guy Saperstein, an Oakland lawyer and alliance donor. But "we are not so stupid though," he said, to think "we can deny our existence."
This article is based on interviews with more than two dozen Democrats who are members of the alliance, recipients of their money or familiar with the group's operations. None would speak on the record about financial details, but all such details were confirmed by multiple sources.
Democracy Alliance works essentially as a cooperative for donors, allowing them to coordinate their giving so that it has more influence.