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A New Alliance Of Democrats Spreads Funding

To become a "partner," as the members are referred to internally, requires a $25,000 entry fee and annual dues of $30,000 to cover alliance operations as well as some of its contributions to start-up liberal groups. Beyond this, partners also agree to spend at least $200,000 annually on organizations that have been endorsed by the alliance. Essentially, the alliance serves as an accreditation agency for political advocacy groups.

This accreditation process is the root of Democracy Alliance's influence. If a group does not receive the alliance's blessing, dozens of the nation's wealthiest political contributors as a practical matter become off-limits for fundraising purposes.

Many of these contributors give away far more than the $200,000 requirement. Soros, Gill and insurance magnate Peter Lewis are among the biggest contributors, but 45 percent of the 95 partners gave $300,000 or better in the initial round of grants last October, according to a source familiar with the organization.

Democracy Alliance organizers say they are trying to bring principles of accountability and capital investment that are common in business to the world of political advocacy, where they believe such principles have often been missing.

Wade declined to discuss the donors or the groups they fund. But, in an interview, she described how the groups were chosen. Alliance officials initially reviewed about 600 liberal and Democratic-leaning organizations. Then, about 40 of those groups were invited to apply for an endorsement -- with a requirement that they submit detailed business plans and internal financial information. Those groups were then screened by a panel of alliance staff members, donors and outside experts, including some with expertise in philanthropy rather than politics. So far, according to people familiar with the alliance, 25 groups have received its blessing.

The goal was to invest in groups that could be influential in building what activists call "political infrastructure" -- institutions that can support Democratic causes not simply in the next election but for years to come.

Those who make the cut have prospered. The Center for American Progress (CAP), which is led by former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta, received $5 million in the first round because it was seen as a liberal version of the Heritage Foundation, which blossomed as a conservative idea shop in the Reagan years, said one person closely familiar with alliance operations. CAP officials declined to comment.

Likewise, a Democracy Alliance blessing effectively jump-started Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). It bills itself as a nonpartisan watchdog group committed to targeting "government officials who sacrifice the common good to special interests." Alliance officials see CREW as a possible counterweight to conservative-leaning Judicial Watch, which filed numerous lawsuits against Clinton administration officials in the 1990s. A CREW spokesman declined to comment.

The Center for Progressive Leadership and its president, Peter Murray, are getting funding from the alliance and are seen by some as a potential leader in training young activists on the left. While the center is still dwarfed by conservative groups such as the Leadership Institute, alliance donors have helped increase Murray's budget to $2.3 million, compared with $1 million one year ago, he said.

But Democracy Alliance's decisions not to back some prominent groups have stirred resentment. Among the groups that did not receive backing in early rounds were such well-known centrist groups as the Democratic Leadership Council and the Truman National Security Project.

Funding for these groups was "rejected purely because of their ideologies," said one Democrat familiar with internal Democracy Alliance funding discussions.

Officials with numerous policy and political groups in Washington said they have reservations about the group's influence. Several declined to talk on the record for fear of alienating a funding source.


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