The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rob Stein, Democratic strategist who organized liberal donors, dies at 78

Rob Stein, the founder of the liberal organizing coalition the Democracy Alliance, speaks at an event for the group in 2015. (Mona T. Brooks/The Democracy Alliance)

Rob Stein, a Democratic strategist who was the architect of one of the most influential coalitions of liberal donors in American politics, an organization that has helped shape the left’s agenda for nearly two decades, died May 2 at a hospital in Washington. He was 78.

The cause was metastatic prostate cancer, his son Gideon Stein said.

Mr. Stein was a low-profile but high-impact force on the political left, a backstage operative who marshaled the country’s wealthiest liberal donors into an organization that he founded in 2005 as the Democracy Alliance.

Mr. Stein envisioned the coalition as a counterweight to a network of conservative groups — funded by donors including Charles and David Koch and Richard Mellon Scaife — that had helped secure Republican victories in state legislatures, Congress and the White House with President George W. Bush’s election in 2000 and his reelection in 2004.

“It is not possible in the 21st century to promote a coherent belief system and maintain political influence without a robust, enduring local, state and national institutional infrastructure,” Mr. Stein told The Washington Post in 2006. “Currently, the center-left is comparatively less strategic, coordinated and well financed than the conservative-right. These comparative disadvantages are debilitating.”

Mr. Stein outlined what he saw as the extent of that disadvantage in a roughly 40-slide PowerPoint presentation, titled “The Conservative Message Machine’s Money Matrix,” that he began circulating after the Republican gains in the 2002 midterm elections.

In clear and color-coded fashion, Mr. Stein’s presentation laid out the stream of money from Republican donors to right-leaning think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute and to other political organizations that had championed conservative causes and candidates.

“The right has done a marvelous job,” Mr. Stein told the New York Times in 2005. “And they’re well within their rights in a democracy to have done what they’ve done.”

At its outset, the Democracy Alliance served, in the description of a 2006 Post report, “essentially as a cooperative for [liberal] donors, allowing them to coordinate their giving so that it has more influence.”

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Members were expected to contribute at least $200,000 per year to liberal groups backed by the Democracy Alliance, in addition to a $25,000 joining fee and annual dues of $30,000. Early backers included financier George Soros, software entrepreneur Tim Gill and insurance executive Peter Lewis, The Post reported.

Since the Democracy Alliance’s founding, its donors have given a combined $2 billion to liberal organizations, according to the group.

Advocates for transparency in political fundraising criticized the aura of secrecy that seemed to surrounded the Democracy Alliance. The organization declined to officially disclose the names of its members and required organizations that received its imprimatur to maintain donor confidentiality.

Other critics argued that by directing megadonors only to liberal groups, the Democracy Alliance risked sidelining the more centrist contingent of the Democratic Party.

But by all accounts, the coalition became a significant driver of the party’s platform, doing “perhaps more than any other act,” journalist Gideon Lewis-Kraus wrote in the Times magazine in 2016, “to funnel new money and new ardor into progressive causes.”

The Democracy Alliance steered donors to help found and support organizations including the Center for American Progress, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and Media Matters for America, which monitors what it describes as “conservative misinformation in the U.S. media.”

Also among the organizations supported by the Democracy Alliance was Catalist, a data company that is owned by a trust and provides data technology to liberal causes and campaigns. One of its founders, Laura Quinn, remarked in an interview that Mr. Stein had “an incredibly optimistic belief in American democracy,” as well as a “very clear-eyed understanding of the actors and institutions that were tearing at it.”

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After the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, Mr. Stein pushed liberals with ever-greater urgency to strengthen their organizing efforts. In a commentary published in The Post shortly after Trump took office, Mr. Stein described the new president as “the unfortunate consequence of Democrats’ failure to build the modern political machinery necessary to compete effectively with Republicans in key battleground states. Until that happens, Republican dominance will continue.”

But in his capacity as an independent consultant and strategist, Mr. Stein also increasingly embraced cross-party efforts to overcome political polarization and the threat he believed it posed to democracy. His goal, said Rachel Fersh, a colleague who collaborated with Mr. Stein in that work, was to form a “coalition of the rational” to “eclipse the extremism that has taken over.”

There was a “sense of urgency and intellectual vitality animating these efforts,” Mr. Stein told the Times in 2018, that could “challenge conventional political wisdoms, 20th-century political alliances and the two major, internally fractious, parties.”

Brian Hooks, the president of the Charles Koch Foundation, described Mr. Stein in an interview as “passionate about understanding the toxic polarization that has captured the country recently” and its “root causes.”

“We came from different perspectives in terms of how to solve some of the problems in the country,” Hooks remarked, but agreed that “we needed to work together to figure out how to bring out the best in our country at a time when so many other people were focused on bringing out the worst in it.”

Robert Jay Stein was born in Wheeling, W.Va., on Oct. 26, 1943. His father was a lumberyard owner, and his mother was a civic activist, chairing various cultural, social service and religious groups.

Mr. Stein graduated from the private Linsly School in Wheeling, which at the time was a military academy, before enrolling at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. His experience at the military school and on the liberal Antioch campus put him at ease on both ends of the political and cultural spectrum, his son said, as well as instilling in him a sense of pragmatism.

Mr. Stein received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Antioch in 1966 and a law degree from George Washington University in 1970. In the early 1970s, he worked as a public interest lawyer, specializing in communications law and minority ownership of radio and television stations. He later founded or ran nonprofit institutions that helped Southeast Asian refugees settle in the United States and sought to increase voter registration.

By the early 1990s, Mr. Stein had moved full-time into politics. He served as an adviser to Democratic National Committee Chairman Ron Brown, was chief of staff to the transition team of incoming President Bill Clinton and was then chief of staff to Brown when he served as Clinton’s commerce secretary. Mr. Stein later co-founded a venture capital firm that invested in businesses owned and run by women.

Mr. Stein’s marriage to Mary Ann Efroymson ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 20 years, Ellen Miley Perry of Washington; three children from his first marriage, Gideon Stein and Noah Stein, both of New York City, and Dorothy Stein of Washington; a daughter from his second marriage, Kat Stein of Washington; a sister; two brothers; and five grandchildren.

Mr. Stein served at the time of his death as founder emeritus of the Democracy Alliance and remained active in his work through the final days of his life. Less than a week before he died, a film crew came to his hospital room in the hospice unit where Mr. Stein had been admitted and recorded a presentation that he had prepared, titled “The Arsenal of American Authoritarianism.” It was presented at a Democracy Alliance event days later.