SAN FRANCISCO — If there were a place to detect liberal pining for a populist to challenge Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2016, it would be at the gathering of wealthy Democratic donors held here this week.
The amber wood-paneled lounge of the Four Seasons hummed with conversations about marriage equality, climate change and money in politics. Top officials from the AFL-CIO and Greenpeace leaned up against the bar next to early Google employees, on hand for a meeting of Democracy Alliance, a group that helps pool money on the political left.
Many alliance members hail from the Democrats’ left flank, and the group’s treasurer, Paul Egerman, served as campaign finance chairman for Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator who has been the subject of a presidential draft movement.
But in this heart of the progressive donor world, there was relatively little angst expressed about Clinton’s seemingly clear path to the nomination.
Rather, many big money players said they were heartened to see that in the first few days of her campaign she has already pledged to tackle income equality and a “dysfunctional” campaign finance system — two top priorities of alliance members.
People who attended the closed-door gathering said attitudes about Clinton’s bid ranged from pragmatic acceptance to jubilation — a sign of the widespread coalescing around her candidacy, as well as the lack of any viable alternative.
“Everybody here loves Hillary, even if they also love Elizabeth Warren,” said one major donor, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about private discussions. “They want to be supportive of this moment as she’s launching her campaign. And I think everybody has accepted the fact that Elizabeth Warren is not going to run, so what’s the point?”
The alliance, which has around 110 members, represents a small slice of the Democratic money world. But with participants who include billionaires such as George Soros and Tom Steyer, as well as some of the country’s largest labor unions, the group provides a window into the sentiments of some of the party’s biggest backers.
While 2016 was not a topic of the meeting, Clinton allies wooed donors on the sidelines. John Podesta, her campaign chairman, provided a private briefing for supporters. And Buffy Wicks, executive director of the pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA Action, made her own pitches to party backers. Both were received enthusiastically, according to people familiar with the sessions.
The early themes Clinton has embraced “resonate strongly with the values of this community of donors,” said Clinton ally David Brock, founder of groups such as Media Matters for America and American Bridge, a rapid response operation. “The DA partners are a big tent from center to further left, and I think Clinton is well on her way to uniting the overwhelming majority of them.”
During her debut swing through Iowa this week, the former secretary of state pledged to promote a progressive agenda, stressing that “the deck is stacked in favor of those already at the top.”
That language struck a chord with members of the alliance. As part of a new five-year plan, the organization is urging donors to contribute to an expanded suite of advocacy groups and think tanks devoted to economic inequality including Americans for Financial Reform, the Economic Policy Institute and the National Employment Law Project. The alliance also plans to convene regular strategy sessions for those organizations with labor unions and top liberal pollsters, aiming to develop a sharper policy framework that can be used on the campaign trail in 2016.
“It’s everything,” said Nick Hanauer, a Seattle-based venture capitalist who serves on the alliance board and is deeply involved in the strategy. “The election will be won or lost on this.”
Several of the panels and private dinner discussions throughout the three-day conference were devoted to issues such as paid family leave, consumer protection and reining in Wall Street. On Wednesday afternoon, the alliance was scheduled to bus members to Berkeley to participate in a “Fight for $15” rally and march, part of a national union push for a living wage.
“There’s this amazing, growing movement where people understand they have a right to expect more for themselves,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, who also serves on the alliance’s board. “And they want every elected official, every candidate for office, to speak to, ‘How are we going to have an economy that includes everyone?’ ”
Whether Clinton will be a full-throated, Warrenesque champion of that cause remains to be seen. At one session Tuesday afternoon, dubbed “Why a Bold Economic Agenda is Key to Winning,” participants emphasized that they are looking for a candidate who stands up to corporate and Wall Street power, according to someone in attendance.
David desJardins, a top Democratic contributor who serves on the alliance board, said he shares the attitude of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said he wants to hear Clinton’s economic vision before he endorses her.
“Wait and see — that’s still pretty much my view,” he said. “Not that I have the exact same views as de Blasio, but there’s going to be a campaign platform, there’s going to be a messaging strategy. I’m interested in seeing that stuff.”
The conference’s focus on income disparity struck an incongruous contrast with the luxe surroundings of the Four Seasons, where rooms were going for at least $595 a night. It underscored the awkward line toed by the alliance, which seeks to harness big dollars even as it laments the influence of the wealthy on politics.
“I hear the criticism, but it’s an easy target,” said Gara LaMarche, the group’s president. “Wealthy people on the right and on the left tend to meet in expensive places. That’s kind of the world of wealthy people. The real critical distinction is, what are they doing with their money? . . . We’re trying to level the playing field.”
Rob Stein, the strategist who founded the alliance, challenged the group to create a base of small donors to augment their efforts. In an impassioned speech Tuesday night at a dinner celebrating the alliance’s 10-year history, Stein warned that the left is unlikely to be able to match the volume of money conservatives are mustering, according to a copy of his remarks obtained by The Washington Post.
And, he added, “It simply is not consistent with progressive sensibilities and values to build the entirety of progressive capacity with contributions only from the wealthiest among us, even from those with the public spirit and inclusive communal soul that each of you possess.”