Andy Kroll

Andy Kroll

Senior Reporter

Andy Kroll is Mother Jones' Dark Money reporter. He is based in the DC bureau. His work has also appeared at the Wall Street Journal, the Detroit News, the Guardian, the American Prospect, and, where he's an associate editor. Email him at akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com. He tweets at @AndrewKroll.

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Inside the Democracy Alliance, the Liberal Answer to the Koch Donor Network

| Mon May. 6, 2013 12:46 PM PDT
Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes, who owns the New Republic magazine, is a member of the Democracy Alliance.

Once or twice a year, Charles Koch, the billionaire industrialist and one-half of the "Koch brothers" duo, invites several hundred donors, big-name politicians, and conservative thinkers to a posh resort somewhere classy like Palm Springs or Aspen or Vail. The Kochs and their allies discuss how best to elect their favored politicians and spread their free-market ideas, and they hear pitches from conservative activists trying to carry out that strategy on the ground. Then the attendees make a pledge to fund the groups fighting for their causes. The Koch donor retreats are, by now, well known in political circles, and a magnet for reporters and protesters.

What's often left unmentioned in coverage of the Kochs' gatherings is that Democrats and progressives do the same thing. The Democracy Alliance is an exclusive group of about 100 funders, founded in 2005 by Democratic strategist Rob Stein. Members include billionaire financier George Soros and Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes, who owns the New Republic magazine. Matea Gold of the Los Angeles Times was recently given a rare glimpse inside the Alliance's operations, and she came away with a useful, fascinating story.

Since 2005, the Alliance has directed roughly $500 million to left-leaning organizations, including the Center for American Progress think tank, the watchdog Media Matters for America, and the political data firm Catalist. The Democracy Alliance, as an organization, does not make donations; instead, leaders of left-leaning organizations pitch the group's members, and the Alliance recommends which causes its wealthy members should support. Members must give at least $200,000 annually to Alliance-backed organizations, on top of a $30,000-a-year membership fee.

The Alliance recently met over five days at a hotel in Laguna Beach, Calif., not far from the Koch donor meeting at the Renaissance Esmeralda golf resort in Palm Springs. At the Laguna Beach retreat, Gold reports, Alliance members pledged $50 million to an array of organizations.

Two story lines emerged out of the latest Alliance event. One was an intense focus on immigration reform among Alliance members as Congress considers bipartisan legislation to overhaul the country's immigration system. The other big news was the Alliance's endorsement of Organizing for Action, the nonprofit devoted to enacting President Obama's second-term agenda. OFA has said it wants to raise $50 million this year, but it raked in less than $5 million in the first three months of 2013. The Alliance's decision to back OFA, then, couldn't have come at a better time:

Among those on hand to pitch to the donors was Jon Carson, executive director of Organizing for Action, who stressed the ways in which his group is partnering with other liberal advocacy organizations.

"One thing we've made very clear to everyone is we're going to work very collaboratively with everyone out there in the progressive infrastructure," Carson said. "We're going to focus on the pieces we bring to the table and not duplicate things."

[Alliance chairman (and former Mother Jones board member) Rob] McKay said Carson assuaged worries that Organizing for Action, run by former Obama campaign officials, would compete with other groups. "The biggest concern would be if OFA was just going to try to re-create the wheel in a bunch of areas where we felt significant investments have been made," he said.

The pro-Obama group, which had already received some donations from Democracy Alliance members, was recommended for funding for one year. It will be reconsidered next year but was not included in the three-year portfolio.

The hottest topic of the conference was immigration reform, as leaders of the Service Employees International Union and other advocates emphasized that comprehensive legislation could pass this year.

"The partners were really impressed with how close we are on this, and yet how tenuous it is, even at this stage," McKay said. "We've got to get this done."

The full story is one of the better detailed accounts I've seen of the Democracy Alliance, which will continue to play a crucial role on immigration, gun control, and other pressing issues on Congress' to-do list.

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Ohio Tea Partiers Are Furious at the GOP, Threaten an "Insurrection" or a Third Party

| Mon May. 6, 2013 9:28 AM PDT

On Monday morning, we published a story looking at what I called Ohio Gov. John Kasich's "remarkable renaissance." Two years ago, Kasich was Ohio's bête noire, one of the most unpopular governors in America. Today, his approval rating has rebounded to around 50 percent, his disapproval rating is in the low-30s, and he's faring better than his fellow governors in the Republican class of 2010.

All that being said, Kasich is still in a fragile place. A Monday story in the Columbus Dispatch says that Ohio tea partiers are so fed up with Kasich and the Republicans in the legislature that they're thinking about breaking away from the GOP and possibly forming a third party in time for the 2014 elections. Seth Morgan, policy director for the Ohio chapter of the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity group, told the Dispatch that tea partiers' options range from "a third party, to an insurrection (within the Republican Party) and everything in between."

The Ohio tea party hit its boiling point when Tom Zawistowski, executive director of the Portage County Tea Party, got trounced in his bid for the chairman's seat of the Ohio Republican Party. Zawistowski lost to Matt Borges, the party establishment's pick, by a 48-7 vote. After losing this proxy battle to lead the Ohio GOP, conservative leaders apparently decided they needed to break off and consider alternatives to the party.

Here's from the Dispatch:

After the chairmanship vote, Zawistowski said he made it clear that if the state GOP did not focus on enacting conservative policies, "we would either find a political party to join or we would start one of our own," saying his meeting with Shrader “is the first step in that process."

It remains uncertain, however, just how much the Ohio GOP and its candidates could be hurt by an insurrection because it is difficult to assess the true strength of tea party groups. A 2012 poll by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that about 28 percent of Republicans identified themselves as tea party supporters.

Although loosely organized in 2009 around ideals of fiscal conservatism and smaller government, the tea party largely has been fractionalized with no single acknowledged leader.

"There are potential splits within the tea party itself," said John Green, a University of Akron political scientist. "It's hard to judge how strong they are because their popularity fluctuates. It’s not a cohesive group, but it does have some resources and some talented people who are quite effective."

If the tea party "insurrection" turns out to be real, it is bad news for Kasich. A third party or GOP insurrection could divide the conservative base that Kasich needs to get reelected in 2014. He defeated Democrat Ted Strickland by just two percentage points in 2010—and that was when the tea party was at full strength. Today, as the Dispatch story makes clear, Kasich's relationship with hard-line conservatives is fragile, with tea partiers furious over his proposal to expand Medicaid using Obamacare dollars.

Whether conservatives can mount a serious third-party challenge in 2014 remains to be seen. But if they do, it's last thing Kasich needs.  

Will Andrew Cuomo Go the Distance on Post-Citizens United Campaign Reform?

| Wed May. 1, 2013 9:40 AM PDT
Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

It's crunch time in New York State. For more than a year, reformers fighting to get big money out of politics have asked, nudged, and cajoled New York lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to pass new legislation enticing candidates to spurn big-dollar checks from wealthy donors in favor of lots of small donations from everyday voters. New York, for the reformers, is the front line in the post-Citizens United battle against big-money politics. Now, the reformers have just six to seven weeks to get the job done. A big question looking over their final blitz is this: Will Cuomo fully commit himself to their plan?

The coalition pushing for political money reform in New York State is led by Citizen Action of New York, the Brennan Center for Justice, Common Cause New York, the Working Families Party, and a handful of labor unions. They have the support of dozens more progressive stalwarts, not to mention an unlikely mix of donors, business types, and more. They want for New York State what New York City already has: A so-called public match system, in which small-dollar donations raised by candidates are matched six times over by public funds. So a candidate who raises, say, $50 from small donors receives $300 in matching funds. The more small donations a candidate reels in, the more matching money she gets. You get the point.

In Albany, the political calculus is straightforward enough. The Democratic-controlled New York State Assembly is already onboard with the reformers' plan: Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver recently introduced his own bill that includes the matching system the reformers want.

The state Senate is where things get tricky. A strange coalition of "independent" Democrats and Republicans controls the upper chamber, albeit tenuously. The leaders of that coalition are divided over their support for a public financing bill: Jeff Klein, the leader of the independent Democrats, has a public financing bill of his own, but the top Republicans oppose any new reforms. Reformers are confident they have the votes to pass good legislation, but getting to a Senate-wide vote is the biggest hurdle, says David Donnelly, executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund. "The big question is: how do they get a bill to the floor?" he asks.

Donnelly says he and his allies are planning an all-hands-on-deck blitz to press the state Senate into action. Reformers will heavily lobby state senators and their staffers in the coming weeks, while also launching door-to-door canvassing efforts in key districts and hosting community forums on the need for public financing throughout New York. Organizing for Action, the rebooted version of President Obama's 2012 presidential campaign, will mobilize its 700,000-plus members in New York State on the public financing issue. Right now, the three senators in the reformers' crosshairs are Mark Grisanti of Buffalo and Lee Zeldin and Philip Boyle of Long Island. Reformers say they'll pressure additional senators before the legislature's session ends in June.

In a briefing with reporters, Jonathan Soros, one of the leading funders and advocates for public financing in New York, explained that reformers see the state's recent corruption scandals as a boon to their efforts. On April 1st, federal prosecutors announced that they'd caught State Sen. Malcolm Smith, one of those "independent" Democrats, trying to bribe his way onto the New York mayoral ballot (as a Republican, no less). The investigation ensnared not only Smith but also two New York City Republican officials who offered to help get Smith on the ballot. Instead, Smith and his buddies ended up as Albany's latest cautionary tale of political corruption. And with corruption in the headlines, Soros says, there may be no better time to make the case for political money reform.

But neither Soros nor Donnelly can say whether Cuomo will go the distance on reform. Publicly, Cuomo has said exactly what the reformers want to hear: He's stumped for it his "State of the State" speeches, crowed to the press about the need to clean up state politics, and held the first tele-town hall of his governorship with 1,350 activists pushing for a public financing bill. But the reformers say they're unsure if this is an issue on which Cuomo intends to get dirty, to twist the arms of wobbly lawmakers and do whatever it takes to pass a bill. That's what he did on gay marriage and gun control, two major legislative victories of his tenure.

Reformers intend to use a mix of "carrots and sticks," as Soros put it, to win Cuomo's full support. Soros, Donnelly, and the reformers know that Cuomo's involvement is crucial, but they say they won't shy away from calling him out if he fails to step up on this issue. "Our principal thesis," Soros says, "is that there are consequences for political inaction on this issue."

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