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How Two Hillary Clinton Superfans Became Super-PAC Power Players

Meet the unlikely duo who hatched Hillary's shadow presidential campaign.

| Tue Feb. 18, 2014 6:56 AM EST

The 2012 election was a few weeks old when Parkhomenko phoned Black with an audacious plan to boost the presidential prospects of their political idol. He floated the idea of forming a pro-Hillary super-PAC with a name that summed up their sentiments: Ready for Hillary. Unlike other super-PACs, which gather millions to bankroll political ads, Parkhomenko envisioned using the group to revitalize Clinton's now-outdated voter, volunteer, and donor databases. The idea was to gather the names of the Hillary devotees, effectively creating Hillary's version of Obama's Organizing for America.

Black was instantly taken with the concept. They decided to market Ready for Hillary as a grassroots group of normal voters. They didn't want the image of fat cat donors that defined super-PACs in 2012, so they capped contributions at $25,000.

"My instinct was that it was somewhat problematic to have a plethora of  things out there raising money, using her name,"  says Bill Clinton's onetime political director Craig Smith.

When Parkhomenko and Black launched Ready for Hillary in January 2013, they worked out of Parkhomenko's living room and enlisted their significant others to help out. Parkhomenko's girlfriend, Kirby Hoag, is Ready for Hillary's deputy operations manager and Black's wife, Judy Beck, is the group's treasurer. Few people took them seriously at first. They were viewed more as a novelty than a true part of Clinton's campaign-in-waiting.

Ready for Hillary's cofounders may have lacked Clintonland clout, but they knew the right people to call. First, Black contacted Ann Lewis, the former White House communications director and a senior adviser to Hillary's 2000 Senate bid. Lewis was a member of the Clinton-era Celebration of Women in American History commission and has stayed friends with Black since. Shortly after the super-PAC was formed, Black pitched Lewis on Ready for Hillary over lunch at Washington's Mayflower Hotel. "She told me that she and Adam had this plan to build the database for Hillary," Lewis says. "As soon as she said it, I knew it was the right thing to do. I know how fast voter lists can degrade, how important it is to have a really good list." By the time the bill arrived, Lewis had handed Black a $500 check. This was the first contribution to Ready for Hillary.

Next came Susie Tompkins Buell, one of Hillary's closest friends and a major Democratic donor whose fortune derives from Esprit, the clothing company she founded. (She's also a donor to Mother Jones.) Black befriended Buell in Indiana during the 2008 campaign, when the two found themselves in the same pack of Clinton door-knockers and they've remained email buddies ever since. Buell offered her support and advice on operating an online store, which has since become a major fundraising and branding tool for the super-PAC. In 2013, Ready for Hillary pulled in $350,000 just by peddling Hillary swag, including mugs, iPhone cases, and onesies. The hallways of Ready for Hillary's office are lined with boxes of merchandise waiting to be boxed and shipped out—a task that falls to a lone staffer. In the week before Christmas, Ready for Hillary sent out over 1,000 packages.

Though some in Clinton circles eyed the upstart organization warily, Buell's endorsement was a tacit sign of approval. And as other pro-Hillary super-PACs began to crop up, Ready for Hillary emerged as the clear choice for Clinton insiders. Last spring, Craig Smith, Bill Clinton's former White House political director, joined Ready for Hillary as a senior adviser. "My instinct was that it was somewhat problematic to have just a whole plethora of these things out there raising money, using her name," he says. "My sense was that it would be better if there was just one."

Smith, whose firm is paid $10,000 a month by the PAC, serves as an experienced hand guiding Parkhomenko, the super-PAC's executive director. The two talk on the phone everyday. "There is some concern that this is starting the [campaign] early, which is a legitimate concern," Smith says. "But in the modern age of politics it takes forever to build a big list of people, you can't just do it overnight."

Support from Clinton insiders ramped up after Smith came on board. Steve and Amber Mostyn (two of the largest Democratic donors in 2012) joined Buell to co-chair Ready for Hillary's finance council. Democratic megadonor George Soros, Jill Iscol (vice-chairman of Clinton's 2008 finance committee and a bankroller of her two senate bids), and many other Democratic heavy hitters subsequently joined the finance council. Meanwhile, longtime Clinton political strategist James Carville jumped in to assist with fundraising. "We need to convert the hunger that's out there for Hillary's candidacy into a real grassroots organization," he wrote in a fundraising appeal to the group's supporters.

Ready for Hillary attracted endorsements from a range of Democratic politicians, including Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), and Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton,. Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm joined Ready for Hillary as an adviser and serves as the group's cable news surrogate.

Only a year after starting up in Parkho's living room, the super-PAC now occupies a suite of fifth-floor offices in downtown Arlington, Virginia. The group has an 18-person staff, with plans to expand to 25 in the coming months. The current staff includes employees focused on organizing various voting blocs: LGBT, Latinos, women, blacks, youth. To oversee its field operations, Ready for Hillary hired 270 Strategies, a group founded by Jeremy Bird and Mitch Stewart, veterans of Obama's 2012 campaign.

"We're not going to have millions and millions of dollars. We're going to have millions and millions of supporters."

Ready for Hillary has become an essential part of an elite cadre of outside groups that will buttress Clinton's expected candidacy, which includes Priorities USA, the pro-Obama super PAC that announced in January that it will be redirecting its efforts to support Hillary. There's also Correct the Record, an offshoot of David Brock's American Bridge, which will be repurposed to combat conservative attacks on Clinton and spread opposition research on her possible opponents.

These groups overlap. Priorities is co-chaired by Granholm, one of Ready for Hillary's main boosters. Brock gave a November presentation on possible right-wing attack points at Ready for Hillary's national finance council meeting in New York. Together, the three outfits form a full campaign infrastructure: voter list development (Ready for Hillary), ad buying (Priorities), and rapid response (Correct the Record).

All of Ready for Hillary's work is building toward the moment when Clinton will, as Black and Parkhomenko assume, officially announce her candidacy. At that point, the two plan to shut down Ready for Hillary or reorient its mission. Either way, Ready for Hillary plans to spend down most of its funds by that point. "We're not going to have millions and millions of dollars," says Seth Bringman, the group's communications director. "We're going to have millions and millions of supporters."

The idea is that once Hillary Clinton declares, Ready for Hillary will hand over the database it has been methodically compiling and curating. Due to campaign finance regulations, it can't fork over the information for free, but there are workarounds. Ready for Hillary can sell or lease its database to the Clinton campaign for a fraction of what it cost the group to build. That list will allow Clinton to hit the ground running, immediately able to identify the people most likely to canvass and volunteer for her campaign. In the meantime, Ready for Hillary is training its supporters on the essentials of campaigning: how to host house parties, register voters, and solicit contributions.

Whatever the future holds for Ready for Hillary, the effort has elevated Black and Parkhomenko from mere fans to key players in the Clinton machine. Black now works alongside assorted Democratic heavy hitters. And Politico, the bible of the Beltway's political class, recently included Parkehmenko on its list of "Hillary Clinton's 50 influentials." He ranked 46th, but that wasn't so bad for a DC reserve cop.

This story has been corrected.

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