Liberal donor group looks to fund more minority groups
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The most powerful group of progressive donors in America is seeking to invest more money in reaching out to minorities, following criticisms that the predominantly white and wealthy organization has not done enough to court minority groups that form the core of the Democratic Party’s base.


The Democracy Alliance (DA) -- whose donors are meeting this week in the luxury Mandarin Oriental hotel overlooking Washigton, D.C.’s Tidal Basin -- is the closest equivalent that the progressive movement has to the influential conservative donor network founded by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch. 

A problem the left-wing gathering of donors has been facing is that while they are passionate about minority causes and voting rights, they have been viewed with suspicion in some quarters, with Latino groups questioning the wealthy, mostly white members’ commitment to Hispanic representation. 

The alliance's president Gara LaMarche is acutely aware of these criticisms and said on Wednesday that he has been working to change the thrust of the group’s investments. 

“We want to have a DA portfolio that reflects the diversity of this country,” said LaMarche, addressing a small group of staff, donors and several reporters in a meeting room connected to the hotel lobby. 

“We have more people of color in the organizations in the portfolio than had been the case at some times in the past,” he said, adding that he still has “considerable concerns about the state of investment in the civic infrastructure of some communities of color.” 

Part of this outreach involved a recent dinner between the wealthy donor group and leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, though it is unclear how funding would be channeled to such a diffuse movement. 

LaMarche would not say how much his network plans to spend in the 2016 presidential year. 

He said his donors understand that the 2016 election is only a step toward the alliance's long-term vision of making the American electorate more progressive, and flipping statehouses across the country from Republican to Democratic control. 

The alliance's collection of liberal billionaires and millionaires is working at precisely cross-purposes against the Kochs, who are marshalling money from their friends and allies to turn America in a more conservative, free market direction.   

In 2015, the Democracy Alliance announced a new strategy called "2020 Vision.” 

The alliance plans to raise more than $150 million over five years to assist more than 30 groups. These groups focus on opposing voter ID laws, addressing climate change, increasing the minimum wage, and reducing the influence of money in elections.  

The organization has directed more than $500 million to progressive groups since its creation in 2005, according to the 2020 Vision framework obtained by Politico. 

The year 2020 is crucial because it is when a new Census is done and is the next chance the Democrats have to redraw congressional boundaries to the party’s advantage. 

“Nobody should be sanguine about what a big challenge we have” to defeat the alliance's conservative opponents, LaMarche said Wednesday.

The alliance donors, which include Taco Bell heir Rob McKay and business magnate George Soros, each spend at least $200,000 a year on a mix of annual dues and donations to allied progressive organizations. Families and institutions who belong to the DA spend $1 million. 

Outside the official meetings on Wednesday, donors and progressive activists talked strategy around coffee tables in the hotel lobby.

“Steyer wants to see us,” said one of the lobby dwellers, presumably referring to billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, who spent more money than any other individual donor on either side of politics last year. 

The alliance -- which steered some $40 million from its member donors to its allied groups last year, according to LaMarche -- still pales beside the Koch brothers’ network, which plans to spend $889 million on its policy and political agenda in the 2016 campaign cycle. 

Donors to both networks usually keep a low-profile and write huge checks to for-profit companies and non-profit groups that do not require the disclosure of donors' identities.  

These private political networks have become more influential since the 2010 Citizens United ruling expanded how much people and corporations could spend on elections. 

Donors, who typically loath media scrutiny, have been switching their contributions from candidates' campaigns and political parties, which still have contribution limits and disclosure requirements, to outside groups like super-PACs and non-profits that can accept unlimited and in many cases undetectable checks. 

Both the Kochs on the right and the Democracy Alliance on the left have been trying to change their images as secretive organizations funded by “dark money.” 

While the DA conference this week is closed to donors, LaMarche said the conversation with journalists in the hotel meeting room was their attempt to be more transparent, in keeping with the alliance donors’ “values.”