The Democratic Party's Future Is Awash in Dark Money

By Lee Fang

The path Obama's party might follow is clouded by corporate cash. Photo via Flickr user DonkeyHotey

Looking for the fight over the heart and soul of the Democratic Party in the waning days of the Obama administration? Next Tuesday morning, take the elevator to the eighth floor of a downtown Washington, DC, building and step into the offices of America's Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA), the premier lobbying group for some of the largest fracking companies in the world.

While much of the talk about a progressive revival revolves around populist figures like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Senator Elizabeth Warren, there are other, better funded efforts afoot. Corporate titans from finance to natural gas to big retail to telecom are attempting to steer the party, and as the midterms shape up, these interests are pushing to ensure they continue to have wide sway over America's only viable outlet for center-left expression at the polls. Which brings us to the latest venture in corporate-centered party-building and the group hosting a chat in ANGA's headquarters: The NewDEAL.

Created by Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley and Senator Mark Begich of Alaska, the NewDEAL is one of several cash-rich efforts to resurrect the Democratic Party's flailing bench of electable candidates.

This NewDEAL has little in common with President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal platform, which pledged to save capitalism from itself by cracking down on predatory banking institutions and restoring workplace rights for Americans. No, this NewDEAL is a 501(c)(4) issue-advocacy nonprofit, a tax vehicle which allows campaign activity without disclosure of donors, and its name is an acronym for "Developing Exceptional American Leaders."

The group, touted as a platform to "highlight rising pro-business progressives," is led by Democrats who have made a name for themselves by bucking the populist trend. They include NewDeal co-chair Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, whose zeal for the charterization of public schools and love of Wall Street makes him indistinguishable from many across the aisle. The other co-chair, Governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado, has staked a position in his state's energy wars as a staunch defender of drillers.

VICE has obtained a "supporter list" showing donors of the NewDEAL, which reads like a who's who of corporations seeking government access: Comcast, Fluor, Merck, Microsoft, New York Life, Pfizer, Qualcomm, Verizon, Wal-Mart, the Private Equity Growth Capital Council, among others, including, of course, the host of Tuesday's event, ANGA.

While the disclosure of a secret list of political funders is always a worthwhile revelation, it's also worth noting that the same corporate forces that Democrats are leaning on are propping up the far-right tilt of the Republicans as well. On the local level, meaning state legislative races, there are two competing committees, the RSLC for the GOP and DLCC for Dems. A VICE review of recent campaign filings show that the two committees share many of the same top 25 donors: Wal-Mart, Pfizer, tobacco giant Reynolds America, PhRMA (a drug industry trade group), AT&T, and Comcast cut the biggest checks for both the RSLC and the DLCC.

This incredible symmetry exists for the committees seeking to elect governors of their respective parties this year, as well. The RGA, chaired by Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, has collected its largest checks from the exact same corporations pumping the most generous donations into the DGA, its Democratic counterpart: WellPoint, the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, Pfizer, Wal-Mart, and Reynolds America.

Back to the NewDEAL, which promises to serve as the latest vanguard for Democratic outreach. The organization is staffed by many of the lobbying world's top Democratic allies, including those who have worked to channel the party's election efforts into backchannel corporate influence. The fundraiser for the NewDEAL, Helen Milby, previously served as the "chief fundraiser" to the New Democrats, a caucus of business-friendly lawmakers whose last period of influence, in 2009 through 2010 when their party controlled Congress, featured a massive campaign to water down health care and financial reform in exchange for corporate donations, as chronicled by an investigation in ProPublica. After many were wiped out by the Republican tidal wave in Obama's first midterm—the president identified himself as a member of this coalition right after he was first elected—most of the New Democrats became lobbyists themselves.

Another NewDEAL leader, a consultant named John Michael Gonzalez, represents the firm Peck Madigan Jones. Peck Madigan Jones probably isn't familiar to the average political observer. But it's the lobbying firm that's been in charge of fundraising for the think tank best known for fighting for corporate control of the Democrats, Third Way, a group that has been waging war on the burgeoning left-wing element of the party. "Economic Populism Is a Dead End for Democrats" wrote Third Way's leaders in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece earlier this year that scorched the tax-the-rich politics of Warren and de Blasio.

A critic might argue that winning is winning. Democrats need cash too, especially in the era of Citizens United, so why not bring corporate lobbyists aboard when the de Blasio approach might fall on deaf ears outside of New York City? That argument loses some weight, though, if you follow the money trail. NewDEAL board member Gonzalez serves as a lobbyist to the US Chamber of Commerce, which is currently airing harshly negative campaign ads against NewDEAL co-chair Senator Begich, who may lose his seat this year. Business first, I suppose.

These efforts go back thirty years. In the 1980s, centrist voices organized the Democratic Leadership Council, a non-profit charged with grooming the next generation of politicians who loved free trade and lower corporate taxes and were careful to keep their distance from labor unions. Just as Third Way and affiliated business-oriented outreach arms of the Democratic Party today seek social liberalism (gun restrictions and gay rights) and economic neoliberalism (tax cuts and deregulation), the DLC charted a similar course on behalf of the now largely extinguished New Democrats. There were victories, too. The DLC became famous by serving as a springboard for prominent Democrats such as President Bill Clinton, and later, 2000 vice presidential nominee and former Senator Joe Lieberman.

Who helped lead the DLC in its own conflict with Democratic populists? A scoop by journalist Robert Dreyfuss over a decade ago exposed the fact that the DLC was not only bankrolled by the country's largest corporations (including present day NewDEAL donors Verizon, Merck, and Microsoft) but that the DLC was being steered by two lobbyists from Koch Industries. One of them, Rich Fink, has been the brains behind much of the Koch brothers' sprawling political network, which the energy barons shamelessly use to protect their bottom line at the expense of our planet.

Of course, not every corporate Democrat organ is a Koch front. But the Koch brothers probably didn't have a progressive renaissance is mind when they invested in one camp of the Democratic Party's civil war. And corporations don't bankroll candidates out of a sense of charity; they expect something in return. In this corporate cash-driven system, choosing Democrats that don't offend business interests is an old story. Which is to say there's not all that much new about the NewDEAL.

Lee Fang, a San Francisco–based journalist, is an Investigative Fellow at The Nation Institute and co-founder of Republic Report.

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