January 2013, Week 3


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Sat, 19 Jan 2013 01:31:49 -0500
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Revealed: The Massive New Liberal Plan to Remake
American Politics

     A month after President Obama won reelection,
     America's most powerful liberal groups met to plan
     their next moves. Here's what they talked about.

By Andy Kroll
Jan. 9, 2013

It was the kind of meeting that conspiratorial
conservative bloggers dream about.

A month after President Barack Obama won reelection,
top brass from three dozen of the most powerful groups
in liberal politics met at the headquarters of the
National Education Association (NEA), a few blocks
north of the White House. Brought together by the
Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Communication Workers of
America (CWA), and the NAACP, the meeting was invite-
only and off-the-record. Despite all the Democratic
wins in November, a sense of outrage filled the room as
labor officials, environmentalists, civil rights
activists, immigration reformers, and a panoply of
other progressive leaders discussed the challenges
facing the left and what to do to beat back the deep-
pocketed conservative movement.

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At the end of the day, many of the attendees closed
with a pledge of money and staff resources to build a
national, coordinated campaign around three goals:
getting big money out of politics, expanding the voting
rolls while fighting voter ID laws, and rewriting
Senate rules to curb the use of the filibuster to block
legislation. The groups in attendance pledged a total
of millions of dollars and dozens of organizers to form
a united front on these issues—potentially, a coalition
of a kind rarely seen in liberal politics, where
squabbling is common and a stay-in-your-lane attitude
often prevails. "It was so exciting," says Michael
Brune, the Sierra Club's executive director. "We
weren't just wringing our hands about the Koch
brothers. We were saying, 'I'll put in this amount of
dollars and this many organizers.'"

The liberal activists have dubbed this effort the
Democracy Initiative. The campaign, Brune says, has
since been attracting other members—and also interest
from foundations looking to give money—because many
groups on the left believe they can't accomplish their
own goals without winning reforms on the Initiative's
three issues. "This isn't an optional activity for us,"
Brune tells me. "It is mission critical."

Liberal groups have joined forces around issues—and
elections—before. Health Care for America Now (HCAN)
was a megagroup formed to support Obama's health care
reform bill in 2009. And in 2003, leaders from EMILY's
List, Service Employees International Union (SEIU),
AFL-CIO, and Sierra Club formed America Coming
Together, the most sophisticated get-out-the-vote
operation in the history of Democratic politics, to
help elect presidential candidate John Kerry. Indeed,
progressives have collaborated specifically on voting
rights or campaign finance before, too. But the
Democracy Initiative may be the first time so many
groups teamed up to work on multiple issues not tied to
an election. "This is really the first time that a
broad spectrum of groups have come together around a
big agenda that impacts the state and national level,"
says Kim Anderson, who runs the NEA's center for
advocacy and outreach and attended the December

The Democracy Initiative grew out of conversations in
recent years among Radford, Brune, CWA president Larry
Cohen, and NAACP president Ben Jealous. ("We all have a
knitting class together," Brune jokes.) Brune says the
four men bemoaned how the dysfunctional political
process was making it impossible for their groups to
achieve their goals. "We're not going to have a clean-
energy economy," he says, "if the same companies that
are polluting our rivers and oceans are also polluting
our elections."

Greenpeace's Phil Radford notes that for decades
conservatives have aimed to shrink local, state, and
federal governments by reforming the rules so they
could install like-minded politicians, bureaucrats, and
judges. Radford calls it "a 40-plus-year strategy by
the Scaifes, Exxons, Coors, and Kochs of the world…to
take over the country."

So last spring Brune, Cohen, Jealous, and Radford
called up their friends on the left and, in June,
convened the Democracy Initiative's first meeting. A
handful of groups attended, and they began to focus on
the triad of money in politics, voting rights, and
dysfunction in the Senate.

By December, the Democracy Initiative's ranks had
swelled to 30 to 35 groups, Brune says. (He expects it
to be 50 by the end of the winter.) Other attendees at
the December meeting included top officials from the
League of Conservation Voters, Friends of the Earth,
Public Campaign, the AFL-CIO, SEIU, Common Cause, Voto
Latino, the Demos think tank, Piper Fund, Citizens for
Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, People for the
American Way, National People's Action, National
Wildlife Federation, the Center for American Progress,
the United Auto Workers, and Color of Change. (A non-
editorial employee of Mother Jones also attended.)

According to a schedule of the meeting, the attendees
focused on opportunities for 2013. On money in
politics, Nick Nyhart of Public Campaign, a pro-
campaign-finance-reform advocacy group, singled out
Kentucky, New York, and North Carolina as potential
targets for campaign finance fights. In a recent
interview, Nyhart said the Kentucky battle would likely
involve trying to oust Senate Minority Leader Mitch
McConnell (R-Ky.), Public Enemy No. 1 for campaign
finance reform, who faces reelection in 2014. In New
York, Nyhart said, activists are pressuring state
lawmakers, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, to pass a
statewide public financing bill in 2013. And in North
Carolina, the fight is more about countering the
influence of a single powerful donor, the conservative
millionaire Art Pope, whose largesse helped install a
Republican governor and turn the state legislature
entirely red.

On voting rights, a presentation by a Brennan Center
for Justice staffer identified California, Colorado,
Connecticut, Maryland, and Minnesota as states where
efforts to modernize the voter registration system and
implement same-day registration could succeed.

But the most pressing issue right now for Democracy
Initiative members is Senate rules reform. At the
December meeting, attendees heard from Sens. Tom Harkin
(D-Iowa) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) on rule changes to curb
the spiraling use of filibusters to block legislation.
The use of the filibuster has exploded in recent years,
and Republicans now block up-or-down votes on nearly
everything in the Senate, requiring Democrats to muster
60 votes to conduct even the most routine business.
Liberal groups in the Democracy Initiative want to fix
that, and they used the December meeting to plan a
coordinated push to urge Senate Majority Leader Harry
Reid (D-Nev.) to rewrite the rules. Democrats have
until January 22, when the window closes on easy rules
changes, to get the reforms they want.

Other potential targets for Democracy Initiative action
include Chevron, which gave $2.5 million to a super-PAC
backing House Republican candidates in 2012. Google was
mentioned as another target for its continued
membership with the generally pro-Republican US Chamber
of Commerce. And a 16-member coalition targeting the
American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative
"bill mill" behind many voter ID, school choice, and
anti-union laws, wants to use the Democracy Initiative
to recruit members and so expand its efforts
identifying lawmakers and corporations who are ALEC
members and urging them to cut ties with the group.
"We're going to put the pressure on ALEC even more" in
2013, says Greenpeace's Radford.

Radford, Brune, Cohen, and others say the Democracy
Initiative is no flash in the pan; they're in it for
the long haul, for more than just this election cycle
and the one after it. It took four decades, these
leaders say, for conservatives to shape state and
federal legislatures to the degree that they have, and
it will take a long stretch to roll back those changes.
"The game is rigged against us; the corporate right has
done such a good job taking over the Congress and the
courts," Radford says. "We're saying we need to step
back and change the whole game."

Andy Kroll is a reporter at Mother Jones. For more of
his stories, click here. Email him with tips and
insights at akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com. Follow
him on Twitter here. RSS | TWITTER


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