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.
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 meeting.
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."