|May 16, 2012
A secretive network of left-wing billionaires and their political operatives descended on the luxurious Biltmore Hotelin Miami over the weekend to discuss strategy for the coming elections.
The location of the conference had been kept a closely guarded secret by the members and guests of Democracy Alliance (DA), a collection of ultra-wealthy liberal donors formed in 2005, and is reported here in a Washington Free Beacon exclusive.
Attendees roamed the grounds at the 150-acre tropical resort on their way to cocktail gatherings, salsa dance lessons, and workshops such as “Occupy the Voting Booth” and “The 1 Percent Rule.” Local police guarded entrances as members attended a “partners only” meeting in the hotel’s Country Club Courtyard.
“Name badges must be worn at all times,” attendees were informed.
A Free Beacon reporter who tried to attend the conference after-party was intercepted by Alexandra Visher, the DA’s vice president of partner engagement and communications.
“These are individuals of considerable means” who often support policies that run contrary to their own interests, Visher said, as she escorted the reporter out of the party.
Earlier, the Free Beacon reporter was approached by a plain-clothes police officer who said taking pictures of the conference-goers was prohibited. The reporter was not taking pictures at the time.
Asked for an explanation, the officer said, “I can’t talk about it.”
The conference was attended by the biggest names in liberal politics, including billionaire financier George Soros, who has already pledged at least $2 million to pro-Democratic groups this cycle.
The actual amount Soros has contributed may be much higher, according to experts.
Andy Stern, the former president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and frequent White House visitor, lounged by the Biltmore’s “lagoon sized pool.”
DA board member and Soros spokesman Michael Vachon swam laps.
Ari Rabin-Havt, executive vice president of Media Matters for America (MMFA), was overheard speaking to colleagues about his plans for a new MMFA fellowship, and bragging about a phone call he had received from Stephanie Cutter, deputy campaign manager for the Obama re-election team.
Soros publicly contributed $1 million to MMFA in 2010, after years of speculation that he was the group’s primary secret donor.
The Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal think tank with deep ties to the Obama administration, was also heavily represented. CAP president Neera Tanden joined former Rep. Tom Perriello (D., Va.), president and CEO of the CAP Action Fund, and Van Jones, a senior fellow and former White House green jobs adviser, among others.
Jones did not respond to the Free Beacon’s requests for comment.
The Center for American Progress has been at the forefront of a coordinated campaign to discredit and demonize conservative donors and to demand transparency in political giving.
However, CAP does not disclose its donors, nor does it mention its participation in the Democracy Alliance on its website. Soros pledged an initial $3 million to the organization in 2003.
Perriello was overheard in between sessions talking to other attendees about President Barack Obama’s electoral prospects in Virginia.
“There’s going to be an insane amount of money on the other side, and we’ve seen what that can do in a Congressional [election]” he said, noting that a “gender gap” had opened up in Northern Virginia that may be “very helpful.”
Perriello, who represented Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District from 2009-2011, lost decisively to Republican Robert Hurt in the 2010 election.
When it comes to “insane amounts of money,” however, the Biltmore is hard to beat. Shiny black Maseratis, McLarens, and Jaguars fill the parking lots; exotic finches flutter about the lobby; and the hotel’s luxury spa offers “Antioxidant Foam Wraps” and “Moroccan Oil Scalp Massages” for a rate equivalent to $3 per minute (gratuity not included).
Inside the rooms, which cost as much as $3,000 per night, guests are invited to enjoy $8 bottles of Evian. The accompanying literature features advertisements for private Swiss banks such as E. Gutzwiller & Cie.
Controversial former Rep. Alan Grayson (D., Fla.), who nicknamed his most recent opponent and current congressman Daniel Webster (R., Fla.) “Taliban Dan,” cracked jokes in the elevators.
DA board members such as Steve Phillips, Donald Sussman, and Kelly Craighead, each with connections to major left-leaning political organizations, were less recognizable, but perhaps of equal or greater import.
Phillips, who serves as secretary for the DA, oversees a number of political action committees such as PAC+, which focuses on Latino voters, and PowerPAC.org, a “statewide social justice organization working with community organizations and activists to build political power in California.”
Sussman, a hedge-fund manager who invests in Chinese companies, is married to Rep. Chellie Pingree (D., Maine) and currently serves on the board of CAP.
Another prominent hedge fund manager, Thomas E. Steyer of Farallon Capital Management, also sits on CAP’s board.
Craighead is the DA’s president and managing director. She formerly worked as a “strategic consultant” to liberal groups like MMFA.
Other notable attendees include Cynthia Ryan, a principal at the investment firm Schooner Capital, who has bundled between $200,000 and $500,000 for Obama’s reelection campaign.
The SEIU’s Larry McNeil, identified as a long-time “Saul Alinski organizer” [sic] in one online biography, was there with his wife Anne Bartley, currently a trustee of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and a top contributor to the EMILY’s List Women Vote! PAC.
Sandor Straus, a prominent investment manager who has given at least $115,000 to Democratic candidates and liberal organizations this cycle, and Al Yates, the former Colorado State University president who played a pivotal role in the DA’s formation, were also in attendance.
DA founder emeritus Rob Stein has described the group as a “political investment bank” whose mission is to “balance the market place of ideas and political activism with center-left ideas, messages, and organizing strategy.” Members are required to pay annual dues starting at $30,000 and contribute at least $170,000 per year to recommended groups.
The timing of the conference was significant as the organization is said to be experiencing dissent within its ranks.
“There is heavy debate over whether to fund organizations closely aligned with the Democratic Party or those that operating outside it and pressuring it to move in a more progressive direction,” the Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim recently reported.
The resignation of billionaire insurance magnate Peter Lewis, the chairman of Progressive Insurance and one of the group’s founding members, was one sign of trouble for the organization.
The DA also caused a stir when it decided to stop funding a number of groups that operated outside the explicitly partisan realm of the Democratic Party, such as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and Third Way, a center-left think thank.
However, at least one Third Way board member, Tim Sweeney of the Denver-based Gill Foundation, was spotted at the conference in Miami.
Groups such as Media Matters and the Center for American Progress, both of which maintain extensive ties to the Obama administration, have retained their favored status within the DA.
Other liberal grassroots organizations that have not been ostracized by the DA include America Votes, the Campaign for Community Change, and Act Blue, a PAC that bills itself as “the online clearinghouse for Democratic Action.”
It is not clear whether any senior administration officials or campaign representatives spoke at the conference.
However, both Vice President Joe Biden and Bill Burton, chairman of the Obama-aligned Priorities USA Super PAC, have addressed secret Democracy Alliance summits in the past.
Visher, the DA spokesperson, told the Free Beacon that the group’s members should be allowed to meet and advance their agenda in private.
She cited the New York Times’ Nicholas Confessore as a reporter whose work was appropriately respectful of the network’s privacy.
Confessore reported last week that the DA was planning to “convene near Miami,” but did not provide additional details such as the exact location of the event or notable invitees.
When contacted by the Free Beacon regarding his reasoning for not reporting such information, Confessore referred us to Eileen Murphy, the Times’ vice president of corporate communications.
“You are getting into a level of detail regarding our reporting and editing process here that we do not typically discuss publicly,” Murphy said in an email. “Sorry I won’t be able to be of much assistance.”