You've heard of Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS and other issue advocacy groups that don't have to disclose their donors. They are transforming American politics.
These political nonprofits also exist at the state level. But much of this activity is coming from the left – not the right. And instead of TV ad campaigns, the work is largely happening online and on the ground.
A look at the tenant list in the lobby of the Vance Building in downtown Seattle is a who's who of "progressive nonprofits." So much so, that you might think of this building as the headquarters of the progressive movement in Washington.
Progressive ... and nonpartisan
Up on the third floor of this building is the most visible member of this network: an organization called Fuse Washington.
On a recent day, nearly a dozen young staffers crowd around a table in a cramped conference room. Field Director Erin Haick updates the team on one of Fuse’s top priorities this legislative session: passage of the DREAM Act to give state college aid to high school grads who were brought to the country illegally as minors.
It passed the Washington House with overwhelming bipartisan support on Jan. 13, day one of the session.
“We did a Facebook share on it that got 14,000 views and 121 shares to kind of continue the momentum for the Senate,” says Haick.
The plan is to keep the pressure on Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, to allow a vote on the DREAM Act on the Senate floor. Just outside the door of the conference room is a large Photoshopped poster of Tom wearing a jeweled crown. Around here he’s known as “King Tom” – an unflattering nickname Fuse gave him last year after he joined with Republicans to form a majority coalition. Tom is up for re-election this fall and Fuse’s executive director Aaron Ostrom says defeating the break-away Democrat this November is a top priority. Even so, Ostrom insists Fuse in non-partisan.
“We don’t really care what the letter is after somebody’s name, right? We care about their values and their willingness to lead on behalf of ordinary people,” explains Ostrom.
‘There’s nothing mysterious about this’
Fuse is a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organization that doesn’t have to disclose its donors. It’s part of a network of left-of-center nonprofits -- most created in the last five to seven years in Washington. They include think tanks, a candidate recruitment and training organization and a bus that travels around to register and mobilize young voters.
Together, these organizations represent a powerful campaign that never ends to make what supporters call “progressive” social and political change in Washington. It’s a network that has the potential to eclipse individual candidates and even the state Democratic Party itself.
“There’s nothing mysterious about this,” says Nick Hanauer, a Seattle venture capitalist and prominent political donor. He was one of the early contributors to what became the Progress Alliance of Washington funded by successful, even wealthy liberal activists. The Alliance is also housed in the Vance Building.
“It’s simply a group of people who share a vision about the kind of politics we want and the kind of state we want working together to organize those efforts,” Hanauer says.
Over the last eight years, they have given about $8 million to seed and support this network of “progressive” nonprofits, according to Sarah Jaynes, executive director of the Progress Alliance of Washington. Because the Progress Alliance is also a nonprofit it doesn’t have to disclose its donors – although a few agreed to be named for this story. In addition to Hanauer, they include: environmentalist Maryanne Tagney Jones, education activist Ruth Lipscomb and Brian Arbogast of the Gates Foundation.
Hanauer says the Alliance is not using its IRS status as a way to conceal the identity of the funders.
“Until the rules changes – and we’d be very supportive of those rule changes – we’re playing the game by the rules that have been defined,” he says.
This model – deep-pocketed funders, a network of nonprofits and a goal of long-term “progressive” change – is widely considered to have started in Colorado in 2004. In fact there’s a book about it called: "The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care)."
Since then it’s been replicated in some form in nearly two dozen states.
Conservatives try to fight back
Someone who’s closely watched the rise of this network in Washington is Republican strategist Randy Pepple. He managed gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna’s 2012 campaign and is quite familiar with Fuse.
“Fuse’s primary responsibility was to be out there attacking Rob McKenna every day," Pepper says. "And to try to carry the theme that Rob McKenna was not who he said he was.”
Fuse Washington has a separate political action committee that reports to Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission. Records show that PAC conducted opposition research on McKenna.
Pepple views this network of nonprofits as a permanent Democratic campaign.
“If the public knew what they were doing and how a very small number of very liberal donors are controlling state politics, that would be a cause for concern," he says.
Pepple says he's sounded the alarm in Republican circles about the rise of this progressive network and urged his side to mount a response.Last summer, Pepple joined with his former boss, McKenna, to form a 501(c)(4) called Smarter Government Washington.
For now it's mostly an online platform for McKenna– who’s a lawyer in private practice – and former Washington Republican Party chairman Chris Vance to opine on issues like health care and government bureaucracy.
Last November, Pepple independently launched the more overtly partisan Shift Washington website. But he says it’s been hard to get pro-business and conservative interests in Washington to coordinate their efforts despite the presence of right-of-center think tanks and policy shops like the Washington Policy Center, the Freedom Foundation and the Washington Research Council, as well as lobby groups like the Business Roundtable and the Association of Washington Business.
‘Not a wing of the Democratic party'
Among liberal interests, coordination is paying off.
In 2012, Washington voters not only elected Democrat Jay Inslee governor, they upheld same-sex marriage and legalized marijuana. The shared voter filethat helped make that happen is run by yet another nonprofit “social welfare” group called Win/Win Action which calls itself the “strategic hub” for more than 50 organizations including labor unions, environmental advocates and advocacy groups for reproductive rights and immigrant rights.
Last year, Win/Win orchestrated a coordinated effort to retain Democrat Nathan Schlicher in his hotly contested race against Republican Jan Angel for the 26th District Senate seat. While that effort was ultimately unsuccessful, Win/Win says its long-term goal is to win what it calls a “functional majority” in the Washington Senate.
So is this a "vast left-wing conspiracy" to take over the state?
“It’s a vast left-wing conspiracy to make people’s lives better," says the group's executive director Dana Laurent with a laugh. "Seriously, you know, all of the organizations that sit around the Win/Win table are non-partisan organizations. So this is definitely not a wing of the Democratic Party.”
But the Democratic Party may soon benefit from Laurent’s experience inside Washington’s progressive network: She’s currently a top contender to become the next chair of the Washington State Democratic Party.
Austin Jenkins is a reporter for the Public Radio Northwest News Network. His work airs on KPLU, KUOW and KVTI-FM, among other public radio stations. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.