George Soros told a carefully vetted gathering of 70 likeminded millionaires and billionaires last weekend that they must be patient if they want to realize long-term political and ideological yields from an expected massive investment in “startup” progressive think tanks.
The Scottsdale, Ariz., meeting, called to start the process of building an ideas production line for liberal politicians, began what organizers hope will be a long dialogue with the “partners,” many from the high-tech industry. Participants have begun to refer to themselves as the Phoenix Group.
Rob Stein, a veteran of President Bill Clinton’s Commerce Department and of New York investment banking, convened the meeting of venture capitalists, left-leaning moneymen and a select few D.C. strategists on how to seed pro-Democratic think tanks, media outlets and leadership schools to compete with such entrenched conservative institutions as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and the Leadership Institute.
Senior Democratic National Committee (DNC) officials were quietly briefed about the meeting in recent weeks. DNC Chairman Howard Dean was aware of it, in part though his friendship with Stein, but one senior DNC source said the organizers “kept that list [of attendees] kind of tight.”
Sarah Ingersoll, de facto spokeswoman for Stein’s Democracy Alliance, said it was “a very preliminary meeting of committed donors interested in building a community to support progressive infrastructure.”
The Democracy Alliance will act as a clearinghouse and is expected to channel much of its money to new organizations and existing ones such as John Podesta’s Center for American Progress and David Brock’s Media Matters for America.
The money details are several weeks away. “There aren’t dollar figures at this point,” Ingersoll said.
Soros, a Hungarian-born financier who donated more than $23 million to pro-Democratic 527 groups last cycle, gave the main presentation, said Ingersoll, who declined to name the other presenters.
“Primarily, we’re looking at making recommendations and thinking through with these donors on how they can form an alliance,” she added. “This is about creating a network of individuals to share information to be effective in whatever they do going forward.”
Participants were tight-lipped, saying they wanted to keep media expectations low, even suggesting that the Scottsdale gathering was too insignificant to report. Other participants included former White House press secretary Mike McCurry and New Democrat Network president Simon Rosenberg. Andy Rappaport, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and reliable investor in liberal causes, did not attend the meeting, his spokeswomen said.
Ingersoll said funding transparency is a priority, which she said would contrast with some right-wing groups.
But transparency was not on display among the Scottsdale participants contacted by The Hill. Details of the meeting remained sparse.
Most of the participants had already seen Stein’s slick presentation titled “The Conservative Message Machine’s Money Matrix,” which lays out how right-leaning donors have funded and invested in organization that churn out conservative ideas. Stein unveiled his presentation at the Democratic National Convention in Boston last year, at an event hosted by Rosenberg and NDN.
Ingersoll denied that progressives are merely trying to replicate Heritage and Fox News.
Another source at the meeting said that it was important for existing progressive groups to coordinate their activities and to avoid the turf wars that have riven progressive causes in the past.
One source at the DNC with direct knowledge of the agenda said that the Phoenix Group had three specific goals at the outset. It wants to create liberal think tanks, training camps for young progressives and media centers.
Despite the general recognition that progressives are several years behind conservatives, liberal activists are confident that technology will help them close the gap. “Technology may allow us to do in a few years what it took the other side 40 years,” the DNC source said.
But the Phoenix Group is not beholden to the political calendar, and several sources insisted that four-year electoral exigencies were not motivating the project. Indeed, part of the reasoning in keeping D.C. consultants away from Scottsdale was to shield the high-tech donor base from political operatives, who are always eager for quick dollars to buy media points and fund direct mail.
“This is bigger than that,” the DNC source said.