The most powerful network of Democratic donors has a new president

The Democracy Alliance, a secretive club of wealthy progressive and Democratic donors, has named Pamela Shifman its new president ahead of what is likely to be a tough and expensive midterm election season for the party.

As of this week, Shifman, a lawyer who has long worked with social justice philanthropies, has taken the reins of what is among the most powerful yet little-known groups in progressive politics. The group and its “partners,” which counts Tom Steyer and George Soros among its members, has long operated behind a veil of secrecy. Democracy Alliance helps to funnel money from a group of anonymous mega-donors to an infrastructure of groups it hopes will “advance a progressive agenda for America.”

In a press release, the Democracy Alliance framed Shifman’s selection as part of an “all-hands on deck moment,” a phrase that Shifman echoed several times in an interview with POLITICO three days into her new job.

“We are facing existential threats, our democracy is under attack from within,” she said. “The role of the Democracy Alliance and the role of donors now is to invest deeply and urgently and strategically in addressing the crisis we face in our democracy and in building this long-term progressive infrastructure that we need.”

Shifman succeeds Gara LaMarche, who had led the organization since 2013 and stepped down as president this summer.

“I think all of us are grappling with Trump and the long tail of Trumpism, and what that looks like is the urgency that we face right now,” Shifman said. “I came to this job because our democracy is under threat.”

Until 2019, Shifman was the executive director of the NoVo Foundation, a philanthropic organization founded by Peter Buffett, the son of Warren Buffett, and Peter’s wife Jennifer. She has also led efforts at UNICEF to combat gender-based violence and served as a legal adviser to the Parliamentary Women’s Caucus of the African National Congress, the governing party in South Africa.

Shifman did not commit to any sort of new measures, when asked whether she planned to commit to more transparency about the organization’s members and finances. Instead, she told POLITICO that “the price of democracy is immeasurable, and that’s really what we’re focused on,” shifting the topic to income inequality and the tax system.

“We understand the detrimental role of money in politics and its impact on a democratic society, but the reality is we can’t unilaterally disarm,” she continued. “In the immediate, we know the reality that movements need resources.”

As part of their membership in the Democracy Alliance, donors agree to giving $200,000 per year to a list of preapproved organizations, in addition to dues that fund the operations of the group itself, according to a spokesperson. The alliance has supported the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, the progressive media watchdog Media Matters for America and the American Constitution Society, a liberal counterpart to the conservative Federalist Society.

But the group, founded in 2005, is now looking to aim more resources at the progressive grassroots movements, particularly those entities focused on racial justice issues, LGBTQ rights and encouraging political involvement among women and young people.

Some grassroots leaders say that big spending from wealthy donors like those at the Democracy Alliance will be key to success for the Democratic Party in 2022. Tynesha McHarris, a former colleague of Shifman’s who has worked with the Democracy Alliance and its donors to connect them with grassroots groups, said if Democrats want to avoid the usual midterm defeats suffered by parties in power, the movement requires financial capital.

Among the biggest priorities, McHarris emphasized, are fighting for women’s rights, given the restrictive abortion bill recently passed in Texas, and voting rights, given recent voter restriction bills in Georgia and other states.

During the pandemic, members of the Democracy Alliance had been meeting remotely. In the past, they have gathered at the luxurious Mandarin Oriental hotel in Washington or been given a VIP tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The secretive operations, lavish spending and financial capital has earned the group comparisons to the network of political organizations funded by the conservative Koch brothers. But Shekar Narasimhan, who sits on the Democracy Alliance’s board, maintained that his group was the “antithesis” of the Koch network.

“Do we want to be seen as dark and shadowy? Hell no, we’re the good guys,” he said in an interview. But like Shifman, he said the group could not “unilaterally disarm.”

In a statement, John Stocks, the alliance’s board chair, said the group wanted a new leader with “a history winning legislative and electoral victories,” who “cares deeply about preserving our democracy.” Shifman met their qualifications and more, he added.

“She’s a forward-thinking strategist who has been ahead of the curve on issues like funding the domestic workers movement and care agenda more than a decade before these efforts were on the national political agenda,” Stocks said. He also noted that the alliance planned to engage with stakeholders over the next several weeks to develop its strategy for the 2022 midterms.

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The Democracy Alliance, a secretive club of wealthy progressive and Democratic donors, has named Pamela Shifman its new president ahead of what is likely to be a tough and expensive midterm election season for the party.

As of this week, Shifman, a lawyer who has long worked with social justice philanthropies, has taken the reins of what is among the most powerful yet little-known groups in progressive politics. The group and its “partners,” which counts Tom Steyer and George Soros among its members, has long operated behind a veil of secrecy. Democracy Alliance helps to funnel money from a group of anonymous mega-donors to an infrastructure of groups it hopes will “advance a progressive agenda for America.”

In a press release, the Democracy Alliance framed Shifman’s selection as part of an “all-hands on deck moment,” a phrase that Shifman echoed several times in an interview with POLITICO three days into her new job.

“We are facing existential threats, our democracy is under attack from within,” she said. “The role of the Democracy Alliance and the role of donors now is to invest deeply and urgently and strategically in addressing the crisis we face in our democracy and in building this long-term progressive infrastructure that we need.”

Shifman succeeds Gara LaMarche, who had led the organization since 2013 and stepped down as president this summer.

“I think all of us are grappling with Trump and the long tail of Trumpism, and what that looks like is the urgency that we face right now,” Shifman said. “I came to this job because our democracy is under threat.”

Until 2019, Shifman was the executive director of the NoVo Foundation, a philanthropic organization founded by Peter Buffett, the son of Warren Buffett, and Peter’s wife Jennifer. She has also led efforts at UNICEF to combat gender-based violence and served as a legal adviser to the Parliamentary Women’s Caucus of the African National Congress, the governing party in South Africa.

Shifman did not commit to any sort of new measures, when asked whether she planned to commit to more transparency about the organization’s members and finances. Instead, she told POLITICO that “the price of democracy is immeasurable, and that’s really what we’re focused on,” shifting the topic to income inequality and the tax system.

“We understand the detrimental role of money in politics and its impact on a democratic society, but the reality is we can’t unilaterally disarm,” she continued. “In the immediate, we know the reality that movements need resources.”

As part of their membership in the Democracy Alliance, donors agree to giving $200,000 per year to a list of preapproved organizations, in addition to dues that fund the operations of the group itself, according to a spokesperson. The alliance has supported the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, the progressive media watchdog Media Matters for America and the American Constitution Society, a liberal counterpart to the conservative Federalist Society.

But the group, founded in 2005, is now looking to aim more resources at the progressive grassroots movements, particularly those entities focused on racial justice issues, LGBTQ rights and encouraging political involvement among women and young people.

Some grassroots leaders say that big spending from wealthy donors like those at the Democracy Alliance will be key to success for the Democratic Party in 2022. Tynesha McHarris, a former colleague of Shifman’s who has worked with the Democracy Alliance and its donors to connect them with grassroots groups, said if Democrats want to avoid the usual midterm defeats suffered by parties in power, the movement requires financial capital.

Among the biggest priorities, McHarris emphasized, are fighting for women’s rights, given the restrictive abortion bill recently passed in Texas, and voting rights, given recent voter restriction bills in Georgia and other states.

During the pandemic, members of the Democracy Alliance had been meeting remotely. In the past, they have gathered at the luxurious Mandarin Oriental hotel in Washington or been given a VIP tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The secretive operations, lavish spending and financial capital has earned the group comparisons to the network of political organizations funded by the conservative Koch brothers. But Shekar Narasimhan, who sits on the Democracy Alliance’s board, maintained that his group was the “antithesis” of the Koch network.

“Do we want to be seen as dark and shadowy? Hell no, we’re the good guys,” he said in an interview. But like Shifman, he said the group could not “unilaterally disarm.”

In a statement, John Stocks, the alliance’s board chair, said the group wanted a new leader with “a history winning legislative and electoral victories,” who “cares deeply about preserving our democracy.” Shifman met their qualifications and more, he added.

“She’s a forward-thinking strategist who has been ahead of the curve on issues like funding the domestic workers movement and care agenda more than a decade before these efforts were on the national political agenda,” Stocks said. He also noted that the alliance planned to engage with stakeholders over the next several weeks to develop its strategy for the 2022 midterms.

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