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Donors seek to harness Hollywood to boost liberal causes

Some of the biggest donors on the left are huddling behind closed doors with liberal politicians including Nancy Pelosi to strategize about electing Democrats and confirming Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, but they’ll also discuss ways to use Hollywood to advance their causes.

The occasion is the annual spring investment conference of the Democracy Alliance liberal donor club, which officially kicks off Sunday at the tony Fairmont Hotel in Santa Monica, California.

An agenda obtained by POLITICO shows that the four-day gathering, which is closed to the press, features at least two sessions focused partly on harnessing the power of Hollywood and the entertainment industry as a tool in the culture wars.

A Tuesday night dinner will feature a discussion “with Hollywood actors and directors on how Hollywood has been used to promote progressive ideals, and how it can be utilized more effectively in the future,” according to the agenda. The session is to be moderated by Rashad Robinson, the executive director of a group called ColorOfChange.org that aims to “strengthen Black America’s political voice” through pressure campaigns funded partly by Democracy Alliance members. Robinsons did not immediately respond to questions about the session, including the names of the participating stars.

On Wednesday, interested donors will be taken to the headquarters of a non-profit production studio called Brave New Films for a discussion with actor Martin Sheen about “why this is an important moment for advocacy in media.”

The agenda introduces the session by noting that “This year, #OscarsSoWhite trended on social media and once again diversity in media became a focus of discussion across the country.”

#OscarsSoWhite is an online movement protesting the absence of nominees of color for the highest-profile Academy Award categories over the last two years, but it doesn’t appear to have any formal institutional backing.

The Democracy Alliance agenda, though, suggests that Brave New Films is uniquely positioned to address the issues raised by the movement.

“Brave New Films has long been a leader in diversity in their social justice media and this year started a Diversity Fellowship program with the help of the Atlantic Foundation,” says the agenda, referring to a $2.5 million grant from The Atlantic Philanthropies. The grant is intended to help train “racially diverse individuals from marginalized communities, who have traditionally been underrepresented in media and progressive organizations,” according to The Atlantic Philanthropies.

But the grant doesn’t fully fund the program, and Brave New Films would welcome donations from Democracy Alliance donors, said Robert Greenwald, the founder and president of Brave New Films. His group is equal parts political organization and film studio, producing documentaries and videos meant to serve as rallying points for campaigns against liberal bete noires ranging from Fox News to Walmart to the Koch brothers.

And Greenwald said the diversity fellowship is about much more than Hollywood. “It trains people who can go out and use their talents on everything from the news media to Silicon Valley to NGOs to unions to political campaigns. There is a huge large world that will benefit from having a more diverse work force. Hollywood is a piece of it, but it’s only a small part of a much larger world that we are training people for.”

The Democracy Alliance, or DA as it’s known in Democratic finance circles, is among the most influential streams of big money on the American political left, and its members pride themselves on their ability to shape liberal movement politics. Its ranks include influential liberal billionaires like George Soros and Tom Steyer. Members pay annual dues of $30,000, and also are required to contribute a total of at least $200,000 a year to recommended groups. Most of the beneficiary groups do not disclose their donors, and the lack of transparency has drawn criticism since one of the club’s goals is fighting undisclosed big-money in politics.

Since its inception in 2005, the DA has steered upward of $500 million to recommended groups, including pillars of the political left such as the conservative media watchdog Media Matters, the policy advocacy outfit Center for American Progress and the data firm Catalist.

Over the years, the DA’s members occasionally have argued over the proper balance between long-term cultural movement building and short-term electoral fights.

Some Democratic operatives grumbled about the focus on cultural issues like Hollywood and marijuana legalization (which is the subject of a Tuesday session) at the group’s final meeting before the pivotal 2016 presidential election. “It’s bizarre,” said one fundraiser, suggesting it would be a better use of time to steer donors towards groups that will play directly in the elections.

But Gara LaMarche, the DA’s president, pointed out that the Hollywood-related programming was just a tiny sliver of the Santa Monica program. He pointed out that the Brave New Films visit was organized by donors, as was the marijuana-legalization session. As for the ColorOfChange.org panel, LaMarche said “it seemed a good idea to have at least one panel featuring entertainment industry folks.”

The agenda also shows plenty of electorally focused discussion, including a briefing on the Democratic congressional campaign efforts. It will feature presentations from Rep. Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Tom Lopach, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, as well as Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona, who is running for Senate, and Emily Cain, who is running for a Maine House seat.

Other sessions will feature presentations from the leaders of major unions and unlimited-money groups planning to spend big in the elections, including America Votes, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, NRDC Action Fund and League of Conservation Voters.

An overview session led by DA Board Chair John Stocks, the executive director of the National Education Association teachers’ union, seems intended to drive home the importance of the elections for progressives. “Their outcome will determine whether the next occupant of the White House will work to advance or repeal the hard fought progressive gains we have won over the past eight years and whether he or she will face a U.S. Congress prepared to work with the administration to solve the pressing challenges facing our country or one that will work to undermine and stall progress,” the description in the agenda reads. “The elections also provide us an opportunity to take back many states from right-wing control.”

The agenda also shows a particular focus on the California liberal donor community’s efforts to prepare for an impending upheaval in their state.

“As we approach the end of the Senator Boxer, Governor Brown, and Democratic Party Chair Burton era of California politics, a number of progressive policy, labor, and donor leaders have been strategizing together on how to win targeted candidate and initiative elections in 2016 and beyond, as well as policy battles in Sacramento,” reads the description of a Saturday session called the California Donor Summit. It is sponsored by some of the biggest names in California progressive donor circles, including San Francisco real estate developer Wayne Jordan and his wife Quinn Delaney, Cookie Parker and Democracy Alliance board member Susan Sandler and her husband Steve Phillips.

Delaney, who is also among the sponsors of the Brave New Films visit, did not respond to a request for comment, nor did Phillips.

While recent Democracy Alliance meetings have included some sessions that were open to the press or were livestreamed, the Santa Monica meeting is entirely private.

Other major big-money players expected to attend include Michael Vachon, a political lieutenant for Soros. While Soros is not expected himself, he has already donated or committed $19 million to groups seeking to boost voter turnout, protect voting rights or help Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton and other Democrats. Among Soros’ main causes are voter protection, which is the subject of a Monday session called “Protecting and Advancing the Right to Vote in 2016 and Beyond.”

Pelosi, the House Democratic leader and a longtime ally of the DA, is set to speak at a Sunday night dinner. The dinner also will include a discussion of the Supreme Court seat for which President Barack Obama has nominated Garland.

“The program will explore the current Supreme Court vacancy crisis – both the impact that confirming – or not confirming the president’s nominee would have on issues that are central to the DA’s vision of a more progressive America and the political fight that we must wage in the face of unprecedented Senate Republican obstruction,” according to the agenda.

LaMarche told POLITICO that “DA donors are, like everyone else, trying to make sense of this confounding political year – the Republican crack-up, the rise of populism, the possibilities for realignment.” The electorally focused sessions, he said, are intended to “offer opportunities to learn about and discuss that.”

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