Biggest progressive dark money machine
Behind the closed doors of an unassuming philanthropic consultancy in Washington, D.C., is one of the most powerful lobbying forces in the United States. The Atlantic has called it “the massive progressive dark-money group you’ve never heard of” and “the indisputable heavyweight of Democratic dark money.” The Washington Post believes its potent lobbying arm is reason enough for Congress to enact forced donor disclosure laws, while Politico labelled it a “dark-money behemoth.” “The system of political financing, which often obscures the identities of donors, is known as dark money,” wrote The New York Times, “and Arabella’s network is a leading vehicle for it on the left.”
Meet Arabella Advisors, the brainchild of ex-Clinton administration staffer Eric Kessler and the favorite tool of anonymous, billionaire donors on the progressive left. Since 2006, the Arabella hub has overseen a growing network of nonprofits—call them the “spokes”—that collected $2.4 billion in the 2019-20 election cycle, nearly twice as much as the Republican and Democratic national committees combined.
These nonprofits in turn manage and supervise a vast array of “pop-up” groups—mainly political attack-dog websites, ad campaigns, and “spontaneous” demonstrations staffed by Arabella’s network of activist professionals who pose as members of independent activist organizations. These groups—such as Fix Our Senate, the Hub Project, and Floridians for a Fair Shake—typically emerge very suddenly in order to savage the political opposition on the policy or outrage of that particular day or week, then vanish just as quickly. The pop-ups do not file IRS disclosures or report their budgets, boards, or staff. In most cases, their connection to Arabella goes unreported. Many of them have offered sympathetic ordinary voters the opportunity to donate to whatever the “grassroots” cause happens to be, when in fact the money feeds back into Arabella’s enormous dark-money network.
The relatively novel and innovative model of political activism perfected by Arabella, which was founded 2005, went more or less unnoticed until 2018, when I was reporting on the activist groups that attempted to prevent the Senate confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Among the sea of picket signs outside the court in July 2018 was the name of an unfamiliar group: Demand Justice. A search of the IRS nonprofit archives showed the name itself wasn’t listed. What did turn up in an online search was a downtown address on Connecticut Avenue shared by dozens of other organizations, including the Arabella “spoke” that appeared to be running Demand Justice, Sixteen Thirty Fund.
It isn’t uncommon for political groups to share expensive D.C. office space, especially when they’re affiliated, like the Center for American Progress (CAP) and its lobbying arm, CAP Action. But Arabella’s arrangement is unique: A for-profit consultancy (Arabella Advisors) is the central hub; four (perhaps five) tax-exempt nonprofits (New Venture Fund, Sixteen Thirty Fund, Hopewell Fund, Windward Fund, and possibly North Fund, all founded and led by Arabella leadership) are the spokes; and countless ephemeral pop-ups branching out from the nonprofits.
In early 2019, the Capital Research Center (where I work) released a report on the network. Since then, my colleagues and I have collected large amounts of data on Arabella’s origins, lobbying, pop-up campaigns, board connections, and donors, which helped lay the groundwork for later reporting on Arabella in mainstream outlets like The Atlantic and New York Times—which have since acknowledged that the political “left” has outraised and outspent the political “right” using dark money in recent years by a margin of nearly 2 to 1.
And yet today, the vast majority of American voters remain unaware of Arabella’s existence, even as it promises to play an increasingly central role in American politics, and as the culture wars and fight for control of federal institutions reaches a fever pitch in the fall of 2022.
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