POLITICS
05/12/2010 08:40 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Donor Strike: Rich Progressives Pledge To Withhold Cash

A group of 27 major donors is vowing to withhold campaign cash from lawmakers who stand in the way of legislation that would allow for public funding of congressional campaigns. Over their careers, the donors have contributed millions to Democratic candidates -- and, on limited occasions, Republicans or independents -- but they say they've had it. And they don't mind if it means a lack of access.

Steve Kirsch kicked in roughly $10 million to try to elect Al Gore in 2000. "It is a trade off, because there are a lot of good things you can talk to them about, but most of the time they don't do anything about it anyway. Given the choice, I'd rather have campaign finance reform than access," said Kirsch, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and founder of Infoseek, among other companies.

The millions that the donors have given is just the beginning, and doesn't include the millions more they've funneled by organizing fundraisers or otherwise corralling contributions.

The 27 donors plan to lobby other rich folks to sign on, with a plan of passing the Fair Elections Now Act, which has 149 cosponsors, this year. The campaign's being run by Change Congress, co-founded by Lawrence Lessig and Joe Trippi, along with Common Cause and the Public Campaign Action Fund.

ChangeCongress, now that the effort is public, will be encouraging donors to pledge. Read the letter here.

It was kicked off by donors Alan Hassenfeld, the former chairman of Hasbro, and Arnold Hiatt, the former head of the Stride Rite Corporation. The pair wrote to friends and colleagues, urging them to stop giving. (Wealthy donors have politely asked

"We're writing with a very unusual request -- that you pledge not to give any campaign contributions to any candidate for Congress until they have committed to support public funding for congressional elections," they wrote. "Once we have a critical mass of large contributors who have signed this pledge, the partner organizations will then launch an Internet-based campaign to get others to join as well. A pilot of this program was initiated last year. Very quickly, tens of thousands committed to the pledge. ChangeCongress.org's technology will enable us to estimate the value of their pledges, and whom it hits directly. The site will also make it easy for pledgers to lobby Senators and Representatives to join the bill."

The pair said they were sad to have to take the step. "If, 15 months into the Obama Administration, we were looking at a long list of accomplishments, with a long list of probable victories coming -- as many of us dreamed last November -- then we would not be asking you to take this step. But the picture is not nearly so promising because of the power of private money in the political system. We have all been part of that system. It is time for us to take the lead to change it," they wrote.

The list of the donors who have signed on so far would be familiar to any Democratic fundraiser: Besides Kirsch, Hassenfeld and Hiatt, there's JJ Abrams, Edgar Bronfman, Nancy Bagley, Ben Cohen, Peter Copen, Rosemary Faulkner, George Hatch, John S. Johnson, Joe Keefe, Steven Ko, John Luongo, Rhonda Luongo, Katie McGrath, Arnie Miller, Dan Nova, Dave Orton, Lisa Orton, William Polk, Greg Price, Vin Ryan, Paul Sack, Jonathan Soros, Christopher Vargas and Sophia Yen.

In February, a similar group banded together and asked nicely for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to move on the Fair Elections Now Act. So much for that.

Kirsch said that the access his money buys -- and the access he could lose -- is overrated. With so many donors with so many opinions, the best they can do is nod, offer to look into it, and put a donor in touch with a staff member. "In the meeting, they say they agree completely," said Kirsch. "'Let me do more research and thinking. Thanks for bringing to my attention.' There tends not to be a lot of follow through."

Take Gore, for instance, said Kirsch, using him as an example of the way the system works for major donors who are pushing progressive politics rather than looking for a loophole, an earmark or some other legislative favor. "I gave Al Gore, through various means, over 10 million dollars. Al Gore has never sought my advice on anything. So to think that any large amount will cause them to pay attention to you is not true," said Kirsch.

Murray Galinson, a big giver and former president of the United Jewish Federation, said he's not certain the effort will work, but it's worth a shot. "If you don't give it a try, nothing's going to help," he said.

Galinson said he was finally pushed to make the pledge by the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, which allowed limitless corporate funds to pour into campaigns.

Without the strike, the donors are doing little more than furthering a flawed system, said Kirsch. "It's silly, because I'm just helping perpetuate the system. The more money I give, the more I allow them to maintain the status quo. My money's working against me," he said.