Meet the Billionaires Backing Team Blue With a Megaphone Only Money Can Buy

Deep Pockets

The Democratic Sugar-Daddy/Sugar-Mama Dossier

Conservatives have the Kochs and Rupert Murdoch, but progressives have their mega-donors, too. 

August 28, 2014

Illustrations by Steve Brodner


Ever since the Supreme Court's decisions in Citizens United and McCutcheon v. FEC, the influence of big money in politics, such as that wielded by the Koch brothers, has been a matter of concern to Democrats. That's because conservative big-spenders have perfected the use of so-called social welfare organizations, which shield their donors from public disclosure, for baldly political purposes—especially for televisions ads at election time. Based on an interview with Viveca Novak of the Center for Media and Democracy, the Tampa Bay Times' PolitiFact website reported, "Republicans tend to donate to and use non-disclosing groups more than Democrats do." PolitiFact's Lauren Carroll wrote: "Conservative political nonprofits spent almost five times as much as liberal ones in 2012, according to Open Secrets data. [As of June 23] in 2014, they have spent almost twice as much."

That's hardly to say that all is lost for liberals and Democrats. There's more than one way to skin a cat, or to advance a political cause or candidate. We asked Andy Kroll to identify some of the Democrats' top donors, and suss out the causes dear to their hearts.



Lights, Camera, Political Action

Jeffrey Katzenberg

Age: 63
Home: Los Angeles
Occupation: CEO, DreamWorks Animation
Net worth: $957 million
Why he matters: Katzenberg hosted a crucial February 2007 fundraiser for Barack Obama, signaling Hollywood’s overwhelming support for the senator over Hillary Clinton. Katzenberg ultimately raised tens of millions of dollars for Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns as well as funds for Governor Jerry Brown, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and others. He also ponied up $3.15 million for Democratic super PACs in the 2012 election cycle—$2 million of which launched the influential Priorities USA Action. Now, with Priorities as his vehicle, Katzenberg has positioned himself as a leading financier behind a Hillary 2016 presidential bid.


The Son Also Rises

Jonathan Soros

Age: 45
Home: New York City 
Occupation: Investor, political activist
Net worth: Unknown
Why he matters: Jonathan Soros has emerged in recent years as a savvy donor and operative, much more hands-on than his father, George, the billionaire investor and Democratic donor. In particular, the younger Soros has pumped millions into the cause of campaign-finance reform, mostly through Friends of Democracy, an anti–super PAC super PAC that seeks to elect state and federal lawmakers who support public financing of elections. In 2012, seven of the eight lawmakers backed by Soros’s PAC won. Soros wants to pass public financing in New York state while injecting Friends of Democracy into more state and congressional races.


The Black Sheep

Laura Ricketts

Age: 46
Home: Chicago 
Occupation: Co-owner, Chicago Cubs; activist
Net worth: Unknown
Why she matters: Ricketts is the black sheep of her right-leaning family, which owns the Chicago Cubs. Her father, Joe, the founder of TD Ameritrade, and her brother Todd are the brains and money behind Ending Spending, a conservative political operation that during the 2012 election considered attacking Obama as a “metrosexual, black Abe Lincoln” but later abandoned that plan. By contrast, Laura, who is a lesbian, bundled at least $793,000 for Obama since 2007 and started her own super PAC to elect “pro-lesbian, pro-women” candidates.


The Green Billionaire

Tom Steyer 

Age: 57
Home: San Francisco
Occupation: Retired hedge-fund investor, environmental activist
Net worth: $1.6 billion
Why he matters: Steyer has been a reliable Democratic donor since the 1990s and a major spender on California ballot initiatives—in 2012, he dropped $30 million on a measure to close corporate tax loopholes and invest the money in schools and the environment. Believing that global warming is the generational cause of our time, Steyer has opened his own political shop, NextGen Climate, to influence elections. In 2013, NextGen spent $8 million to defeat Republican Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli. This year, Steyer aims to spend $100 million (or more) to elect environmentally conscious candidates and pressure state and federal lawmakers to take action fighting climate change.


The Texans

Steve Mostyn and Amber Anderson Mostyn

Age: 43, 43
Home: Houston 
Occupation: Trial lawyers
Net worth: Unknown
Why they matter: The long-term effort under way to turn Texas blue, largely by registering millions of Latino voters and implementing an Obama-style get-out-the-vote machine, wouldn’t exist if not for the Mostyns. They’ve emerged as the anchor donors of Texas Democratic politics, giving $250,000 to Battleground Texas and leading Annie’s List, a state-level version of EMILY’s List, which identifies, trains, and funds pro-choice Democratic women candidates for office. The Mostyns donated $5.2 million to Democratic super PACs in the 2012 cycle, and they’re poised to provide much more in 2016. They’re founding members of Ready for Hillary, the super PAC-cum-campaign-in-waiting for Clinton’s 2016 run.



Tim Gill

Age: 60
Home: Denver
Occupation: Former software developer, LGBT activist
Net worth: Unknown
Why he matters: No donor has done more to promote marriage equality in the country than Gill. But you probably haven’t heard of him. He prefers it that way. Over his lifetime, Gill has given $300 million to the gay-rights cause—electing local and state politicians who support same-sex marriage and expanding rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people—including a new campaign targeting southern and western states. Much of Gill’s giving is done through 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) nonprofits, which is why his profile is lower than those of his fellow progressive donors.


The Tech Bro

Sean Parker

Age: 34
Home: New York City
Occupation: Tech investor
Net worth: $2.6 billion
Why he matters: One of the Facebook billionaires, Parker is ramping up his political activities—and, like some of his tech brethren, taking an unorthodox approach by courting candidates across the ideological spectrum. He’s donated mostly to Democrats so far—his $500,000 check made him Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe’s largest individual donor in 2013—while also meeting with the likes of Senator Rand Paul and hosting GOP lawmakers in Silicon Valley. His $250,000 donation to Friends of Democracy, the anti–super PAC super PAC founded by Jonathan Soros, signaled Parker’s goal of reducing money’s influence in Congress. His network of young tech execs could be a wellspring of Democratic cash in future elections.


The Reclusive Rockefeller

Alida Messinger 

Age: 64
Home: Afton, Minnesota
Occupation: Philanthropist, conservationist
Net worth: Unknown
Why she matters: Messinger, the youngest daughter of John D. Rockefeller III, has invested more than $10 million in progressive politics in Minnesota, where Democrats control both U.S. Senate seats, five of the state’s eight congressional seats, and every constitutional office—governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and state auditor. Messinger, who was once married to Governor Mark Dayton, has also spread the gospel of Minnesota progressives
to donors in other regions who hope to turn their states blue.


The Hawk

Haim Saban

Age: 69
Home: Beverly Hills
Occupation: Entertainment executive
Net worth: $3.4 billion
Why he matters: Saban, who brought the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers to U.S. audiences, is a close friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s and has donated millions to their foundation and the Clinton Presidential Library. He can raise millions for a Hillary presidential bid. A hawk on issues regarding Israel, Saban funds a highly regarded annual conference on U.S.–Israeli relations that has featured both Clintons as speakers. Bill has stayed at Saban’s home, with his host once telling a friend, “The president of the United States, wearing his boxers, is coming down the stairs, and I am going to have to stop talking and go have breakfast with him.”


Rocky Mountain High Roller

Pat Stryker

Age: 58
Home: Fort Collins, Colorado
Occupation: Philanthropist
Net worth: $1.9 billion
Why she matters: An heiress to the founder of the Stryker medical-device company, Pat Stryker was one of the “Gang of Four” donors who invested heavily in turning Colorado blue starting in the early 2000s. The political machine her money helped create in Colorado has served as the template for progressive takeovers in Maine, Minnesota, and Washington state. As Democrats fight to keep Colorado in their column by defending their majorities in the legislature and re-electing Governor John Hickenlooper, Stryker’s donations will play a crucial role.


The Renegade 1-Percenter

Nick Hanauer

Age: 54
Home: Seattle
Occupation: Venture-capital investor, activist, philanthropist
Net worth: $1 billion
Why he matters: Hanauer has helped build a coalition of nonprofits intended to nudge Washington state to the left. He co-founded the League of Education Voters while giving $5 million to Democratic candidates and efforts supporting ballot measures to mandate background checks for gun purchases and raise the state income tax. Hanauer, who caused a ruckus with a 2012 TED talk about inequality, also sits on the board of the Democracy Alliance, the national liberal donor club.


Citizen Maine

S. Donald Sussman

Age: 68
Home: North Haven, Maine
Occupation: Hedge-fund investor, newspaper owner
Net worth: Unknown
Why he matters: Maine’s most powerful 1-percenter, a hedge-fund manager married to Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, Sussman runs various funds that control $2 billion. He owns several Maine newspapers, including the Portland Press Herald, and he has given more than $12 million to political committees, ballot initiatives, and political nonprofits since the 1990s, including $1.15 million in 2012 to a super PAC backing House Democrats. In 2011, Sussman funded a ballot measure to reinstate same-day voter registration, and his money is crucial in the Democrats’ campaign to preserve their majority in the legislature and defeat Governor Paul LePage this year.


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