Greening the Left

Tycoons will pay to generate leftist ideas in voters' minds, but now they want to see results

The next day I got an unexpected e-mail from a fellow raising money to rev up members of the Young Democrats of America.

"For me youth organizing is especially important because the future of the party is in the youth organizations," said Leighton Woodhouse, founder of the group Action Caucus.

That may very well be. What's certain is it's enjoyable to think so.

To their credit, the Rappaports, who gave at least $4.7 million to liberal groups during the 2003-2004 election cycle, have taken to heart the complex challenge involved in transforming America through young people.

They've applied the creativity, rigor, and ruthlessness of a venture capitalist to the task of trying to figure out what kind of young-people-oriented, left-wing experiment might someday push America leftward.

"On one level, it's fair to say that everything [in 2004] failed," Seitz Gruwell says. "From what the party did, to what Kerry did, to what the outside groups did. All that failed. That's probably oversimplistic, though. Some things were successful, and some failed. So the rub is, which efforts were successful? Which ones aren't? Which ones should be disbanded? Which ones should be expanded? To get Democrats back to being a majority party, that is not particularly easy. That's why we do a lot of work with the researchers. That's why we have all the accountability worked into it."

This insistence on effectiveness has the folks at Music for America on edge these days. The Rappaports have promised the group $150,000, but only if it can raise another $300,000 from elsewhere by June. Short of that, the organization will need to begin laying off staff.

Neitzel says she has thought about political activism much of her life, and she loves popular music. Now she runs an outfit that recruits rock musicians to let volunteers pass out leftist fliers at concerts, and she recruits volunteers to do the leafleting.

In September 2003, the Rappaports convinced Droller and Neitzel to turn what had been a rock-concert-oriented political action committee supporting presidential candidate Howard Dean into a 527.

The Rappaports donated $1.5 million to create an organization that would lobby musicians to allow anti-Bush leafletters into concerts, and in some cases proclaim the gospel onstage. The group eventually set up a main office in San Francisco, near its donors' Silicon Valley base. There, it professed a long-term goal of nudging America permanently leftward during the coming years.

It's crunch time, however, as the Rappaports have cut the amount of money they'll give Music for America this year -- and even that money is contingent on the group's message of changing young minds with music resonating with other wealthy donors.

This purse-string-tightening is in keeping with the Rappaports' venture capital philosophy of funding new enterprises, then allowing them either to grow sufficient legs to sustain themselves, or to fail.

For groups such as this, sustenance depends upon the strength of a narrative describing how they're going to turn the country from red to blue.

"Look at the right and churches. They used existing infrastructure," says Neitzel, referring to conservative Christian groups' political influence. "How does that work for the left? What's the message infrastructure? Music. Young progressives congregate every Saturday night at concerts. Right-wing churchgoers congregate on Sunday.

"This is the year we do it on our own," without $1.5 million from the Rappaports, Neitzel says. "It's challenging to do this big a program and do fundraising. This is hard to do when progressives and leftist Democrats haven't been used to long-term investments. I mean, the Heritage Foundation has been around for 40 years."

Music for America got its start in 2003 during the Howard Dean Democratic presidential primary, as Droller and his buddies Franz Hartel and Mike Connery were living in New York, wondering what to do about their fear for their friend Lenny DeLorenzo, who was being shipped off to fight as a U.S. reservist in the Iraq War. Dean was the only politician opposing the war that Droller and his friends resented, so they brainstormed on ways to help his campaign.

"We started by getting DJs to play political meet-ups. Those ordinarily weren't fun. But with DJs, they became a party," Droller recalls.

Neitzel was a Dean fan in Seattle.

"I was having the same experience as them. I didn't want to reach 40- to 60-year-olds. I wanted to get my friends involved," she says of her efforts to draw musicians into the Dean campaign.

Just as Neitzel and Droller began imagining ways to proselytize at concerts, liberal millionaires furious at Bush were looking for ways to use their money to drive him from office.

The Rappaports saw proselytizing among young people as a possible way to move the country leftward.

Music for America calls bands and their agents asking them to let leafletters attend their shows. Once a musical act is on board, MFA announces its shows on the organization's Web site under a hyperlink marked "See Free Shows." Once inside, the volunteers encourage concertgoers to sign voter registration cards, and hand out "issue cards" denouncing military recruitment or advocating same-day voter registration or espousing whatever left cause the musician has agreed to back.

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