Cenk Uygur, Diane Russell and the dark side of crowd-funded politics

Cenk Uygur, host of the "Young Turks" (above),  and Ryan Clayton, Executive Director of Wolf-PAC, an organization Uygur started, played a role in a local state senate race in Portland this year, raising questions about the role of national crowd-funding in local politics.

Cenk Uygur, host of the “Young Turks.” Photo by Tytvault.

On a Saturday night last month, a number of women throughout Portland came home to find their first name scrawled in black felt tip pen on a letter by their door.

The state primary was coming up in three days, and the photocopied, handwritten letter presented vicious, personal attacks against Ben Chipman, the leading candidate in the race to represent downtown Portland in the Maine senate.

The letter was anonymous, signed “A fellow District 27 Democratic primary voter” with a small stamp on the back saying that it had been paid for by “Delta Dunamis.”

Was that a person? An organization? Nobody knew.

Whoever it was, they hit low, pointing the domain name slumlord4senate.com to a far-fetched complaint, which had been quickly dismissed by the court, from a squatter in a rundown building that Chipman rehabbed.  They even quoted Chipman’s mentally ill brother describing him as “a threat to the American way of life.”

If you didn’t know Chipman, the whole thing might well look pretty damning.

So I dug into the State of Maine archives and found an Independent Expenditure Report registering Delta Dunamis to Ryan Clayton, the Executive Director of Wolf-PAC, a Los Angeles based political action committee with the stated mission of “getting money out of politics.”

Clayton’s number was on the Wolf-PAC website, so I called it. When he picked up, I asked him if he’d distributed the letter. He admitted he had. Then he abruptly hung up.

As discomfiting as the brief interaction was, as far as I can tell, Wolf-PAC is actually a rapidly growing political force.  Founded in 2011 by independent media activist Cenk Uygur, in the past four years, they’ve matured from an operating budget of $70,000 in 2012, to spending well over half a million in 2015-2016, 87% of which comes from donations under $200.

In a conversation between Clayton and Uygur on “The Young Turks,” an independent news broadcast that Uygur co-founded in 2002, they describe their dream of raising $30 million a month.  It’s a pipe dream figure, but even if they only achieve a small fraction of that, it’s clear that Wolf-PAC is well on its way toward becoming incredibly powerful.

While I find it completely believable that Clayton acted entirely on his own and didn’t consult with anybody on the ground, which would have been illegal for him to do, Clayton and Uygur are both strong supporters of Diane Russell, Chipman’s biggest opponent.

Russell was a leader in this year’s efforts to end the DNC’s super delegates system, an issue that Wolf-PAC strongly supports, and in addition to the photocopied letter, an action that Russell herself strongly disavowed, Clayton and Uygur also supported her campaign in more straight-forward ways, declaring her a “Wolf PAC Hero.”

Most significantly, they encouraged their massive digital following to contribute to her campaign, helping Russell to raise over $90,000 in online donations, compared to the $10,000 that Chipman received from Maine’s clean elections fund.

Is this really what democracy looks like in the digital age?

Personally, I’d much rather see a movement that unites local communities throughout the country around a deep, hard-hitting progressive agenda.  A horizontal movement, supporting righteous independent leaders in standing up to injustice.  A movement capable of organizing the chaos of poverty into a coherent and powerful political force strong enough to truly bring about a more equitable society.

We need organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that Martin Luther King Jr. led, uniting Black churches across the American south.  We need more alliances like the Right to the City Network, which is currently working to bring together community-based anti-gentrification groups around the country.

Wolf-PAC seems like the opposite – taking money from the many and concentrating power in the hands of a few national leaders like Clayton and Uygur.

When I checked out the Wolf-PAC website, it was revealing to find that the group didn’t have any supporting organizations or testimonials from reputable progressive leaders. Michael Moore isn’t popping up in the corner. There aren’t any union bugs.

Who, exactly, is really vouching for this organization?

How much do their thousands of contributors genuinely know about where their hard-earned dollars are really going?

In the end, despite Russell’s mountain of money, Portland voters were still able to fight these DC sharks off and elect the best state delegation that our city has had in years.

We were lucky.

Russell made some serious blunders in her messaging, and Chipman was a strong, hard-working candidate who won the support of Justin Alfond, the Democratic powerhouse terming out of the seat that Russell and Chipman were vying over.

By Tuesday, her race had tanked so hard that Chipman prevailed 1,778 to Russell’s 770.

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Had Russell won, it’s true that she would have done so without big corporate money, but it still would have been a far cry from the kind of big open, democratic political process that guys like Uygur claim to be fighting for.

It’s easy to imagine a great candidate in a less active political climate getting destroyed by a nationally crowd-funded organization going to bat for an opponent who had garnered headlines around a particular issue.

Sure, progressives need to build power online, but in doing so we need to remain wary of the potential for corruption inherent to any large, unsupervised pile of cash.

There aren’t any shortcuts.  We need to go door by door, block by block, but I’m confident that with basic, honest, principled organizing, we can win across the United States.

If we’re seriously going to transform American government for the better, we need more than effective crowd funding.  We need an actual movement.

Rob Korobkin

About Rob Korobkin

Rob is a software engineer, community organizer, teacher and musician. He can often be found at Peloton Labs, staring at his laptop, drafting diatribes and programming software late into the night.