Born in 1944, Rob Stein was a practicing attorney from 1968 until 1978, at which time he left the legal profession to spend the ensuing decade working for an array of nonprofit organizations, including Clergy and Laity Concerned, a New York-based group formed 13 years earlier by the National Council of Churches. Thereafter, Stein served as a senior strategic adviser to Democratic National Committee chairman Ron Brown from 1989-92; chief of staff at the Clinton–Gore Transition Team’s Washington office in 1992-93; and chief of staff at the U.S. Commerce Department from 1993-95. Next came a six-year stint (1996-2002) as a private equity investor.
At that point, Stein’s political passions took him in a wholly different direction. One morning shortly after the 2002 mid-term elections, Stein recounts, he awakened to the realization that he was now “living in a one-party country”—a reference to the fact that Republicans were in control of the White House and both Houses of Congress. Deeply frustrated by that state of affairs, he resolved to study the history and tactics of the conservative movement in order to determine why it was winning the political battle.
After a year of analysis and strategizing, Stein laid out his findings in a comprehensive PowerPoint presentation titled “The Conservative Message Machine Money Matrix.” Using graphs, charts, diagrams, and bullet points, he mapped out, in painstaking detail, how conservatives had pieced together a well-organized infrastructure of legal, political, and scholarly organizations dedicated to shaping public opinion on a variety of important social and political issues. Moreover, Stein claimed that a few well-connected, wealthy clans—including the Scaife, Bradley, Olin, and Coors families—had provided funding for those groups on a scale that had no equal on the left side of the political spectrum.
Stein’s objective was to lay out a roadmap by which the progressive movement could duplicate the conservatives’ path to success—i.e., create a permanent political infrastructure of nonprofits, think tanks, media outlets, leadership schools, and activist groups dedicated to battling conservatives. The key to this plan, as Stein envisioned it, would be the formation of a coalition of wealthy leftists and liberals willing to invest their money in such a cause.
Thus, over the next few months Stein showed his PowerPoint presentation to hundreds of prospective funders in one-to-one and small-group settings, hoping that some of them might recognize the potential of the plan and agree to open their wallets. Among those who by January 2005 had pledged to support Stein’s venture were Sidney Blumenthal, David Brock, Jon Corzine, Gail Furman, Richard Holbrooke, Peter Lewis, Jonathan Lewis, Mike McCurry), Alan Patricoff, Erica Payne, John Podesta, Rob Reiner, Simon Rosenberg, George Soros, and Jonathan Soros. The new coalition formally took shape that same month, under the name Democracy Alliance (DA), when Stein filed the corporate registration in Washington, D.C. He subsequently continued to show his PowerPoint to additional potential donors, and by August 2005 more than 700 key people had seen it.
Stein served as DA’s first managing director until early in 2006, when the Alliance’s board offered that position to Robert Dunn, a former president of Business for Social Responsibility. When Dunn declined, the board appointed Judy Wade, a management consultant at New York-headquartered McKinsey & Company, which aims to “help organizations across the private, public, and social sectors create the change that matters.”
In 2006 Stein co-founded the Committee on States, a collection of wealthy donors, political operatives, labor unions, and progressive organizations that would go on to spend scores of millions of dollars promoting the election of Democratic politicians and the passage of progressive policies at the state level.
In 2010 Stein sat on the national advisory board of the Roosevelt Institute, a think tank that seeks to “carry forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt” by “developing progressive ideas” such as a “more equitable distribution of wealth.”
Stein was a strong supporter of Barack Obama‘s presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012. During Obama’s first term in office, Stein visited the White House on three separate occasions.
Stein views projects like the Democracy Alliance and the Committee on States, first and foremost, as vehicles for the accretion of political power, as he has candidly explained thusly: “The reason it is so important to control government is because government is the source of enormous power. One president in this country, when he or she takes office, appoints … 5,000 people to run a bureaucracy, nonmilitary nonpostal service of 2 million people, who hire 10 million outside outsource contractors—a workforce of 12 million people—that spends $3 trillion a year. That number is larger than the gross domestic product of all but four countries on the face of the earth…. So the reason we’re doing what we’re doing … and the way we get progressive change, is to control government. That’s what this is about.”
Further Reading: The Argument: Inside the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics (by Matt Bai, 2007, pp. 25-29); “Robert Stein” (Keywiki.org); “Rob Stein” (DemocracyAlliance.org); “New Democrats” (Washington Monthly, 7-26-2004); “Rob Stein: The Brain” (Washington Free Beacon, 10-1-2012).