The Democracy Initiative (DI) was co-founded in early 2012 by Greenpeace executive director Phil Radford, Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune, Communications Workers Of America president Larry Cohen, and NAACP president Ben Jealous, for the purpose of more effectively advancing a variety of left-wing agendas. Radford lamented, “The game is rigged against us [liberals and leftists]; the corporate right has done such a good job taking over the Congress and the courts. We’re saying we need to step back and change the whole game.”
From its inception, DI focused on three issues in particular: countering the influence of conservative political funders; expanding voter rolls while fighting Voter ID laws; and rewriting Senate rules to limit the use of filibusters to block legislation. To develop a game-plan for advancing these agendas, the Initiative’s four co-founders organized an inaugural meeting which was held in June 2012 and was attended by the leaders of a handful of left-wing groups.
In December 2012, DI held its second (and much larger) major gathering—an invite-only, off-the-record event at the headquarters of the National Education Association (NEA). Attendees included leaders from approximately three-dozen of the most influential groups in left-wing politics such as the AFL-CIO, the Center for American Progress, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Color of Change, Common Cause, Demos, Friends of the Earth, the League of Conservation Voters, National People’s Action, the National Wildlife Federation, People for the American Way, the Piper Fund, Public Campaign, the Service Employees International Union, the United Auto Workers, and Voto Latino. A non-editorial employee of Mother Jones magazine also attended. Many of the participants pledged money (millions of dollars in aggregate) and staff resources (i.e., dozens of organizers) to help build a national, coordinated campaign promoting DI’s three major objectives.
According to Mother Jones, “DI may be the first time so many groups teamed up to work on multiple issues not tied to an election.” “This is really the first time that a broad spectrum of groups have come together around a big agenda that impacts the state and national level,” added NEA official Kim Anderson, who attended the December meeting.
A schedule of DI’s December meeting indicates that the attendees worked on establishing specific priorities for 2013. Vis à vis money in politics, for example, Nick Nyhart of Public Campaign (which supports campaign-finance-reform) identified Kentucky, New York, and North Carolina as potential target states for pro-reform efforts. On the issue of voting rights, a Brennan Center for Justice staffer singled out California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, and Minnesota as states where initiatives to change the voter-registration system and implement same-day registration stood a good chance of succeeding. By DI’s calculus, victories in states such as these could lay the groundwork for similar, subsequent victories nationwide.
The issue which DI members tackled with the greatest sense of urgency was that of Senate rules reform. Specifically, Democratic Senators Tom Harkin and Tom Udall spoke about the need to curb the use of filibusters to block legislation in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Toward that end, DI resolved to urge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) to rewrite the rules governing filibusters. In January 2013, Reid (in a deal struck with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell) did precisely that, though the reforms were not nearly as far-reaching as either DI or Reid would have liked. In essence, the compromise measure made it more difficult for any single Senate member to stall legislation via filibuster, while leaving intact the minority party’s ability to block action by insisting on a 60-vote supermajority for bills to proceed. According to Bloomberg.com, “The compromise measure speeds the process for bringing bills to the floor in cases where there’s an agreement that each side will have a chance to offer two amendments to the legislation.” Senator Harkin called the accord “a baby, baby step.”
Those participating in DI’s December meeting also identified a number of specific entities they planned to target with political pressure: (a) Chevron, which had given $2.5 million to a super-PAC that supported House Republican candidates in 2012; (b) Google, for its continued membership with the generally pro-Republican U.S. Chamber of Commerce; and (c) the American Legislative Exchange Council, an association that drafts pro-free-market, pro-limited-government legislation for state lawmakers across the U.S. (Most notably, ALEC supports the enforcement of Voter-ID laws, immigration laws, and Second Amendment rights.) DI’s plan was to spotlight lawmakers and corporations belonging to ALEC, and to demand that they cut ties with the latter. As Greenpeace’s Phil Radford put it, “We’re going to put the pressure on ALEC even more” in 2013.
 Reflecting on DI’s December 2012 strategy session, the Sierra Club’s Michael Brune said: “It was so exciting. We weren’t just wringing our hands about the Koch brothers [wealthy funders of conservative groups and causes]. We were saying, ‘I’ll put in this amount of dollars and this many organizers.’”