- Paul Heintz
- Sen. Bernie Sanders and his family at Our Revolution's August 2016 launch
At a rally last week in Pittsburgh, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) lampooned those who said during the 2016 presidential campaign that politicians must depend on "super PACs funded by billionaires" to win public office.
"We were told, 'Hey, Bernie, that's the way it's always been!'" he recalled to a chorus of boos. "'Don't you know that rich people are the people who control politics?'"
Sanders has decried the role of money in politics for much of his career — and, unlike his colleagues in Vermont's congressional delegation, he has mostly refused direct contributions from special-interest political action committees.
But as he ramps up his second bid for the presidency, Sanders is drawing support from a "dark money" nonprofit run by close associates and funded, in part, by anonymous six-figure contributions.
The organization, Our Revolution, led an effort earlier this year to draft the senator into the presidential race. After it succeeded, most of the group's staffers left to join the Sanders campaign. Its board is now considering whether to use its considerable resources to further bolster his candidacy.
"I think there's a certain amount of irony when a candidate who's said he's vehemently opposed to dark money then creates a dark money group," said Michael Beckel, a researcher and investigator for the campaign finance advocacy group Issue One.
Founded in the wake of Sanders' first presidential campaign, Our Revolution's mandate was to "carry the political revolution forward," the senator said at its August 2016 launch in Burlington's Old North End. Armed with the campaign's 5 million-person email list, the organization has raised millions of dollars since, largely in small contributions. It's used the money to support more than 500 progressive candidates and causes across the country, including Vermont Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) and even Sanders' own stepdaughter, Carina Driscoll, in her unsuccessful 2018 run for mayor of Burlington.
But thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, Our Revolution doesn't have to play by the traditional rules of politics. As a 501c4 "social welfare organization," it can raise unlimited sums of money from individuals, corporations and other nonprofits — and can spend up to half its budget on direct support of a political candidate.
Unlike PACs, which must regularly disclose donations and expenditures to the Federal Election Commission, 501c4s are required only to file annual reports to the Internal Revenue Service, often a year or two after the fact — and they never have to publicly disclose their donors. The only way to identify them, Beckel said, is to follow "bread crumbs" left in other official documents.
According to Our Revolution's 2016 and 2017 IRS filings — the only ones the group has made available — it accepted four five-figure donations in its first two years from unnamed donors, including contributions worth $300,000 and $100,000 apiece. Both years, the organization raised about $3.4 million in total.
A spokesperson for Our Revolution, Diane May, refused to say who gave the big bucks. But when Beckel followed the bread crumbs to related FEC filings, he discovered that a super PAC operated by National Nurses United was responsible for the $300,000 donation. The union, which did not respond to a request for comment, had previously spent nearly $4.8 million on pro-Sanders advertisements during the 2016 election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The $100,000 donation, as Politico first reported last fall, came from the Sixteen Thirty Fund — itself a shadowy 501c4 used by liberal donors to quietly move money to progressive causes.
Beth Kanter, a spokesperson for the fund, confirmed that it gave the money in order "to focus on consumer protection, financial regulation and defending the Affordable Care Act." She declined to identify the original source of the money.
A Seven Days analysis of FEC data found that, in 2018, the nurses union contributed an additional $118,000 to Our Revolution's Maryland affiliate, while the Amalgamated Transit Union donated $100,000. That money helped fund more than half a million dollars' worth of super PAC ads on behalf of failed Maryland gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous, a close Sanders ally and a former Our Revolution board member.
According to Our Revolution's 2017 IRS filing, the Washington, D.C., organization cut checks to several regional affiliates, including a $12,500 grant to Burlington-based Rights & Democracy, a progressive advocacy group that works in Vermont and New Hampshire.
Though Sanders orchestrated the launch of Our Revolution in 2016 and raised early money for it, he formally separated himself from it after critics raised concerns about the propriety of a sitting senator working so closely with a 501c4. According to Sanders spokesperson Arianna Jones, "the senator and his presidential campaign are not involved or coordinating" with it. She refused to say whether he found it appropriate for Our Revolution to accept undisclosed contributions and use them on his behalf.
Even if Sanders himself is walled off from the organization, its leaders are surely acquainted with his plans and goals. Its board consists entirely of 2016 supporters, surrogates and advisers, including Arab American Institute cofounder Jim Zogby, Texas political commentator Jim Hightower, the actress Shailene Woodley and former Sanders chief of staff Huck Gutman, one of the senator's best friends.
In between Sanders' two presidential campaigns, Our Revolution served as a temporary employment agency for his political staffers. Its first president was 2016 campaign manager Jeff Weaver, now a senior adviser to Sanders' 2020 bid. Its first executive director, Shannon Jackson, went on to run his 2018 Senate reelection.
The group's most recent leaders, president Nina Turner and executive director Heather Gautney, decamped in February for Sanders' presidential campaign. They brought with them 13 other Our Revolution staffers, leaving just two behind, according to May, the organization's spokesperson.
Turner, a former Ohio state senator, hasn't moved on entirely. She remains on the board of Our Revolution, even as she serves as a cochair of Sanders' presidential campaign. According to May, Turner has notified fellow board members that she will recuse herself from any decisions involving the campaign.
The extent of that overlap remains to be seen. According to Gutman, Our Revolution is in a period of transition now that Sanders has reentered presidential politics. Its board plans to reconsider its role at a meeting next weekend in D.C.
"We live in a new reality, which is that, up until a couple months ago, we were trying to organize a progressive left in America at the grassroots level — a populist, progressive left," said Gutman, a retired professor of poetry at the University of Vermont. "Now we have to reconsider how we move forward, given that a lot of the energy of the progressive left will go into the Sanders campaign and, perhaps, other campaigns."
Another politically active nonprofit in the senator's orbit, the Burlington-based Sanders Institute, opted to suspend its operations in March after its namesake joined the presidential race. Cofounder Jane O'Meara Sanders, the senator's wife, acknowledged at the time that it had done so to avoid any appearance of impropriety — particularly when it came to fundraising for the 501c3. The Sanders Institute had faced criticism for producing little original work and for paying O'Meara Sanders' son, David Driscoll, a $100,000 salary as executive director.
Our Revolution itself is no stranger to scandal. On the eve of its 2016 launch, a majority of its staff quit in protest of Weaver's installation as president. Later that year, the organization lost $242,000 to an email scam. It faced criticism during the 2018 midterms for failing to elect many of its endorsed candidates, though three of its picks have become stars in the U.S. House: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Talib (D-Mich.).
In the lead-up to the 2020 presidential race, Our Revolution jumped on the Bernie bandwagon early. Last December, its members and leaders voted to support a Run, Bernie, Run campaign, according to board chair Larry Cohen. That, he said, constituted a de facto endorsement, even though it would be months before Sanders entered the race.
In a January email to its list, Our Revolution characterized itself as a "grassroots army to help Bernie win the nomination if he decides to run." The next month, after Sanders declared his candidacy, the group celebrated his decision and asked for support to "help us begin deploying training materials to volunteers across the country." May explained that, because it would take time for the campaign to staff up in most states, Our Revolution would be doing "the organizing work that it takes to elect Bernie president" in the interim.
According to Cohen, a former president of the Communications Workers of America, the group could help turn out attendees to official Sanders campaign events — or, he said, it could hold its own events and invite the candidate to attend.
That's what happened last October, when Sanders appeared at a Medicare for All Rally in Columbia, S.C., organized by Our Revolution and hosted by Turner. But Jones, Sanders' spokesperson, said that her boss "will not appear at such events during the presidential campaign."
Though Our Revolution can't spend more than half its budget on electoral efforts, May argued that its Run, Bernie, Run campaign didn't count as such because Sanders wasn't yet a candidate. Similarly, its recent promotion of Sanders' Medicare-for-all legislation could be counted as "educational" work.
According to Beckel, 501c4s often serve as a vehicle for wealthy donors to skirt contribution caps and quietly bankroll television ad campaigns. Our Revolution appears to have done some of that soon after it was founded. According to an FEC filing, it spent $240,000 in 2016 on ads backing failed U.S. Senate candidates Russ Feingold and Deborah Ross.
According to Cohen, that sort of work is in Our Revolution's past.
"We are not going to be doing ad campaigns," he said. "This is not going to be some super PAC. Not gonna happen."
Cohen recoiled at the notion that his is a "dark money" group. He noted that Our Revolution voluntarily lists the names of those who donate more than $250 on its website (though it does not disclose how much money each gave) and requires its board to vote on whether to accept donations over $5,000.
Not everybody on the board appears comfortable with the six-figure contributions Our Revolution has received. "I'd prefer small donations," Gutman said.
But Cohen said he wouldn't necessarily turn down another big check.
"It would depend on who it was from and how exactly it was going to be spent," the board chair said. "In any case, it's not like anyone's ringing up with those kinds of contributions."
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy here: sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.