Earlier this week, inside a ballroom at the luxury Mandarin Oriental hotel in D.C., President Obama met with Organizing for America. OFA, as it’s called for short, raised $26 million last year, much of it from an assortment of heirs, heiresses, hedge funders, and Hollywood executives. OFA is the president’s advocacy group, charged with rounding up support for his gun control, immigration, minimum-wage, and climate-change initiatives. It has not been having much success.
The headline from this week’s summit was the president’s remark that OFA volunteers are doing “God’s work.” Nothing, though, on who was in the audience during the invitation-only, “intimate roundtable discussion” between the president, his 2008 campaign manager David Plouffe, and his 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina. I would like to know who was there. I would like to know who was there because I would like to tell them, as gently as possible, that they are being bilked. Messina is taking their money and building an empire with it.
That is the inescapable conclusion one draws from a close reading of “The Democrats’ Would-Be Karl Rove,” a lacerating and damning investigation by Politico reporters Kenneth P. Vogel and Maggie Haberman. Vogel and Haberman relay, in amazing detail, Messina’s determined, grasping, Heisenberg-like climb up the greasy pole, from college Democrat in Montana, to aide to Senator Max “I’m no China expert” Baucus (D., Mont.), to Obama deputy chief of staff, to Obama campaign manager, to wealthy and unscrupulous political consultant. It’s not pretty, but it’s a living.
And what a living. Not only is Messina chairman of OFA, last month he also became chairman of Priorities USA., the pro-Obama super PAC famous for the “Mitt Romney killed my wife” ad. Priorities USA recently announced it would back Hillary Clinton in 2016. The offices of both organizations have been moved, presumably at Messina’s direction, to the Connecticut Avenue office building that houses his consulting firm, the Messina Group. The Messina Group does not disclose its clients, but Vogel and Haberman report that it cashes checks from the likes of the American Gaming Association and from the campaigns of Charlie Crist of Florida, Anthony Brown of Maryland, and, um, David Cameron of the United Kingdom. Tory prime minister David Cameron.
In addition to the money he makes from his consultancy and the payments from OFA and (starting next year) Priorities U.S.A., Messina has a lucrative speaking gig going, with $50,000 speeches to realtors, energy producers (including the American Petroleum Institute), health-care associations, and conferences in the Emirate of Sharjah and such human-rights-abusing countries as Azerbaijan. He also still draws $7,000 a month from the Obama reelection campaign — Election Day, you will recall, was more than a year ago — and, until January 2014, he earned $15,000 a month advising the Democratic National Committee, which is $15.6 million in debt. (Much of that debt is owed to a union-owned bank.) On top of all this, he sits on the boards of green-energy companies Opower and LanzaTech; LanzaTech received grant money from the administration for which Messina once worked. The board seats come with stock options.
“Messina’s effort to tap his earning potential while maintaining a hand on the levers of the party’s apparatuses,” Vogel and Haberman write, “has fueled grumbles from various Democratic donors and operatives, who accuse him — privately, and without the risk or accountability that can come from on-the-record criticism — of taking more than his share of the credit for a multifaceted victory, and of a cash binge that exposes Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to potential backlash.”
Potential? I’d say the backlash is not a potentiality but an actuality. Messina’s hand is on too many apparatuses; he’s not leaving enough room for his fellow Democratic hacks. Not only are the grumbles about him being fueled, they are being launched — launched straight into the pages of Politico. And the grumbles themselves are cause for delight: at the backhanded, cloak-and-dagger way in which Democratic consultants act on their jealousy, envy, pride, and avarice, at their somewhat justified anger that an empty suit who happened to be in the right place at the right time is being garlanded as a political genius, a kingmaker, a tech guru, a powerbroker, a millionaire whose depth of knowledge of politics and policy equals that of bogeyman Karl Rove.