This multi-part series will look at the original founders and the big dollar donors of the Justice Dems PAC. Part 1 is a quick review of the founders.
The founders of the Justice Democrats (JD) political action committee (PAC) are top heavy with software and digital denizens along with politically experienced organizers who know how to amplify a message and attract money. In less than a years’ time, the PAC brought in some powerful donors from decidedly capitalist industries: hedge funds, high tech, investment management and utilities management.
While their name is usually associated with four female milleniel legislators, the PAC founders are dominated by millennial male energy whose goal is to upend the Democratic party structure. Formed in Los Angeles from the remnants of the Bernie Sanders campaign and his progressive supporters, this political action committee is no different from other PACs. It was created to raise money.
From the start, the alliance has railed against establishment, Wall Street Democrats imposing their will on the presumably impotent working class. And yet its founders and financial backers defy the battle cry of the Justice Dems. It’s like Cesar Chavez versus the grape growers except their Chavez is a savvy technocrat with deep pocket funders.
Named directors of the Justice Dems PAC are a trio of Bernie 2016 fellows: Cenk Uygar of The Young Turks, Kyle Kulinski with Secular Talk, and a former official with the 2016 Sanders campaign, Zack Exley. According to the incorporation document filed in October 2017, the PAC registered three governors: Saikat Chakrabarti, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Nasim Thompson. In March 2019, the Justice Dems removed both Chakrabarti and Ocasio Cortez from their formal positions with the PAC. Their removal came amid an uproar among conservative circles and a complaint to the FEC.
The National Legal and Policy Center lodged the complaint and called for an investigation. A report from the Associated Press (AP) explained the substance of the allegation. The Center claimed “an extensive off-the-books operation” where “political groups tied to Ocasio-Cortez and her advisers improperly obscured how money that they raised was spent.”
Market Watch summed up the details in this way:
A limited liability company owned by aide Saikat Chakrabarti, who is now Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, received more than $1 million from two PACs that he co-founded, according to federal campaign finance documents detailing spending from 2016 and 2017.
Both Chakrabarti and his lawyer have maintained their innocence. David Mitrani, who represents Chakrabarti, the Justice Dems and Chakrabarti’s other entities as well as Ocasio Cortez’s interests, claims that no FEC rules were violated.
Nonetheless, moving a million dollars out of a PAC with transparency rules and into an LLC, where no transparency is required, definitely raises eyebrows. The action is further red-flagged in light of the group’s constant vehemence toward dark money and “corporate Democrats” – protests that ring as hollow as a dank mud hole.
Below is a brief review of the originators of the Justice Dems PAC
Chakrabarti, the Director of Organizing Technology for Sanders, used his Silicon Valley expertise and his computer science degree from Harvard to devise software that helped galvanize turnout for the failed campaign. He’s an entrepreneur who boosted Stripe in its infancy; the digital payment company now has revenues of $95 million. He is listed as co-founder of a San Francisco-based company called Some Character, which has thus far launched a single web helper application called Mockingbird. And, he added another revenue stream when he took on the chief of staff job for Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, the freshly minted representative from New York’s district 14.
Chakrabarti sparked outrage from House Democrats recently when he tweeted the following about freshman legislator Sharice Davids, D-Kansas:
“I don’t think people have to be personally racist to enable a racist system. And the same could even be said of the Southern Democrats. I don’t believe Sharice is a racist person, but her votes are showing her to enable a racist system.”
The chief of staff had earlier tweeted that Davids was among a group of Democrats voting “as a block to criminalize immigrants.” That tweet was apparently removed. But House Democrats reposted it and hotly scolded Chakrabarti for his racist characterization.
The rebuke did not faze Chakrabarti, who claimed to be a “friend” of Davids and dismissed the reprimand from the Democratic caucus as “substance-less Twitter spats.” His provocative messaging began even earlier when he essentially compared Democrats to racists, writing:
“Instead of ‘fiscally conservative but socially liberal,’ let’s call the New Democrats and Blue Dog Caucus the ‘New Southern Democrats. They certainly seem hell bent to do to black and brown people today what the old Southern Democrats did the 40s.”
His racebaiting campaign coincided with accusations from Ocasio Cortez that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was marginalizing the so-called Justice Dems because they were women of color, strongly implying Pelosi was a racist.
The concerted nastiness made national news. Members of the Democratic House including reps from the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Progressive Caucus, Blue Dogs and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus all rebutted Chakrabarti and Ocasio Cortez and their allegations of discrimination. Pelosi held a private meeting with House Democrats, and afterward announced that she would no longer discuss the issue. Said Pelosi: “How they’re interpreting and carrying it to another place is up to them, but I’m not going to be discussing it any further.”
Exley, who is 50, carries a few pounds of baggage from his pre-Sanders days including accusations of vote rigging while Organizing Director at MoveOn.org in 2003. Before that, he tangled with CNN and candidate G.W. Bush over parody websites with the news organization prevailing in a lawsuit and Bush labeling Exley a “garbage man.” Exley, who got his start as a computer programmer, also worked on the presidential campaigns of Howard Dean and John Kerry, and in 2005, reportedly jumped the pond to help the Labour Party as its internet guru. His other stints included fundraising for Wikimedia and a software consultancy post with Thoughtworks. By the time he signed on with the Sanders’crowd, Exley had the kind of demonstrable experience desired and he landed a spot in the digital arm of the campaign.
Uygar, born in Turkey and educated at Columbia Law School, was kicked out of the JDs for his history of misogynistic, anti-choice and racist writings and utterances.
The Young Turks (TYT), broadcasting out of Culver City CA, originated as Uygar’s radio show before developing into its YouTube persona in 2005. Now in its 16th season, the full left show features news commentary with an anti-establishment bent.
In addition to its many spin-offs, TYT is a proven money-raiser, and Uygar worked his sources with all the vigor of a capitalist with an inside lane to corporate financiers. He pulled in $4 million from a private equity firm led by former GOP Louisiana Governor Buddy Roehmer (2014), followed by $2 million from crowdfunding (2016). In 2017, the progressive channel hauled in $20 million from a coalition of venture capitalist firms, proving that its money and its mouth are fractured. You can’t get money out of politics if that same money is financing your bullhorn.
Kulinski left the JDs in solidarity with Uygar, a practical move since the TYT network hosts his show. Secular Talk is purportedly about Kulinski’s argument for atheism but it winds itself around any topic occupying space in the moderator’s mind. On Twitter, he attacks the “DC elites,” Joe Biden, “corporate media,” Liz Cheney, Nancy Pelosi, Donald Trump, Beto O’Rourke, “Establishment Democrats,” John Hickenlooper, Pete Buttigieg and Marianne Williamson among others. He finds no wrong with any individual praising the Justice Democrats. He’s a staunch Sanders bro and livid Hillary hater who bills himself as a civil libertarian and Social Democrat but is a registered Democrat in NY State. More than anything, he sounds like part of an attack dog tag team, someone who knows how to get a lot of mileage out of his mouth.
In March 2019, Alexandra Rojas and Demond Drummer replaced Ocasio-Cortez and Chakrabarti on the Justice Democrats’ board.
Rojas is a salaried staff person with the PAC and has been since its inception. She is listed as the Treasurer on its FEC filings for the 2018 cycle. Rojas is a former campaigner for Bernie Sanders, and is now the Justice Democrats PAC’s executive director.
Drummer was a Field Organizer for Obama’s 2008 campaign with a history of community activism in Chicago. His influence is felt in a number of organizations, where he is the founder or co-founder, including New Consensus and CoderSpace. Drummer is credited as being the brains behind the Green New Deal resolution.
As of this date, two of the original founders and two of its original governors have left the Justice Democrats PAC under pressure.