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Shadow Warriors

Once Ickes, Malcolm, and Rosenthal had a plan, they needed money. Lots of it. That’s when George Soros called. Since the Iraq war, Soros has acquired a missionary zeal about ousting Bush that he calls “the central focus of my life” and nothing less than “a matter of life and death.” Last July, Soros held a confab of liberal activists at his summer home in Southampton, at which he pledged $10 million to act. (Soros has also given millions to MoveOn.) “Getting Soros onboard early was huge,” says one Democratic strategist. He also personally reeled in other donors, including his friend Peter Lewis, who owns the Progressive Corporation and who has given over $3 million. Along with the torrent of money flooding in from wealthy Democrats, so came a host of tricky ethical questions. After all, it was Democrats who had fought for campaign-finance reform and who most often decry the role of big money in politics. But goo-goo reformers in Washington said that Democrats were perverting the spirit of the law and encouraging deeper public cynicism about the political system. The law’s biggest champion, Senator John McCain, flatly stated that what Democrats were doing was “not legal.” Longtime reform activist Fred Wertheimer says groups like ACT and the Media Fund should have to abide by the same restrictions as political-action committees, which can’t accept contributions larger than $5,000. “They make very clear that their essential purpose is to defeat President Bush,” Wertheimer says.

But Democrats stress one essential point: McCain’s campaign-finance law never aspired to banish big money from politics. Rather, its signature achievement was to break the link between elected officials and money, so that officeholders would no longer be—or at least seem to be—prostitutes for their richest donors. For a time, no one banged the ethical drum louder than Republicans. Earlier this year, the GOP began calling the Democratic effort nothing short of “an unprecedented criminal enterprise” and an “illegal conspiracy of donors and shadowy groups.” In March, the Republican National Committee and the Bush-Cheney campaign asked the Federal Election Commission to effectively shut down the Democratic 527 machine. This was a miscalculation. Last month, the FEC announced it wouldn’t take any action against 527s this year, forcing the GOP to hastily—and rather hypocritically—kick-start its own 527 network.

While John Kerry has raised money at a blazing clip in the city, he still hasn’t lit a fire under many Democrats, including some who supported Howard Dean in the primaries. And some of them are turning to the 527s instead. “There’s a lot of people who don’t necessarily want to support Kerry directly. They’re not sure where he is on things. But they want to contribute to the effort to beat Bush,” says one veteran New York Democratic fund-raiser.

Unlike the gala dinners typically thrown by presidential campaigns, the 527s have raised much of their money through small, private meetings with big-dollar donors. “Most of this is about personal connection,” Ickes explains. Soros has helped make some of those connections. Last fall, for instance, he invited the Manhattan chemical magnate Agnes Varis—a self-described “Democratic fairy godmother”—to a small dinner at his Fifth Avenue apartment to hear a pitch from Ickes, Malcolm, and Rosenthal. The 74-year-old Varis seems to have swooned over the blunt-talking Ickes. “He’s better than chocolate ice cream!” she exclaims. “You can’t make him blink too often. He’s pretty straightforward. Whatever he believes, he says what it is.” Varis wound up giving more than $1 million.

In New York, the 527s are in some ways more glamorous than the Kerry campaign has been so far. In February, the groups held an event at the Society for Ethical Culture that drew 500 people, including such stalwarts as Al Franken, Michael Moore, Meryl Streep, Karenna Gore Schiff, Diane Von Furstenberg, Harvey Weinstein, Graydon Carter, Tina Brown, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, and Russell Simmons.

A small number of major givers has led the charge. At the front of the pack is labor leader Dennis Rivera’s Service Employees International Union, Local 1199, which has donated $1.5 million. (The union has already sent 150 workers into swing states, where they’re working full-time for ACT.) There are some usual big Democratic donors, like the philanthropist Lewis Cullman, who has given ACT half a million dollars, and Rockefeller heiress Alida Messinger, who’s given $250,000. Loral Space & Communications chairman Bernard Schwartz has pitched in $200,000.

Others who have given five-figure donations to ACT, the Media Fund, or both include Kevin Bacon, construction mogul John Tishman, investor Debra Efroymson, MTV CEO Tom Freston, Jann Wenner, TriBeCa Productions partner Jane Rosenthal, and retired media mogul William Sarnoff. Smaller amounts have come in from media figures like Oxygen Media CEO Geraldine Laybourne, Jonathan Demme, and Nora Ephron.

But it’s not just the rich and famous who are getting into the act. Even as Ickes and company hit up big donors, sui generis efforts—like a recent wave of Brooklyn house parties for act—are spreading, Dean-campaign style, among ordinary Bush-loathing New Yorkers wanting to get involved. “It’s hard to live in New York—we’re not where the action’s happening,” says Marcia Ely, an at-home mom in Park Slope who co-hosted a fund-raiser for act. “We live in a very liberal neighborhood. There’s no point in doing a lot of pounding the pavement around here—it’s just preaching to the converted. The question on everyone else’s mind is, how can you do something where it’s going to count?”

Thanks to efforts like these, Harold Ickes has already forestalled one Democratic nightmare. “The assumption was that the Democratic nominee would be broke and absolutely silent and Bush would have TV to himself” in the early months of the campaign, says Jim Jordan, Kerry’s former campaign manager. But that didn’t happen. Thanks to deep Democratic pockets, the Media Fund has aired more than $20 million in swing-state advertising. “If these groups didn’t exist, you can assume Kerry would be five points down in the polls from wherever he is now,” says Wolfson.

“I bet [Bush] has spent close to $70 million” in advertising, Ickes says, “and he hasn’t moved one percentage point.”

The Media Fund’s ads bear a Madison Avenue stamp. Ickes was asked by donors not to use the same cookie-cutter spots typical of political campaigns. So he signed up a group of admen led by C. J. Waldman, best known for his work for Heineken. Also on the team, which called itself the Campaign Farm, were Waldman’s partner Paul Olkowski; David Kessler, a former managing director of Hill, Holliday; and music producer Lyle Greenfield. “We try to do work that breaks through the clutter to get our clients’ message out,” says Waldman.

Whereas the Kerry campaign has so far taken a glossy, uplifting approach in its advertising, the Media Fund has played bad cop, bashing Bush’s policies with brass knuckles. One way of doing this was through a series of ads based on a tactic Waldman’s team calls “reveal”—hooking viewers by opening an ad with one concept and then twisting it in a surprise direction. For instance, one Media Fund ad opens with footage of belching factory smokestacks. “During the past four years, it’s true, George W. Bush has created more jobs,” a narrator explains. Then the camera zooms back, revealing factory walls covered in Chinese characters, as the narrator adds: “Unfortunately, they were in places like China.”

Slick as the ads are, they are most striking for how openly they root for Kerry. One ad, for instance, declares that “George Bush’s priorities are eroding the American Dream . . . It’s about hope, not fear . . . President Bush, remember the American Dream?” Another is essentially a multimedia Kerry press release: “Kerry’s economic plan? Roll back tax cuts for the wealthiest one percent, helping pay for a middle-class tax cut! . . . George Bush? He supported exporting jobs. And he raided Social Security to pay for a tax cut for millionaires!”

By now, the Campaign Farm’s work is mostly done. With Kerry’s own ad campaign cranked up, Ickes and his colleagues have begun to focus more on act’s ground efforts. “The goal was to provide some air cover” early in the campaign, Kessler says. “It reminded me of the scene in Saving Private Ryan, when they hit the beachhead and the shit’s flying. That’s what our job was—take the fucking beachhead, and [Kerry] will come in when he’s ready.”