Little-known Minneapolis philanthropist is big donor to Dem 527s

Categories: Politics

This year, the 11th largest contributor to the political advocacy groups known as 527s--with donations totalling $942,000--is a charitable trust in the name of philanthropist Alida Messinger, whose Federal Election Commission filings list three addresses, two of them in Minneapolis. A philanthropist with an unusually low profile, Messinger is the fourth child of John D. Rockefeller III, the sister of West Virginia Democratic Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, and the ex-wife of Minnesota's own Sen. Mark Dayton.

During the last presidential election, a kind of political advocacy organization known as the 527 committee came into its own. MoveOn and America Coming Together were the most visible examples of the 527s, which get their catchy name from the section of the U.S. tax code that enables their existence. The backstory of the committees' rise is a fascinating allegory on why trying to get big money out of politics is akin to trying to unscramble an egg; if you want to know more, feel free to step away from Blotter for a moment to read City Pages' July 2004 primer on this shady branch of the money trail.

The gist, for the purposes of this post: 527s gave Democratic candidates an unexpected boost because their rules--unlike the ones governing good old-fashioned campaign finance--allow unlimited donations from individuals. Individual Democrats have generally been thought to have more personal wealth than Republicans. And so back in the old days, aka the 1980s and '90s, limits on campaign spending by individuals worked to the advantage of GOP candidates, who tend to get their big money from businesses and other bundled-donations arrangements.

According to the campaign finance watchdog agency the Center for Responsive Politcs, Messinger's 527 contributions have gone to the League of Conservation Voters, the State Conservation Voters Fund, Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund, EMILY's List, America Votes 2006, Grassroots Democrats, and America Coming Together. Not too shabby, but also not nearly as much as the $3.6 million Messinger spent on 527s in '04.

To put that $4.6 million in perspective, Messinger's contributions to candidates and to party committees in the 2002, 2004, and so far in the 2006 cycles totals almost $700,000. Almost half a million of that went to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, and another $100,000 to PACs and other party committees. Individual candidates--Messinger gave to nearly 50 here and elsewhere--divvied up the puny $100,000 remainder.

Messinger has also spent on state politics, earning her the dubious label "Liberal ATM Machine With A Taste For Attack Politics" and her own webpage on a Minnesota Republican Party website dedicated to lambasting Attorney General and gubernatorial hopeful Mike Hatch.

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