Cory Booker Isn’t Yet Running for President. But a Supporter is Launching a Super PAC to Back Him.

By Shane Goldmacher and Kenneth P. Vogel

THE NEW YORK TIMES

Dec. 20, 2018

A prominent Democratic donor is planning to raise $10 million for a super PAC to boost Senator Cory Booker’s anticipated presidential campaign. The issue of big money is likely to be a flash point among Democrats in 2020.

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A prominent donor plans to raise $10 million in the coming months for a new super PAC to boost Senator Cory Booker’s expected presidential campaign — marking the first infusion of big money into the Democratic primary and setting the stage for a reckoning within the party over the role of super PACs.

Steve Phillips, an influential San Francisco-based Democratic donor and activist, said he would formally file paperwork on Thursday to create the pro-Booker super PAC, Dream United. Mr. Booker, who represents New Jersey, has yet to announce whether he is running, let alone whether he would welcome super PAC support.

A first well-funded super PAC of 2020 could aid Mr. Booker in amplifying his message in what is expected to be a historically crowded field, and it speaks to the depth of his support from potential financiers. But such support could also backfire as the grass-roots base of the party is increasingly calling to curtail the political influence of the wealthy.

Mr. Phillips said he had already collected $4 million in commitments. And he suggested he would continue collecting money regardless of whether Mr. Booker wanted his support.

“This is actually bigger than Cory,” Mr. Phillips, a civil rights lawyer, said in an interview. “And so those of us who are enthusiastic about what he brings and what he offers the country will continue to work to try to have him become our next president and replace the current president.”

Jeff Giertz, a spokesman for Mr. Booker, said Mr. Booker “continues to weigh” a run and that “any effort to draft him into the race is outside of his control and will not affect his decision.”

He added: “There has been no activity on his part or that of his team to organize or endorse the creation of a super PAC.”

Whether or not to bless, accept or denounce the support of billionaire and multimillionaire-funded super PACs is expected to be a flash point in the Democratic race.

Senator Bernie Sanders’s renouncement of super PAC assistance was a centerpiece of his 2016 campaign — Saturday Night Live spoofed his berating of the groups — and others are likely to take a similar stance in 2020, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, according to people familiar with her thinking.

Other candidates are more likely to have super PACs. An effort to draft Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio into the race would likely become a pro-Brown super PAC, if he runs. And talks have occurred about a potential super PAC that would be run by former advisers to Senator Kamala Harris of California — her team has said they have no plans to encourage or support the formation of one.

Super PACs are appealing because direct donations to presidential primary campaigns are subject to strict limits ($2,700 in 2016). But no limits exist on the amount that can be contributed to super PACs. As a result, critics say such groups distort the democratic process by giving major donors too much sway.

Mr. Phillips said his PAC will focus initially on increasing turnout among minorities and liberal white voters in Southern states, with a particular focus on South Carolina, which will host the first nominating contest in a state with a significant African-American population. His super PAC would skip the first two nominating contests — in the overwhelmingly white states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Mr. Phillips, who is African-American, is experienced in mounting early independent spending campaigns in Democratic primaries.

He used a similar strategy on behalf of then-Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign ahead of the South Carolina primary in 2008, despite receiving a letter from Mr. Obama’s campaign asking him to “discontinue without further delay.”

Mr. Phillips’s groups spent $11 million helping Mr. Obama’s successful 2008 campaign, even as the future president never embraced his efforts.

“What we did in ’08 is likely what we’ll do this time around,” Mr. Phillips said.

Mr. Phillips compared Mr. Booker to former President Obama, saying both have “the ability to inspire people across the economic spectrum.” He said he hoped that his new PAC “will be as synergistic as possible” with a Booker campaign.

Mr. Booker has not yet even formed a formal presidential exploratory committee, though he has flirted with running and said he would consider it over the coming holidays. He has traveled extensively in 2018, visiting two dozen states including Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Mr. Phillips said he knew people who interviewed for Booker campaign jobs.

The decision to side with Mr. Booker so early is notable given that Mr. Phillips also has been supportive of Ms. Harris, who is also seen as a likely candidate in 2020. An independent campaign tied to Mr. Phillips spent nearly $400,000 boosting Ms. Harris’s 2010 bid for California attorney general, state records show.

Mr. Phillips named two early donors supportive of his pro-Booker 2020 effort: his wife Susan Sandler, a philanthropist who is the daughter of the billionaire Democratic donor, Herb Sandler, and Dr. Gary Michelson, a billionaire philanthropist and surgeon in Los Angeles.

By announcing first, Mr. Phillips appears to be trying to corner the market on having the main pro-Booker super PAC.

“It’s more efficient for the donor world for there to be one point of contact so we’re setting up to play that role,” he said.

Asked about concerns among some Democrats that a super PAC could backfire, Mr. Phillips said, “I don’t think it’s going to be a detriment in South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Mississippi and Alabama,” states where he could be involved.

In 2018, other super PACs affiliated with Mr. Phillips spent more than $2 million on Mike Espy in his failed bid for Senate in Mississippi and millions more for Stacey Abrams in her losing bid for Georgia governor.

In addition to his political activities, Mr. Phillips is the author of “Brown Is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority.” In April, he sat down with Mr. Booker for a 75-minute live conversation that included discussing the political coalitions needed for presidential campaigns.

“Not enough people read it,” Mr. Booker said of Mr. Phillips’s book. “I appreciated your championing of it,” Mr. Phillips replied.

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