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Herb Sandler and son-in-law back Democrats

By Laurie Bennett

January 30, 2008 at 9:15am

Two California groups, Vote Hope and PowerPac.org, are drawing national attention, and boisterous complaints from opponents, for their support of Barack Obama’s run for the presidency.

Both are operating outside the Obama campaign as 527 organizations, taking advantage of tax-code provisions that exempt them from federal spending limits. And both were founded by Steve Phillips, former president of the San Francisco School Board and son-in-law of billionaire banker Herb Sandler.

Sandler is one of the lucky ones who cashed out before the mortgage crisis. Wachovia bought Sandler’s company, Golden West Financial, for $25.5 billion in October 2006. Forbes estimated his personal worth that year at $1.2 billion.

Like his son-in-law, Sandler is an active contributor to Democratic causes. He gave $2.5 million to Moveon.org in 2004, and has contributed more than $100,000 to the Democratic Senate and congressional committees in recent years.

He is also a backer of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank headed by John Podesta, Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff.

The Sandler Family Supporting Foundation has supported medical research, with an emphasis on asthma. It also pledged $15 million to Human Rights Watch in 2005.

Sandler also founded a nonprofit journalism organization called ProPublica, which promises to produce “truly important stories with moral force.” ProPublica, based in Manhattan, is run by former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger.

Slate’s media writer, Jack Shafer, has cast a cynical eye on the venture, suggesting that most self-made billionaires don’t give away pots of money without expecting some control over the results.

“If I were an editorial writer,” Shafer wrote in October, “I’d call upon Herbert Sandler to provide ProPublica with 10 years of funding ($100 million), and then resign from his post as the organization’s chairman so he’ll never be tempted to bollix up what might turn out to be a good thing.”

Vote Hope and PowerPac.org, meanwhile, are definitely partisan. PowerPac is running TV spots in California, where it is hiring organizers to get out the vote for the Feb. 5 primary. Phillips has said that he hopes to raise $2 million for Vote Hope.

The Obama campaign on Friday released a letter sent to Phillips on Dec. 28, urging that Vote Hope be disbanded. Phillips declined.

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