A group of Indivisible protestors at the climate march in D.C. (Courtesy of Indivisible)
The Indivisible Guide has become a 26-page must-read for people looking to oppose President Trump’s agenda. The guide -- which has been viewed or downloaded more than 2 million times, according to the organization -- also offers a supplemental section on how to demand copies of Trump’s tax returns.
“Is Trump colluding with Russia or enriching himself off the presidency? ... Until we see Trump’s tax returns, we cannot be certain that foreign governments don’t have leverage over Trump that can be used to influence American policy,” says the supplement.
Yet this progressive political organization -- which is founded and staffed by former congressional staffers -- has not disclosed where its money is coming from.
The California Report requested financial statements and donor lists for the group. Indivisible spokespeople told us they’ve raised more than $2.2 million from 30,000 individual donations since they started accepting donations in January, including "some foundation money and dollars from high net worth individuals.” They declined repeated requests to name any of these individuals.
Nonprofit organizations often cite privacy concerns as a reason to not disclose their donor lists, and Indivisible says it is no different. Angel Padilla, a former Democratic congressional staffer and one of the founders of Indivisible, said those privacy concerns are the only thing stopping Indivisible from releasing the names of its donors.
Sarah Bryner, research director for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit that tracks money in politics, said Indivisible has no legal obligation to disclose its donors if it doesn’t run election ads supporting or opposing a particular candidate. Indivisible hasn’t done that yet, but it is set up as a 501(c)(4), a designation that allows the organization to engage in political activity, so long as that is not its primary activity.
“If they’re trying to influence election outcomes, we feel like people should know about who’s funding those efforts,” said Bryner. “But there’s also the question of privacy for donors, and if they’re not spending money in such a way that they would be influencing those election outcomes, then generally people defer towards protecting that privacy.”
The Origin Story
On election night, Padilla, one of the group's founders, was hanging out with friends and other former congressional staffers, expecting to watch the first female president get elected.
“Watching the forecasting flip throughout the course of the night was a traumatic experience,” said Padilla.
In the following days, as Trump’s victory began to set in, and progressives in California and across the country started planning their resistance, Padilla and his friends realized they could play a unique role.
“We, as former staffers, realized that we’ve kind of been through this before but on the flip side,” he said. “We were on the Hill when Obama was first elected, when Congress was controlled by Democrats, and we saw how organized local activism was able to slow down much of the Obama agenda.”
These staffers had seen the rise and success of the Tea Party and thought they could use those tactics — local activism and defensive politics — to accomplish the same thing, but on the other end of the political spectrum. The goal: stymie Trump and take back Congress.
They put together a public Google document with insider tips for influencing members of Congress, which eventually morphed into the 26-page Indivisible Guide and ultimately the fully fledged nonprofit organization helping local groups organize against the Trump presidency.
“Like us, you probably deeply disagree with the principles and positions of the Tea Party,” the founders wrote in their guide. “But we can all learn from their success in influencing the national debate and the behavior of national policymakers.”
Tea Party of the Left
As the Tea Party gained power and national recognition, many started asking who was funding what appeared to be a grass-roots movement. Multiple media organizations dug into the group's finances and reported that Americans for Prosperity — a conservative political advocacy group founded by billionaire Republican mega-donors David and Charles Koch — had been working with and supporting the Tea Party from its inception.
So what about Indivisible? Who are they getting their money from?
Last month, the group published its fundraising philosophy, which is centered on four guiding principles: a focus on small donations; diversified funding sources; only accepting funds from “those who support and uphold our progressive values;” and making fundraising the secondary focus to supporting local chapters.
“We won't take money from an organization that we don't think is a progressive organization,” said Padilla. “If there are things they might be involved in that we disagree with, we won't take their money.”
The group also says it won’t take money from political parties, leaders or candidates to “avoid any appearance of influence on our strategy,” said Padilla. That includes Hillary Clinton, who sent an email to her supporters last month announcing the formation of her new political group and naming Indivisible, among other groups, as an organization it planned to financially support.
Padilla said Indivisible was thankful to be recognized by Clinton, but would not be accepting donations from Clinton’s group or asking for donor lists from her, the Democratic Party or other elected officials.
“We didn't want it to seem like we were getting money directly from Hillary Clinton,” he said. “We wanted to make sure to everyone that we are maintaining our independence.”
Independent or Institution?
But the Tea Party, the group that Indivisible hopes to emulate, doesn’t buy the talk of independence.
“You didn't see Karl Rove or John Boehner or Mitch McConnell embrace the Tea Party like you're seeing Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and the Democratic Party [embrace Indivisible],” said Taylor Budowich, executive director of the Tea Party Express, one of the most successful national Tea Party organizations. “If there was some sincere organic nature to [Indivisible], it's been from day one co-opted by the major Democratic and left institutions.”
Budowich finds the talk of Indivisible being the “Tea Party of the left” and copying his group’s tactics silly, he said. It was his group’s message — lower taxes and less government regulation — that resonated with voters and got them engaged, according to Budowich, as opposed to any specific tactics.
He is open, though, to the possibility that Indivisible could succeed like the Tea Party has and said it's doing a good job of knocking on doors, protesting town halls and raising money. But he argues its ties to the Democratic Party establishment make it fundamentally different from the Tea Party.
“We control literally every branch of government, and we've redefined what the Republican Party is,” said Budowich, of the Tea Party. “So, in many ways, this grass-roots movement has co-opted an institution. That can't happen with this movement on the left, because it's already the same thing.”
The Next Step in a Strategy
Indivisible founder Padilla said their group is in a stronger position now than the Tea Party was at this point eight years ago, citing better-than-expected results for Democratic challengers in special elections to fill seats in traditionally Republican congressional districts.
But Budowich pointed out that Democrats have failed to win any of those seats, while Tea Party-supported Republican Scott Brown surprised many by winning the open U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts in 2010.
To achieve a similar victory, Indivisible would likely have to continue its imitation of the Tea Party by endorsing candidates for office — which brings it back to the question of political funding.
“Right now, it seems like we’re talking mostly about a grass-roots organization that hasn’t started doing that kind of electioneering yet,” said Bryner, of the Center for Responsive Politics. “If they were to do that, then yes, that [donor] information would need to become public.”
Indivisible is currently formulating an electoral strategy that it hopes will replicate the Tea Party’s success in getting like-minded candidates into office. The group hired Maria Urbina, who used to work for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, to be its political director and create a plan.
That strategy — and how far Indivisible chooses to step into the electoral arena — will ultimately determine how much financial information needs to be made public.