Thursday, November 27, 2008

Obama brand has local roots

A liberal think tank helping to shape the incoming Obama administration's personnel and policy owes its existence in part to a pair of East Bay billionaire banking moguls.

Herb and Marion Sandler made their fortune by building Oakland-based Golden West Financial Corp. — parent company of World Savings Bank — into one of the nation's largest savings and loans, before selling it to Wachovia Bank two years ago for $24.2 billion.

But of all their investments, helping to launch the Center for American Progress in 2003 and helping to bankroll it since — in total, an estimated $20 million — could prove most far-reaching. Professor Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said the Sandlers must be pleased with the crop that has grown from their seed money.

"Why do you form a think tank like that? In order to influence the policy and personnel of your party's next administration, and obviously they've done that," he said. "It's obvious they've had an impact, and a major one. "... To have this many people associated with the organization being tapped in senior positions is impressive."

For example:

Center for American Progress president and CEO, former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, is now on leave, serving as one of three co-leaders of President-elect Barack Obama's transition team.

Former CAP Executive Vice President of Policy Melody Barnes, a Advertisementlongtime aide to U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., is one of three co-leaders of Obama's agency-review team, overseeing the incoming administration's department-by-department changes.

CAP distinguished senior fellow Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader from South Dakota, has been selected as Obama's secretary of health and human services.

The list goes on. And lest one think all Obama administration roads will run through CAP's H Street office only up until Inauguration Day, Podesta has ruled out taking any administration post himself — a sign that he hopes CAP will be the predominant policy clearinghouse that shapes this presidency's policies, much as the Heritage Foundation did for President Ronald Reagan, the Progressive Policy Institute did for President Bill Clinton and the American Enterprise Institute did for President George W. Bush.

The always-prolific center seems to have kicked into overdrive in recent weeks, producing an avalanche of white papers, conference calls and events on such topics as relations with Pakistan, protecting U.S. chemical facilities from terrorist attacks, and using energy efficiency investments to kick-start the sagging economy.

"Clearly the people who were interested in creating this kind of foundation were interested in having this kind of influence," said Jack Knott, dean of the University of Southern California's School of Planning, Policy and Development and an adviser to its Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy.

Knott said CAP denotes something new, in that most private foundations that have found significant funding and achieved success in helping frame an administration's personnel and policy have been politically conservative.

Democrats "have had party-based think tanks, but not as much this kind of independent think tank, and I think for them (CAP's benefactors), this is exactly what they were hoping for," he said.

Herb and Marion Sandler, 77 and 78, respectively, are among CAP's biggest benefactors; others reportedly include financier George Soros, insurance mogul Peter Lewis and real estate heir-movie mogul Steve Bing.

And CAP is but one of the Sandlers' progressive policy investments; they've also given significantly to the American Civil Liberties Union, MoveOn.org, America Votes, ACORN, the Rocky Mountain Institute, Human Rights Watch and many other organizations. They've supported such causes for a long time, but stepped up their philanthropy since selling Golden West in 2006 and dumping almost $1.3 billion into their San Francisco-based Sandler Family Supporting Foundation to dole out to their favorite causes.

But the Sandlers' specific interest in CAP has been clear; Marion Sandler remains one of its eight directors.

The Sandlers didn't answer a request for an interview for this article.

They've taken some heat in recent months, accused by some of irresponsibly offering the kind of adjustable-rate mortgages that have put so many homeowners in danger of foreclosure in the past two years; critics accused them of dumping this bad debt on Wachovia, which went belly-up and agreed to be sold to Wells Fargo in early October. The Sandlers have defended their business practices, contending their loans weren't made to borrowers with bad, "subprime" credit records and didn't drag down Wachovia.



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