This is one of a series. See the introductory story for links to the set — Ed.
On Oct. 21st, the Wyoming Republican party filed the first of two complaints with the Secretary of State, alleging that a small political consulting agency called ELLA WY, LLC had violated campaign law and engaged in illegal campaigning on behalf of select democratic candidates.
ELLA WY was begun in 2013, and first engaged in politics during the 2014 election cycle. Bob Kubichek, the original director, left this year to work in the Utah gubernatorial race. Before ELLA WY, Kubichek, who grew up in Casper, was the statewide director for the Obama for America campaign during the President’s 2012 reelection campaign. His replacement, Chris Bell was an intern for that campaign, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Those resume lines were perhaps fodder for language in the Republican party press release, which referred to “Obama operatives” bringing D.C.-style politics to Wyoming.
“Wyoming Democrats are now hiding behind a Washington D.C. style dark money smear campaign directly out of the Obama playbook,” Republican Chair Matt Micheli said in the press release.
In ELLA’s tiny office on Laramie’s North 4th Street, young, digital-savvy data whizzes have been working to give Wyoming Democrats an edge in a state where election to the legislature for members of that party has been an uphill climb for years.
The consulting agency, and a non-profit organization the Republican party has accused them of colluding with to swing elections, both have roots with Liz Storer, a wealthy progressive who runs her family’s George B. Storer Foundation out of Jackson Hole. The Storer Foundation is also a major donor to WyoFile.
In an interview, Bell, a recent University of Wyoming graduate who grew up in Casper, said the company is focused on providing consulting for grassroots and political organizing. They help organizations get off the ground, reach a broader audience and craft their message.
ELLA’s sparse website states it more simply: “We are in the business of making big ideas into kickass realities.”
In 2016, primary filings show seven candidates, all of them Democrats, have paid ELLA consulting fees.
The first Republican complaint stated that an organization called Women Lead Wyoming sent mailers attacking the Republican opponents of ELLA WY’s political candidate clients. The mailers cited past votes and statements related to the gender wage gap.
“What does Bill Henderson say about equal pay for equal work? Absolutely nothing. Don’t send another guy to the legislature who just doesn’t get it,” said one ad, before encouraging voters to choose Amy Simpson for House District 41 in Cheyenne. Amy Simpson’s public filings reported $4,000 in expenses she paid to ELLA for consulting services during the primary campaign.
The second complaint, filed four days after the first, alleged that a second organization, the Wyoming Hunters and Anglers Alliance, had followed the same playbook. These mailers dealt with public lands and the fact that some Republican candidates have suggested or declared they would be better off under state control.
Both groups, Women Lead Wyoming and Wyoming Hunters and Anglers Alliance, are projects of a nonprofit called Forward Wyoming Advocacy, which was begun with a grant from the Storer Foundation.
Forward Wyoming Advocacy is registered as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit. After the Citizens United ruling, a case in lower courts used the case to make it legal for 501(c)(4)s, or “social welfare” organizations, to release election-related issue ads like the above, as long as they do not coordinate with a candidate in doing so. The 501(c)(4) method of spreading money into political campaigns is that used most famously by the conservative Koch brothers, billionaires who spend widely in both local and national politics.
This fact was not lost on the Wyoming Democratic Party, who issued a statement after the second complaint, accusing the Republicans of “acting like crybabies while Wyoming’s progressives give them a taste of their Citizen’s United medicine.”
Until October 14th, ELLA and Forward Wyoming Advocacy operated out of the same small office in Laramie, the Wyoming Republican Party alleged. One Democratic candidate and client of ELLA, the lawyer Charles Pelkey, is the registered legal agent for both Forward Wyoming Advocacy and Wyoming Hunters and Anglers Alliance. The Republican party is arguing that both those facts are evidence that the 501(c)(4) violated the no-coordination rule. Essentially, the GOP argued that Forward Wyoming Advocacy must be coordinating with the campaigns for which ELLA has been consulting.
ELLA and Forward Wyoming Advocacy both released letters to the Secretary of State’s office to counter the first complaint. The groups argue that the only cooperation between ELLA and the non-profits was through a contractual agreement for consulting services. Part of ELLA’s business is helping advocacy groups organize, which is the role they were playing with Forward Wyoming Advocacy, according to the letters.
ELLA provided data services and other consulting to both Forward Wyoming Advocacy and the Democratic candidates, Bell wrote in his letter. However, Bell wrote, the organizations had instilled procedural safeguards into the arrangement to ensure there was no consultation between the candidates and the 501(c)(4). Forward Wyoming Advocacy had opened a separate office in June, he wrote, before they began spending money on campaigns.
In his interview with WyoFile, Bell said that for now they are not releasing any further information to the public. The Attorney General’s Office is reviewing the first complaint, and the Secretary of State the second.
An elite data force
What ELLA does bring to Wyoming politics, beyond a doubt, is a new level of campaign sophistication. The data ELLA has compiled on voters, which Forward Wyoming Advocacy has access to by virtue of its contract with the agency, is a continuously refined database.
Voter registration data is available to the public, but in a very unrefined form. Bell said the level of data they’re able to provide clients is previously unseen in Wyoming politics and grassroots organizing efforts. That, he said, is “the gem that makes ELLA, ELLA.”
One candidate contracted with ELLA, Dan Neal in Casper, said the real value in ELLA’s consulting is the edge it gives him in door to door campaigning. In local legislative races, “my belief is that at this level the campaigns really are about the doors and being able to make personal contact with voters,” he said. Data from ELLA allows him to maximize his time and avoid knocking on the doors of voters he is not likely to sway. Such targeted lists of voters have, of course, long been standard in well-funded campaigns for national office in key states.
“I like working with ELLA. They’re young, they’re energetic. They’re committed. They value many of the things that I value about Wyoming. They believe that public lands should stay in public hands, they think we should expand Medicaid and they’ve provided great data services,” Neal said.
Though it’s registered as a business, ELLA won’t work with any customer who walks through the door.
“We work with candidates who are willing to work hard and who we believe would generally bring good leadership to the state,” Bell said. “To us that means thoughtful, engaged and pragmatic.”
The issues he stated as important to ELLA did align with the values laid out by Neal. In general, Bell said, ELLA is in favor of public lands, affordable access to high quality healthcare, an improved working wage, better primary education and increased tolerance in the state.
However Bell and his team, which he said consists mostly of young, part-time employees, are motivated to support causes that look past ideological lines and do what’s best for Wyoming. That means they’d engage in some Republican primaries and work with a Republican candidate who perhaps did not align wholly on progressive issues. They just haven’t had a good opportunity to do that yet.
ELLA WY, LLC brings more sophisticated campaigning to Wyoming’s progressive side of politics. Meanwhile progressive advocates linked to the consulting firm by ideology, if not legal structure, are using Koch brothers’ style tactics to ensure the candidates and causes they prefer have a fighting chance at seizing some seats in the legislature. Whether through her family’s foundation or on her own time, a wealthy scion with a progressive ideology is behind both groups.
Both ELLA WY and Forward Wyoming Advocacy found their seed money through Liz Storer, president of the George B. Storer Foundation begun by her grandfather, a radio and broadcast television mogul. The Storer Foundation has made grants to Wyoming and national nonprofits for over thirty years. Major recipients of the foundation’s grants include WyoFile and, according to the foundation website, the National Audubon Society, the Yellowstone Park Foundation, the Teton Science Schools, and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
The Storer Foundation provided a grant to Bob Kubichek, ELLA’s founder, to research the potential for developing more professionalized advocacy organizations in Wyoming. Elizabeth Storer wanted to see better engagement from progressive programs, she explained in an interview.
At the same time, she felt progressive political candidates also needed an edge. Amongst progressive donors, Storer said, “there was a lot of frustration that if you just gave money to candidates in the democratic party, it didn’t translate to wins.”
ELLA was born as a consulting agency that could fulfill both these needs, by applying the same strategies to progressive political campaigns and progressive advocacy. Storer said she is one of a number of people who invested seed money in ELLA. As a private company, the names of other funders, and the amounts they put up, is not public record.
The Storer Foundation cannot fund partisan activities, and Elizabeth Storer participates in ELLA, both as an investor and as an adviser, on her own time, she said.
In 2015, however, ELLA helped the Storer Foundation establish a new 501(c)(3) non-profit (which can not engage in electioneering), called Forward Wyoming. In early 2016, Forward Wyoming Advocacy was formed as a separate 501(c)(4), with an additional grant from the Storer foundation. Forward Wyoming Advocacy’s offshoot political projects were legal from the foundation’s perspective because the projects did their own fundraising, and expenditure oversight ensured the Storer Foundation grant never went to electioneering, Storer told WyoFile. As a 501(c)(4), Forward Wyoming Advocacy does not have to disclose where the donations that paid for mailings by Women Lead Wyoming and Wyoming Hunters and Anglers Alliance came from. Hence the term “dark money,” which is often applied to political spending by 501(c)(4)s.
Storer believes that Wyoming is lacking on both the 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) front for progressive causes, and that there has been a gap in terms of lawmaker accountability and electioneering from the liberal side.
“Obviously,” she wrote in a separate statement to WyoFile, “there are a lot of ways to build ‘political infrastructure’: some groups, like the Wyoming Liberty Group and Republic Free Choice, emphasize a think tank and lobbying approach.”
The Wyoming Liberty Group and Republic Free Choice (now defunct) are, in an ideological sense, the opposite of ELLA and Forward Wyoming Advocacy. Funded largely by Susan Gore, libertarian-minded heir to the Gore-tex fortune, Wyoming Liberty Group prepares position papers, holds caucuses for conservative lawmakers and watchdogs their voting records.
Storer’s statement continued, elaborating on the difference: “ELLA and Forward Wyoming Advocacy emphasize grassroots organizing and voter education.”
In the interview, Storer put it more succinctly: “Shouldn’t we try to level the playing field?”
CORRECTION: This story was updated on Nov. 1, 2016, so that the statement regarding ELLA WY and Forward Wyoming Advocacy operating out of the same office in Laramie through October is properly attributed, to the complaint by the Republican party. ELLA and Forward Wyoming Advocacy, as noted in the original story, have said that arrangement stopped in June. Elsewhere in the story, language has been changed to distinguish more clearly between Forward Wyoming, Forward Wyoming Advocacy, and the Storer Foundation. -Ed.