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Sweet Column: Catching up with Blair Hull.

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SUN VALLEY, Idaho -- Blair Hull is keeping a hand in politics, though at a vastly scaled-down level from his days as a $29 million self-funded Senate candidate and a mega-donor to Illinois candidates.

With other wealthy contributors, Hull is now part of an innovative group focusing on ways to invest money to create social and political change rather than just writing big checks to groups.


Hull, who lost the 2004 Illinois Senate Democratic primary to Sen. Barack Obama -- at one point he was the front-runner -- lives in Sun Valley most of the time now. He still keeps a home in Chicago, where his firm is based, and commutes back about once a month.

I traveled to Sun Valley for a journalism conference and phoned Hull when I arrived last Thursday, curious about what he was up to politically. Before Hull had a chance to return the call, I ran into him as I ambled along the main street of Ketchum, the city adjacent to the famous ski resort. On Sunday we talked.

In the run-up to his 2004 Senate bid, Hull was a major benefactor to Illinois candidates, political committees and causes. He was one of Gov. Blagojevich's major donors for his 2002 race for governor.

For Blagojevich's 2002 race, Hull contributed $466,061; his former wife, Brenda Sexton, ended up appointed in charge of luring movies to Illinois as the chief of the Illinois Film Office.

For the governor's November re-election campaign, Hull told me he has not contributed a dime. "Not involved," he said. Why? "He hasn't called me."

What I was most interested in is a fairly new and innovative group Hull is a part of called the Democracy Alliance. It is an association of about 100 affluent contributors -- George Soros is one of them -- and it may emerge as a new model for political giving.

The Democratic-leaning alliance has been around for two years, flying under the radar until this summer when it began to attract media attention, in part because its operations do not have to be publically disclosed. The Democracy Alliance is a rare, possibly unique entity in politics -- it is a taxable not-for-profit.

Hull became a "partner" this year. That means he has pledged to donate or invest -- yes, invest in the capitalist sense -- $1 million over five years to entities recommended by the alliance.

"It is a little bit like a venture capital firm would help investors decide on what projects they would invest in," Hull said. The alliance researches ventures -- and puts projects that pass vetting on "our approved list."

What is different about this group is that it is interested in the private, for-profit political world. For example, an alliance-recommended investment is with a commercial data marketing firm, presumably yielding information of use to progressive candidates. The group also vets more traditional nonprofit 501c3s or the pure political players, organized as 527s. (The numbers are political shorthand for how they are categorized by the IRS.)

(On the Democratic side, the 2006 midterm election is notable -- so far -- by the absence of individual donors and unions pouring millions of dollars into organizations such as the Soros-supported America Coming Together and The Media Fund.)

The Democracy Alliance has a focus on four areas: civic participation, leadership, media and think tanks. Passing the vetting process is the Center for American Progress, the think tank led by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta; a possible investment in Air America, the privately held liberal talk radio network, and Media Matters for America, a watchdog for what it considers an anti-liberal, pro-conservative bias in information outlets.

The point is to "come up with the good ideas that will move us ahead," Hull said. The "great hope" is to figure out how in the political context -- and this is difficult, Hull said -- to analyze the for-profit enterprises. This type of process, Hull said, could lead to another dimension, more socially responsible investing.

"In terms of society in general, I think that we can control, have an influence on CEO behavior," with investment in stock dependent, said Hull, on how CEOs "behave toward the entire community and toward the environment."


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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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