Liberal Millionaires Say 'Tax Me!'
During a 2013 meeting with bankers at a rooftop restaurant in Athens, Morris Pearl thought he saw a parade on the street below. It turned out to be an unruly protest over the nation's dismal economy. "I remember thinking to myself, 'Are we really doing anything good for anyone other than the bankers?'," said Pearl.
Within a year, Pearl, 55, had resigned as a managing director of BlackRock Inc. to become chairman of Patriotic Millionaires, a coalition of wealthy American progressives demanding that their taxes be raised.
The group is mounting a two-year campaign, culminating in the 2016 presidential election, to advance three goals: increasing the minimum wage, raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and countering the influence of big (conservative) money in politics. "I think of political and economic inequality as twin cancers," Pearl said. "A tiny number of people are using their money to increase their political power and using their political power to increase their wealth, and it is killing the country."
Recognizing that they are no match for a conservative Republican Congress with very different priorities, Patriotic Millionaires is looking to bulk up. The group recently merged with Wealth for the Common Good, a group of about 5,000 liberals co-founded by Chuck Collins, an heir to the Oscar Mayer fortune.
In the next few months, Pearl said, he hopes at least to double the number of Patriotic Millionaires, which now stands at about 200. The recruitment drive got a jump-start after Pearl appeared on a February 26 "Daily Show" segment on income inequality. Most new members, whose ranks include bankers, entrepreneurs, technology executives and actors, are referred by an existing member. Walk-ins are vetted to ensure that they meet the criteria -- annual income of at least $1 million or assets of at least $5 million.
The group's message echoes the case that member Nick Hanauer has been making in print and television appearances in recent years: "Smart capitalists" know that good wages help the economy.
In late spring, Patriotic Millionaires plans to spend several million dollars on Internet and television advertising calling for a national increase in the minimum wage. It will feature the founders of companies such as Ask.Com, Men's Warehouse and Ben & Jerry's.
The millionaires also plan a lobbying campaign in Washington along with outreach to civic and business leaders. Pearl expects a protracted struggle to change the political landscape in Washington. "We recognize we aren't making a lot of progress with this Supreme Court and the current Congress, but we're still keeping up the fight and moving it in the right direction," he said. "We're in this for the long game."
Patriotic Millionaires was founded in 2010 by Erica Payne, the group's chief strategist, former Google engineer David desJardins and California attorney Guy Saperstein after they had circulated a letter to friends calling for repeal of tax cuts for the wealthy. Within two days, 41 millionaires had responded. (They partly got their wish in January 2013 when federal tax rates rose for top earners after the resolution of the fiscal cliff standoff.)
Labor unions recognize the millionaires as allies. "They really undercut the notion that somehow the wealthy contributing their fair share to the country is a divisive issue," said Damon Silvers, policy director for the AFL-CIO. "The Patriotic Millionaires I've met are really Mr. Smith goes to Washington, except with money."
Some of Pearl's former Wall Street colleagues aren't convinced the group's agenda is quite so wholesome. "They thought I had a mental problem," he said.
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