Here’s how a billionaire really uses political money to make social change

Just a face in the crowd.
Just a face in the crowd.
Image: Reuters/Luke MacGregor
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Billionaire philanthropist George Soros is the ultimate right wing bogeyman. He’s been said to be a Nazi conspirator, a secret global drug lord, behind Black Lives Matter and the Ferguson protests in 2014—generally, a lefty puppet-master who pulls all the strings.

But the liberal magnate’s real “conspiracy”—quietly working to change key officials in the broken American criminal justice system—shows that political action for social change doesn’t require an elaborate international cabal.

Soros has poured $3 million into district attorney races in six states in the past year, Politico reported, supporting minority candidates who hope to reduce racial inequality in the justice system and reform treatment of first-time, low-level drug offenders by sending them to diversion programs instead of jail.

Soros is hardly the only billionaire backing this agenda; he has also funded justice reform work at organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union alongside his conservative counterparts in bogeyman philanthropy, the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.

The Kochs are also familiar with the power of political money on lower-level elections, as they fund Republican efforts to win control of state legislatures. But many of those Republicans don’t share the Kochs’ views of civil liberties, which has some wondering if their public support for criminal justice reform is simply a publicity stunt.

While Soros is also a major partisan donor—funneling $25 million into various races and political causes, including a $7 million donation to a super PAC supporting Hillary Clinton—his tack to fund local DA campaigns is likely to bring the most immediate and meaningful change. He has sent money to district attorney candidates in Texas, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi and New Mexico through local super PACs and a national political organization.

Local prosecutors in the US are largely elected to office and often run unopposed. But prosecutors wield huge power because they have wide discretion in deciding whether to charge someone with a crime. While there’s a movement among scholars and advocates to re-think the outsized role of the prosecutor, those hoping to reduce America’s incarcerated population believe that helping to elect reform-minded prosecutors is an obvious near-term solution.

After Politico reported on Soros’ down-ballot effort to push justice reform, Thomas Lifson of the right-wing American Thinker was both impressed and fearful, writing that “George Soros is a brilliant mastermind, the closest thing to a real-life Bond villain in human history. He thinks strategically, targeting sources of leverage, and he wants to bring about structural change.”