“We didn’t get significant donations like we had hoped last month, so we ended up using $100,000 of our reserve just to break even,” he said. “If I were you, I would be looking for another job. … I want everyone on this team to go out on the market to see if they can get another job just in case.”
Although DFA was in deep trouble before Simpson left for California, his lack of substantial donor outreach and personal time off at that critical time was the culmination of the organization’s demise, according to the five former employees and the notes. and contemporaneous documents from a staff member from within DFA. She resigned on December 7 as CEO and all non-leadership staff were fired the same day without severance pay.
And last week, POLITICO reported that DFA was about to shut down, while its separate 501(c)4 nonprofit organization would stay afloat.
It was an ignoble farewell to a group that was once a major arm of the progressive movement. DFA was started in the wake of Howard Dean’s failed presidential campaign in 2004. The group took advantage of its progressive supporters and momentum from the anti-Iraq War movement to support like-minded candidates across the country. He relied on small-dollar fundraising to aggressively back progressives in competitive primaries. And in recent years, he’s broadened his focus to include the careers of secretary of state and attorney general, ranked-choice voting, student debt relief and Medicare for All.
But in a progressive ecosystem where groups have focused more narrowly on advocating for specific election issues or tasks, such as candidate recruitment or voter protection, DFA has struggled. Dean left the organization after becoming chairman of the DNC in 2005, but continued to occasionally advise DFA from 2009 until 2016. He called DFA’s demise «sad» in a brief interview but declined to elaborate.
“DFA dropped everything on the field this year to stem the red wave and win critical elections up and down the ballot across the country. As the DFA moves into the next cycle in this difficult fundraising environment, the decision has been made to wind down the PAC by the end of the year,” said DFA Special Counsel Charles Chamberlain. “The DFA Defense Fund will continue its work for the foreseeable future focused on electoral reforms such as Ranked Choice Voting and the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.” Simpson is still on that fund’s board, according to a person familiar with the matter, but it’s unclear if he will stay in that role long-term.
Simpson declined an interview request beyond calling the report «unsubstantiated.» Instead, she pointed to POLITICO at her
resignation statement she posted
On twitter. Jim Dean, the group’s former president and Howard Dean’s brother, privately defended her from critics of her on staff, according to an internal office communication obtained by POLITICO. Jim Dean, who did not respond to a request for comment, said at the time that Simpson was transparent about the group’s financial difficulties and that the problems DFA faced were not unique to his administration.
DFA has been plagued this year by a host of other issues that extend beyond Simpson’s tenure. The lack of a chair has hampered fundraising, as email has become a less effective way of raising money for progressive groups. Donor fatigue has also led some taxpayers to reduce their donations to PACs in favor of donating to specific candidates.
And some former staffers praised aspects of Simpson’s performance, crediting him for accepting a wide range of applicants and his detailed knowledge of the grassroots organization.
But according to internal memos and Slack messages reviewed by POLITICO, 10 DFA employees pinned much of the blame for his disappearance in recent months on Simpson.
“[A]As we understand it, you made no effort to meet or call donors” during the first three weeks of November, the entire 10-person leadershipless staff wrote to him in a memo a few days before he resigned. “You need to know that your staff no longer have confidence in your ability to run this organization. We think he should have spent more time with donors and we should have had a clearer understanding of the budget and an earlier warning that things were going in the wrong direction.»
Simpson, a former president pro tempore of the Cincinnati city council, became DFA’s executive director in early 2019 after being handpicked by Jim Dean and Chamberlain, who was then the executive director.
She was chosen as part of a «new generation of bold and visionary progressive leaders,» Jim Dean said in a statement at the time, and made history as the first black DFA leader. In 2017, Dean had visited Cincinnati to help promote the vote for Simpson’s failed mayoral campaign and was impressed with the energy of her and her campaign team.
But while Simpson was an expert in electoral politics and field organizing, she had trouble, those five former staffers said, cultivating donors. That 2018 cycle, the organization raised $6.9 million and spent $7.6 million,
according to OpenSecrets.org
. Four years later, DFA raised almost half of that, $3.6 million, and spent $3.8 million.
«She had said [raising money] It’s not something she’d like to do, but it’s also her job as CEO to raise funds and she didn’t want to do it,” said a former employee. “She preferred to be on the field with the candidates and knocking on doors.”
Simpson’s leadership, three of the five former employees said, was also complicated by the fact that he had other jobs. She started working as a real estate agent in June and is also an employment and business attorney at a Cleveland-based law firm and a political contributor to ABC News, according to
your LinkedIn profile
. Those former employees said Simpson’s other jobs diverted his attention from DFA’s fundraising needs. Former staff members were granted anonymity to protect their future career prospects.
The organization’s two main sources of revenue had long been its email program and call time with donors. But Yvette [had] he just stopped adhering to the call time,” said one of the former employees. Those former employees, who had access to Simpson’s calendar, said she made just eight hours of fundraising calls between early October and November 22 of this year.
As DFA’s financial state worsened, Simpson told the development staff that Jim Dean and Chamberlain were going to help make calls to raise money. But one of the five former employees, a member of the development staff, learned later that this might not be the case. During a call, Chamberlain explained that he and Dean had not agreed to do so «and were not fully informed about the seriousness of the situation and the shortage of funds in [the] reserve account”, according to notes taken at the time by the official.
At a staff meeting on Nov. 11, Simpson did not discuss fundraising, except that she said she did not want DFA to do any of it during the Georgia runoff, according to the former employee’s notes. But as the organization’s cash reserve continued to dwindle, an employee confronted Simpson about DFA’s financial situation during a Nov. 21 meeting with campaign staff. She responded by saying that the development team did not allow her to speak to donors, according to the former employee, who disputed the idea that she was not allowed to do so.
Later, in November, Simpson attended a leadership training seminar in California paid for by the DFA of the
Rockwood Leadership Institute
. She then went on vacation to attend the multi-day sommelier education course in Napa Valley. On November 30, she arranged for an all-staff Zoom, but according to DFA staff, she was half an hour late. In the call, she said that November had been «a very difficult month.»
“I cannot guarantee on January 1 that I will have the resources to pay everyone on this team,” he said on the call in an audio recording obtained by POLITICO.
Simpson went on to point out that the absence of a president for the organization was hurting the fundraising situation, and that he had recently met with several potential presidents and had an offer. But he couldn’t guarantee that there would be enough money to pay the person, and he admitted that he hadn’t told the prospective president how bad the organization’s finances were.
“I didn’t feel comfortable sharing that,” she said.
Simpson also said he was talking to various progressive movement organizations about a merger and that it had sparked some interest, but he didn’t know «if the talks happened fast enough.»
The meeting heated up when staff members asked him why he hadn’t told everyone sooner how DFA was faltering. “I apologize if he wasn’t there early enough,” he said, admitting that she was “not a perfect leader” and that “transparency can be dangerous sometimes.”
“This is what I am 100 percent prepared for: You can and should attack my leadership if you think I am doing a horrible job. You can and you should,” he said, adding that the criticism of his absence was “fair”. But he said he would not answer questions in the Zoom chat about why he had taken a personal vacation while the organization was on the brink of collapse.
The next day, non-leadership staff wrote a two-and-a-half page memo to Simpson berating her for not doing more to save DFA.
“As CEO, we expected him to be in tune with the pulse of the staff, but it became clear during yesterday’s meeting that he was not,” they wrote in the memo obtained by POLITICO.
Simpson never responded. But Jim Dean wrote a few hours later in a Slack message to staff, obtained by POLITICO, that his «finger-pointing» at the memo was «really disappointing» and that he felt he had «just read a memo from the DC consultant «.[s] explaining why the campaign they were running was lost.” He noted that «it was not the first time that DFA found itself in difficult circumstances, financial or otherwise.» Simpson, he insisted, had been «very transparent about DFA’s financial circumstances, which is to everyone’s benefit.»
Admonishing the memo writers, he also said that neither he nor his brother nor Chamberlain would come to run DFA or solve its financial problems.
Six days later, Simpson was gone.
Holly Otterbein contributed to this article.