A top progressive firm signed Rick Caruso as a client. Its staff revolted.

Alex Gallardo/AP Photo
·7 min read

One of the country's leading progressive digital firms has been embroiled for months in internal staff turmoil over the work it's done on behalf of Los Angeles mayoral contender Rick Caruso.

At least two employees at the firm, Aisle 518 Strategies, have left, in part because of its association with the billionaire real estate developer who has bankrolled Republicans and backed anti-abortion politicians before deciding to run as a Democrat in the mayoral primary this year.

Those former employees, who spoke to POLITICO on the condition of anonymity, said only a handful of those currently on the firm’s roughly 20-person staff are willing to work on the Caruso campaign account.

“We’re all working for this kind of a company because we believe in those ideals, and for the CEO to take on a client that very much clearly goes against that goal is kind of like a slap in the face to all of the work that we do and to all of our other clients,” said one of the employees who left.

Despite the staff uproar, which began early this year, Aisle 518 Strategies has not dropped Caruso, with leadership noting to the staffers who complained that they have a roster of unimpeachable progressive clients as well. CEO Tim Tagaris, who built Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) pioneering fundraising operations in 2016 before launching the firm, declined to comment specifically on the concerns raised by staff, including those who left.

“Those who know me know I don’t do a lot of talking to the press and prefer to keep my head down and do good work,” Tagaris said in a statement. “So I think, with respect, I am going to pass on getting into a back-and-forth in the press with people who no longer work here and disagree with one decision or another I’ve made.”

The frictions inside Aisle 518 are the latest example of progressive staffers butting heads with their bosses over larger organizational missions. And they underscore how, for many organizations in the progressive political ecosystem, workplace politics is becoming a more consuming part of the overall job.

In addition to Sanders, other Aisle 518 Strategies clients have included Nina Turner, a former Democratic congressional candidate in Ohio who co-chaired Sanders’ 2020 campaign and recently lost her primary, and New York state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, who is making a primary run to unseat five-term incumbent Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney. The firm also has done work for Sens. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and its California clients have included Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) and Gov. Gavin Newsom.

But the decision to work for Caruso overshadowed those other names for some on staff. A longtime Republican or a registered independent, Caruso has funneled more than $37 million of his own cash into his campaign. He has vowed to “clean up L.A.” and invest in police and public safety efforts and will face off against Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) in a November runoff election.

One former employee pointed to the firm’s mission “to take on and defeat powerful corporate interests and the politicians who prioritize their needs,” a motto affixed on Aisle 518’s website above a photo of a grinning Sanders. The person said the work for Caruso indicated that “lining his [Tagaris’] pockets was more important than his promise to his employees that he was going to be working on progressive work.”

“The junior employees at 518, the members of the union, came to work at 518 because of the promise they would be able to support the campaigns of individuals like Bernie Sanders, like Nina Turner,” the former employee said. “There was a really prevailing feeling among junior staff that if people like Sanders and Turner knew that 518 was working with Rick Caruso, that they might feel maybe some more qualms about continuing their business relationship with Caruso.”

A union spokesperson and Caruso’s campaign both declined to comment for this story.

According to Los Angeles disclosures, Caruso’s campaign has paid about $5.2 million to Aisle 518 Strategies and incurred about $909,000 in debt for consulting, text messaging, digital advertising, and other services. Aisle 518 has spent about $5.2 million on functions like digital advertising on behalf of the campaign, of which the latest payment is dated June 1. Tagaris said the amount spent on sub-vendors was incomplete, because the firm has not yet been billed for some ads or paid some of its vendors.

Earlier this year, POLITICO reported on a similar internal revolt at another leading progressive firm, Authentic, where staffers complained about the firm’s work for Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). As of March, the firm was continuing to work on behalf of the senator.

Robb Korinke, a Democratic strategist in Southern California, called the friction between staffers and their bosses over mission and funding streams a “tale as old as time.”

“It’s part of the evolution I think of working in politics,” Korinke said. “It’s how do you balance the ideals with which you came to the business with the business?”

Internal strife at Aisle 518 appeared to begin in February, when one employee learned about the firm’s work for Caruso through the work operating system Monday.com and spread the news to others, according to the two former employees. After staff raised concerns about it to managers, Aisle 518 leaders called an emergency meeting to discuss the client acquisition. But the staff were left unsatisfied.

After the meeting, the union drafted a letter, raising concern over a lack of transparency over how Caruso was brought on as a client and urging management to drop him.

“Due to our deep commitment to the success of this firm, its staff, and our current clients, we do not believe that Rick Caruso is aligned with our company mission because he is a billionaire whose past as a long-time Republican represents the corporate interests that we, and many of our clients, want to take on,” the union wrote, according to a draft of the letter viewed by POLITICO.

Aisle 518 management responded in a letter, noting that employees could opt out of working on the Caruso account. The union reiterated its request for the candidate to be dropped in another letter.

Tagaris then held a meeting with union members. According to contemporaneous notes taken at the meeting and obtained by POLITICO, an employee urged Tagaris to drop the campaign because it did not represent the company’s mission and reflected poorly on the firm. Tagaris said he would not let go of Caruso as a client.

Tagaris also noted his company lost money in 2021 and that he was “the only person who did not take a bonus,” according to the contemporaneous notes. He said others in his position would have looked to make cuts, adding he had been “busting my ass to keep this together.”

Tagaris told employees Caruso was “not going to campaign in a way that’s going to embarrass us at least relative to other campaigns,” according to the notes. “[H]e’s campaigning like Karen Bass … asking for more police.”

Regarding transparency and confidentiality over client acquisition, Tagaris also mentioned the chief executive officer at a rival progressive firm, Authentic, “coming to me that we’re trying to poach his folks.” Authentic’s CEO, Mike Nellis, said he had no recollection of such a conversation.

After this meeting, Tagaris apologized for calling out employees by name in front of their peers and “for getting more direct than probably anyone here has ever seen me get,” according to a copy of the message reposted in the union Slack.

The union met again multiple times to discuss next steps about the Caruso account, and employees conducted a poll to gauge possible next steps. Out of approximately a dozen responses, 38.5 percent of employees said they wanted management to remove Caruso as a client, 15.4 percent said it should release a public statement saying the union did not support Caruso. The remaining responses were split between demanding more transparency from management around client acquisition and holding a meeting to discuss how the client acquisition process meshed with the union contract.

According to the former employees, just two or three others, besides Tagaris, are currently working on the Caruso account.