One of the country’s leading forward-thinking digital companies has been mired in internal turmoil for months over the work it has done on behalf of Los Angeles Mayor Rick Caruso.
At least two of the company’s employees, Aisle 518 Strategies, have left, in part because of its partnership with the billionaire real estate developer who has funded and supported Republicans. anti-abortion politicians before deciding to run as a Democrat in this year’s mayoral primaries.
Those former employees, who spoke to POLITICO on condition of anonymity, said only a handful of those currently employed by the company’s roughly 20-strong workforce are willing to work on the Caruso campaign account.
“We all work for these types of companies because we believe in those ideals, and for the CEO to hire a client who is very clearly against that goal is kind of a slap in the face for all the work we do and to all our other customers,” said one of the employees who left.
Despite the workforce turmoil, which began early this year, Aisle has not dropped 518 Strategies Caruso, with the leadership noting to the staffers who complained they also have a list of undeniably progressive clients. CEO Tim Tagaris, who founded Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)’s groundbreaking fundraising efforts in 2016 before starting the company, declined to comment specifically on the concerns of the staff, including those who left.
“Those who know me know that I don’t talk much with the press and would rather keep my head down and do a good job,” Tagaris said in a statement. “So I think, with all due respect, I’m going to get it back and forth in the press with people who don’t work here anymore and don’t agree with some decision I’ve made.”
The frictions in aisle 518 are the latest example of: progressive staffers bumping heads with their bosses on larger organizational missions. And they underline how for many organizations in the progressive political ecosystem, workplace politics is becoming an increasingly important part of the overall work.
In addition to Sanders, other clients of Aisle 518 Strategies 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 Senator Alessandra Biaggi. making a primary. run to five-term incumbent Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney. The company has also done work for Sens. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and her California clients included Senator Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) and Gov. Gavin Newsom.
But the decision to work for Caruso overshadowed those other names for some of the staff. An old Republican or a registered independent, Caruso funneled more than $37 million of his own money into his campaign. He has vowed to “clean up LA” and invest in police and public safety efforts and will face Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) in a runoff election in November.
A former employee pointed to the company’s mission “to target and defeat powerful corporate interests and the politicians who prioritize their needs,” a motto that has been adopted at the time. Aisle 518’s website above a photo of a grinning Sanders. The person said the work for Caruso indicated that “feeding his” [Tagaris’] pockets was more important than his promise to his employees that he would work on progressive work.”
“The 518 junior employees, the union members, joined 518 because of the promise that they could support the campaigns of individuals such as Bernie Sanders, such as Nina Turner,” the former employee said. “There was a really prevalent feeling among junior employees that if people like Sanders and Turner knew that 518 was working with Rick Caruso, they might have a little more qualms about continuing their business relationship with Caruso.”
A union spokesman and Caruso’s campaign both declined to comment on this story.
According to Los Angeles revelations, Caruso’s campaign paid approximately $5.2 million to Aisle 518 Strategies and incurred approximately $909,000 in debt for consulting, texting, digital advertising and other services. Aisle 518 has spent approximately $5.2 million on features such as digital advertising on behalf of the campaign, with the latest payment dated June 1. Tagaris said the amount spent on sub-sellers was incomplete as the company was still paying for some advertisements or some of its suppliers.
Earlier this year, POLITICO reported on: a similar internal revolt at another leading forward-thinking company, Authentic, where staffers complained about the company’s work for Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). As of March, the company continued 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 flows a “story as old as time.”
“It’s part of the evolution I think of working in politics,” Korinke said. “It’s about how you balance the ideals that brought you to the company with the company?”
The internal battle in aisle 518 appeared to start in February, when an employee learned about the company’s work for Caruso through the Monday.com work operating system and spread the news to others, the two former employees said. After staff raised concerns about this with managers, Aisle 518 leaders convened an emergency meeting to discuss customer acquisition. But the staff was dissatisfied.
After the meeting, the union drafted a letter expressing concern about a lack of transparency about how Caruso was recruited as a client and urging management to drop him.
“Because of our deep commitment to the success of this company, its staff, and our current clients, we do not believe Rick Caruso is aligned with our corporate mission, as he is a billionaire whose past as a longtime Republican has protected the corporate interests that we, and many of our customers,” the union wrote, according to a draft of the letter reviewed 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 to drop the candidate in another letter.
Tagaris then held a meeting with union members. According to contemporaneous notes taken during the meeting and obtained by POLITICO, an employee urged Tagaris to drop the campaign because it did not represent the company’s mission and gave a poor image of the company. Tagaris said he wouldn’t let Caruso go as a customer.
Tagaris also noted that his company lost money in 2021 and that he was “the only person who didn’t take a bonus,” according to the concurrent notes. He said others in his position would have looked at budget cuts, adding that he “smashed my ass to hold this together”.
Tagaris told employees that Caruso “was not going to campaign in a way that would embarrass us compared to other campaigns,” the notes said. †[H]e campaigns like Karen Bass… to ask for more police.”
Regarding transparency and confidentiality about customer acquisition, Tagaris also mentioned the CEO of a rival forward-thinking company, Authentic, “who came to me that we are trying to poach his people.” The CEO of Authentic, Mike Nellis, said he could not recall such a conversation.
After the meeting, Tagaris apologized for naming employees in front of their colleagues and “for being more direct than probably anyone here has ever seen,” according to a copy of the message, reposted to the Slack union.
The union has met several times to discuss next steps regarding the Caruso account and employees have conducted a poll to gauge possible next steps. Of the 12 or so responses, 38.5 percent of workers said they wanted management to remove Caruso as a customer, and 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 management transparency around customer acquisition and holding a meeting to discuss how the customer acquisition process aligns with the union contract.
According to the former employees, in addition to Tagaris, only two or three others are currently working on the Caruso account.