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‘The Arena’ comes to Philly looking for candidates — left, right, and center

The Arena, a Super PAC and political nonprofit holding summits around the country to recruit first-time candidates for public office, comes to Philadelphia Friday and Saturday.

Two potential contenders for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (left) and former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu will speak Friday and Saturday in Philadelphia at The Arena, a Super PAC and nonprofit holding summits around the country to recruit first-time candidates for public office.
Two potential contenders for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (left) and former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu will speak Friday and Saturday in Philadelphia at The Arena, a Super PAC and nonprofit holding summits around the country to recruit first-time candidates for public office.Read moreAssociated Press/The Arena

Ravi Gupta is hoping the conversation in Philadelphia this weekend goes better than the shouting match he had recently with his brother during their grandfather's funeral procession.

Gupta, a veteran of President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign, is a cofounder of The Arena, a super PAC and political nonprofit holding summits around the country to recruit first-time candidates for public office. He hails from a mixed political family, with a lifelong Democrat for a mother and a father and brother who are staunch supporters of President Trump.

So while political partisanship creates an atmosphere of divisiveness, The Arena is seeking to grow beyond its progressive roots, planted after Trump's 2016 election, to draw independents and Republicans into the conversation it will hold Friday and Saturday in Philadelphia.

"The reason why I care about this community is because I'm struggling to maintain this kind of dialogue among the people I care about the most," Gupta said.

So far, 410 people have signed up for the Philadelphia summit — The Arena's fifth since December 2016 — with half receiving a scholarship or subsidy for the event's $125 registration fee. A third of those who signed up lead or work for social organizations while a quarter are either running for office or thinking about it.

A pair of potential contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, are scheduled to speak, along with a collection of local officials — District Attorney Larry Krasner, City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, Chief Defender Keir Bradford-Grey, and former Mayor Michael Nutter.

That's a long list of Democrats. And Gupta acknowledges that Republicans account for 10 percent or less of people attending Arena summits.

But he can point to recent races showing the group's diversity. In West Virginia, the group backed a state senator who voted for Trump in 2016 and now is running in a Democratic primary for the U.S. House. In New York, it backed a Democrat in the primary trying to unseat an incumbent known for joining forces with Republicans in Albany.

That sort of work takes money. The Arena's super PAC, created to make independent expenditures in federal races, has collected $789,079 from the start of 2017 to the end of July, according to federal records. The bulk of that money has come from people connected to the tech industry or venture capital firms in California. Reid Hoffman, a cofounder of LinkedIn, is The Arena's largest donor.

The group's nonprofit arm has raised just under $2.5 million in the first seven months of 2018, with the largest donations coming from Dan Tierney, a Chicago-based venture capitalist.

Could Pennsylvania be next on The Arena's big-spending list? After holding a summit in Arizona in December, the group aimed to raise $500,000 there to support 17 candidates for the state legislature along with candidates for governor and attorney general.

"When we leave inspired, we generally have invested in electoral politics in the state we visit," Gupta said. "We try not to have a great party and then leave."