The Koch Brothers v. Tom Steyer on Our Country’s Future: What’s Wrong with this Picture?

By Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons (l) and NextGen Climate [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons (r).

March 16, 2018; Boston Globe

Charles and David Koch are going to “extraordinary lengths,” according to an article this weekend in the Boston Globe, to spread the message to Latinxs in Florida about the “tax benefits” of the Republican tax plan, the key priority for the billionaire brothers. Their plan seeks to “woo swing-state” Latinx voters, who are among those who will ultimately suffer most from the plan.

This is not the first time that NPQ has written about this courting of that voting bloc by the Koch Brothers in Florida. In January, NPQ’s Jim Schaffer profiled the Koch-funded Libre Initiative and its sister nonprofit, the Libre Institute. Schaffer noted that the two groups are “seeking to roll out social services to help migrants, with the hope that they can also ‘educate people about the principles that are close to our hearts,’” as David Velasquez, deputy state director for Florida for the Libre Institute puts it.

In 2016, the two Libre groups had a combined budget of $13.5 million. (The Koch network seeks to increase funding tenfold.) Their task is to provide Latinx-friendly programming like résumé writing, English-language classes (the most popular), and immigration issues, where they highlight the differences between them and the president (e.g., support for DREAMers, arbitrary caps, and lack of support for an end to family reunification, or the more negative “chain migration”). They avoid many of the issues that Latinx organizations, like UnidosUS, highlight as important to Latinxs: e.g., the rise in the cost of health care and cuts to safety net programs, like food assistance.

The organizations also provide what they call “seminars” but are really political education. The tax bill events focus on highlighting the comparably meager savings low-income families will receive from the recently passed federal tax cut bills. For example, a person making $35,000 a year will save $1,050 in taxes; after all, as Omar Santiago, a participant at one of the new Koch-funded town halls hosted by the Libre groups, says, “Who doesn’t want more money in their pockets?” Boston Globe reporter Annie Linskey elaborates, “They’re not just selling the tax cut, they’re providing a host of Spanish-language events infused with the free market, limited government philosophy the Kochs hope will appeal to [Latinxs]—and help them look past the many offensive comments made by the president.”

Though the nonprofits stay clear of explicit partisan politics for this tax-exempt work, the states they chose for their efforts—in addition to Florida, there’s Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, and New Mexico—are “politically important states that have had close elections.” Libre doesn’t register people to vote. Instead, it requires all participants to its events to provide contact information, ostensibly to build deeper relationships. According to Linskey, while “the Kochs are swimming upstream in this effort,” anecdotally it seems they’re making some inroads; as another participant, Carlos Hernandez, says, “You build a network.”

Puerto Ricans are particularly important because they can vote in the US and an estimated 300,000 have moved to the Sunshine State since Hurricane Maria. Trump won Florida by 120,000 votes in 2016, and his life-and-death inadequate response to Puerto Rico is well-documented by US media. Nevertheless, Linskey writes, “This effort is being eyed with some measure of concern among Democrats in the state.” While Latinxs are well aware of the president’s anti-immigrant zeal, Mayia Belloli, a participant from Colombia, may reflect shared sentiments when she says that Republicans “hold more family values.”

Linskey concludes that the Kochs are “playing the long game” with “their tangle of nonprofits, super PACs, and politically oriented nonprofits.” And this rings true; another article last week in The Root, reveals that the Koch brothers are also behind the educational nonprofit Bill of Rights Institute, “a 501c3 nonprofit educational organization that works to engage, educate and empower individuals with a passion for the freedom and opportunity that exist in a free society.” The nonprofit provides social studies educational resources reporter Michael Harriot writes are “free of cost…right-wing brainwashing.”

Harriot continues,

What it really is, is an education arm of a network of right-wing charities funded by the ultraconservative Koch brothers in conjunction with a number of other conservative philanthropic individuals and organizations. It takes millions of dollars in donations and claims to have taught the Bill of Rights to more than five million students and 50,000 teachers, including directly training 22,000 educators through its constitutional seminars.

The lessons stress limited government, religious freedom, free-market economics and—worst of all—a revisionist version of the history of slavery that paints it as a necessary evil to further freedom and democracy.

Harriot notes that while “according to the New York Times, the Kochs planned to spend close to a billion dollars on the 2016 election cycle, more than the entire Republican National Committee…it is the Koch brothers’ quiet philanthropic efforts that garner them the most bang for their buck. They use foundations and corporations to funnel their money to organizations under the cover of anonymity.”

Like Linskey, Harriot notes that the Koch brothers are pushing their political agenda through nonprofits.

On the other end of the spectrum, according to Orlando Weekly, billionaire Tom Steyer, a former hedge fund executive from San Francisco, is being called the antithesis of the Koch brothers for his $30 million investment in a youth-organizing program called NextGen America that’s targeting millennials for the 2018 midterm elections. Steyer notes that this segment of the electorate matches the Boomers in size but is disengaged because they don’t think the system serves them. The project will spend $3.5 million in Florida and focus on 40 college campuses, including four historically black colleges. It will also operate in Virginia, Wisconsin, Nevada, California, Pennsylvania, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Arizona—and it’ll target young voters online and via mail. The program seeks to “shift sporadic voters into reliable ones—and, presumably, Democrat-leaning ones” by focusing on the issues it thinks young voters care about, “like immigration, healthcare and criminal justice reform.”

NPQ has long supported efforts to promote public financing for elections to mitigate the power of wealthy donors in our political system, as described in a 2015 New York Times article with the headline, “Poll Shows Americans Favor an Overhaul of Campaign Financing.

Americans of both parties fundamentally reject the regime of untrammeled money in elections made possible by the Supreme Court‘s Citizens United ruling and other court decisions and now favor a sweeping overhaul of how political campaigns are financed, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll.

The findings reveal deep support among Republicans and Democrats alike for new measures to restrict the influence of wealthy givers, including limiting the amount of money that can be spent by “super PACs” and forcing more public disclosure on organizations now permitted to intervene in elections without disclosing the names of their donors.

According to a 2016 Washington Post article, many believe the public campaign finance system is broken—even those who support its aims. “Underdog candidates” like Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders “have shown that it’s possible to raise large sums of money from small donors over the Internet.”

Nevertheless, most money in politics comes from big donors. Back in 2012, after Obama’s reelection and the flow of money into Democratic super PACs, NPQ’s Rick Cohen wrote, quoting Politico, “It took Democrats a while to warm up to super PACs, but their glee over 2012 is—for now—eclipsing any moral qualms about big money eroding democracy.”

Cohen’s article says Rob McKay, who at the time was chairperson at the Democracy Alliance, which self-identifies as the largest network of donors dedicated to building the progressive movement in the United States, “suggested campaign finance reform is still on the agenda of progressives.”

Cohen concludes that “Beating Republicans at their own game can be intoxicating for Democrats.” However, if we care about democracy, we need to change the game of money in politics, not advocate for one side or another to win it.—Cyndi Suarez