Democrats fear donor could buy clout if Brownback becomes Kansas governor
By DAVE HELLING and DAVID KLEPPER
The Kansas City Star
Facing an uphill battle with voters in the fall election, Democrats are stepping up their criticism of Kansas gubernatorial candidate Sam Brownback’s ties to a low-profile corporation.
It is called Koch Industries, a Wichita-based energy and consumer products conglomerate and one of the largest private companies in the world. Two of the richest people in America run it: Charles and David Koch.
Democrats point out that Koch-related interests have given Brownback, a Republican, hundreds of thousands of dollars over his 16-year career, more than any other candidate. They claim that the Kochs may have played a key role in Brownback’s most important race — in 1996, when he won a close contest to take Bob Dole’s open Senate seat.
Some Democrats said they believed that long relationship could lead to favors for Koch if Brownback wins in November.
“No other contributor (to Brownback) can claim what the Kochs can … and we want to have a discussion with voters about that,” said state Sen. Tom Holland, Brownback’s Democratic opponent.
Senate minority leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat and 34-year veteran of the Legislature, put it more bluntly: “If Sam becomes governor, I think essentially Koch Industries will have the key to the governor’s office.”
Brownback dismissed questions about Koch’s support, arguing that it was no different than other campaign donors and that he would not give it special treatment if he was elected governor.
“We have over 4,000 contributors,” Brownback said when asked about Koch’s involvement in his campaigns.
Brownback and the Kochs don’t see eye to eye on every ideological issue. As libertarians, the Kochs have been largely silent on abortion — an issue of deep concern to Brownback.
Also, Brownback favors renewable-energy incentives that the Kochs oppose, his spokeswoman noted.
“He (Brownback) doesn’t expect to agree with all of his supporters on every issue,” said Sherriene Jones-Sontag. “In his mind there’s no reason to single them (the Kochs) out.”
Brownback maintains that his push for deregulation might help smaller companies more than Koch, which has spent millions lobbying on environmental and energy issues across the country.
“Deregulation helps small businesses, not big businesses,” Brownback said. “Wall Street, the big guys, can hire lobbyists and lawyers (to influence regulations) … the types I’m talking about are primarily small businesses who can’t. They don’t know what the regulatory climate is going to be.”
Still, the Koch-Brownback relationship apparently is sensitive for the company. Despite several requests from The Kansas City Star, officials declined on-the-record interviews about the nature of the relationship and its possible implications for Kansas policy.
A Koch spokeswoman, however, issued a one-sentence statement: “Koch companies have supported Sen. Brownback because he has been a champion for fiscal responsibility and free markets, both of which are critical to the success and survival of our state and our country.”
Charles Koch, who lives in Wichita, and David Koch, a New York City resident, are worth a combined $32 billion, according to Forbes magazine. That fortune was built from a company involved in oil refining, storage and transportation, as well as consumer products such as paper towels, napkins and toilet paper.
They have given a good chunk of their fortune to a wide variety of conservative causes. Among the beneficiaries: Americans for Prosperity Foundation, Cato Institute, Mercatus Center at George Mason University, Center for Applied Economics at the University of Kansas, several lobbying firms, and hundreds of political candidates and campaigns including Brownback’s.
He is unquestionably one of their favorites:
•By 2007, when Brownback was running for president, Koch-related interests had given Brownback’s Senate campaigns and his political action committee nearly $200,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — tops among Brownback donors.
•Charles Koch and his wife, Elizabeth, gave Brownback’s presidential campaign $2,300 each — the maximum then allowed in the primary season.
•During that 2007 presidential race, Brownback spoke at an Americans for Prosperity Foundation event in Washington and singled out David Koch for recognition before the speech began.
•In 1998, Democrats on a Senate committee found “circumstantial evidence” that the Kochs provided $1 million for groups affiliated with an obscure political operation called Triad Management Services Inc. Roughly $400,000 of that money, Democrats contended, ended up paying for last-minute, third-party commercials in Brownback’s victorious 1996 Senate campaign against Jill Docking.
The pro-Brownback ads “may have changed the results” of the race, the committee’s Democrats claimed.
Complaints about Triad’s role in the campaign eventually led to a $19,000 penalty for Brownback’s campaign committee and a $9,000 penalty for his in-laws, both levied by the Federal Election Commission. Triad’s owner also was fined as part of a federal court case.
The Kochs, who were not penalized, have never confirmed any indirect payment to Triad, as the Democrats alleged. Charles Koch refused to answer written questions from the committee.
Brownback later insisted that he had “no knowledge of Triad,” and his lawyer blamed the FEC’s complaints on “baseless partisan opinions.”
But the Kochs’ involvement in Brownback’s campaign for governor this year is not in doubt: Koch-related interests have given Brownback’s committee $10,000, according to reports compiled by the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Again, the Kochs declined comment for this story. Instead, spokeswoman Melissa Cohlmia referred The Star to the company’s website for a general discussion of the Kochs’ political philosophy and approach toward government.
“Unfortunately, some of those who disagree with a market-based point of view continue to try to demonize the Kochs’ 40 years of unwavering, well-known, lawful and principled commitment to economic freedom and market-based policy solutions,” the website statement said.
Brownback spokeswoman Jones-Sontag released a statement defending the Koch contributions and others made to the campaign.
“Lots of Americans are concerned about the threat posed by the Obama agenda and many are exercising their First Amendment right to speak out,” she said.
‘Good corporate citizens’
The Kochs’ support for Brownback, however, pre-dates the election of President Barack Obama. Some Democrats and other observers contend the Koch-Brownback relationship is less about national politics than it is about creating a low-corporate-tax, low-regulation, pro-business environment in Kansas.
State House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat, said he worried about what Koch’s “narrowly defined agenda” might mean for a Brownback administration.
“This is definitely an entity that wants something from government and elected officials,” Davis said. “What they want is to be essentially free of any form of taxation or regulation whatsoever. That’s something that people ought to be very concerned about.”
When pressed, though, Democrats could not provide examples of specific legal or regulatory changes that Brownback as governor would pursue on behalf of the Koch companies and no one else.
They also conceded that Democrats — including former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius — have relied on Koch Industries’ expertise to help analyze state budget issues while in office.
Koch gave $2,000 to Sebelius’ 2007 inaugural fund.
Not all Democrats think Koch is up to something nefarious.
“I think of them as good corporate citizens,” said Kansas Gov. Mark Parkinson, a Democrat. “Everybody in this country has an incredible opportunity to be involved in the political process. Some people are smart and know how to do it. Koch has figured out how. That’s what America is all about.”
Recently, The Daily Beast website published a story quoting David Koch, who was reacting to a New Yorker article essentially accusing him and Charles Koch of quietly funding an anti-Obama agenda.
“If what I and my brother believe in, and advocate for, is secret, it’s the worst covert operation in history,” Koch told the writer.
Regarding their political activities and investments, Koch supporters said the company had no specific legislative agenda, hidden or otherwise, and Kansans did not need to be overly worried.
“Not any more than they would with any other employer or institution, whether it’s a union, a large employer, or a collection of individuals,” said Alan Cobb, vice president for state operations for Americans for Prosperity and a former Koch public affairs director.
Cobb and others argued that labor unions played a similar role in supporting Democrats in the state, including Sebelius’ political action committee.
They said that any focus on the Kochs’ political posture also ignored the millions that the two have spent on charitable and scientific causes, including hurricane and earthquake relief, cancer research, education, science and the arts.
Koch’s financial support for Kansas politicians is not limited to Brownback.
Since 2008, the National Institute on Money in State Politics found that Koch-related interests have contributed more than $225,000 to various Kansas candidates, including 26 members of the state Senate and 67 members of the House — a majority of the 165 sitting state lawmakers.
Koch interests also have given thousands of dollars to the Kansas Republican Party and GOP campaign committees in the state.
That support would not necessarily buy the company more access to state government, some critics acknowledged, noting that with more than 2,000 employees in Kansas, Koch already got that.
But Democratic observers worry it could influence the legislative agenda in Topeka if Brownback becomes governor.
“One should monitor future ‘asks’ for the Kochs,” said political consultant Jim Bergfalk, a Democrat.
“Whether that’s tax policy, or across the board, everything that benefits them, beyond being a good citizen.”