Meet the Koch brothers, including the 2 you hardly hear about
"He’s the most focused person I’ve ever met in my life," says Koch Industries general counsel Mark Holden, who’s worked at the company since 1995. "A purpose-driven life, that’s Charles. It’s always, ‘What’s next? Let’s focus. Let’s keep moving.’ "
What’s next has become the next election. After spending decades promoting his libertarian ideas through think tanks and other educational organizations, some of which he founded, Charles wrote in The Wall Street Journal this spring that in the past decade he’s seen "the need to also engage in the political process."
Thanks to changes in the nation’s campaign finance laws, it’s not possible to know for sure how much he and David have spent to create a sprawling network of groups working to promote free-market views, eliminate government regulations, fight President Barack Obama’s health care law, oppose an increase in the minimum wage, shift control of the Senate to Republicans and oust Democratic officeholders — from Obama to folks at the local level.
Money from Charles and David got Americans for Prosperity started, empowering the tea party activists who have tugged Republicans to the right. Eyeing younger voters, they back Generation Opportunity. Older voters? The 60 Plus Association, a conservative alternative to AARP. Their political hub, Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, has funneled cash to a Who’s Who of conservative groups, including Concerned Veterans for America, the Republican Jewish Coalition and the National Rifle Association.
Critics trace the excesses of the tea party to the Kochs’ doorstep, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., regularly takes to the Senate floor to denounce the brothers as greedy billionaires and "oil baron bullies" who are attempting a "hostile takeover of the American democracy."
Says brother Bill: "I think my brothers wish they had as much power as Harry Reid says they do."
But not the profile.
For all the money Charles is pouring into politics, he’s never out front waving a banner for their cause. He’s more comfortable behind the scenes, particularly as death threats and protests have escalated to match the brothers’ political activity.
"It’s made them stronger in their resolve," says Holden.
David, an executive vice president and board member at Koch Industries, is more often the public face of their politics.
He ran for vice president on the Libertarian ticket in 1980, drawing little more than 1 percent of the vote with presidential nominee Ed Clark. He is chairman of the Americans For Prosperity Foundation, a tax-exempt corner of the brothers’ network that advances a message of low taxes and limited government.
At 74, with a distinctive bray of a laugh and an aw-shucks manner, David is literally a fixture in New York: His name is splashed across his many charitable causes. Among them: the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center ($100 million), the forthcoming David H. Koch Plaza at the Metropolitan Museum of Art ($65 million), the forthcoming David H. Koch Center for ambulatory care at New York-Presbyterian Hospital ($100 million).
David’s money follows his passions — the arts, medical research, education, less-is-more government — and he frequently lands on the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual list of the country’s top 50 most generous donors.
His giving escalated after two searing experiences: his survival of a 1991 plane crash that killed 34 people, and a subsequent diagnosis of prostate cancer that left him believing he didn’t have long to live. (His brothers all began regular testing, and caught their cancers much earlier.)
"When you’re the only one who survived in the front of the plane and everyone else died — yeah, you think, ‘My God, the good Lord spared me for some greater purpose,’ " David said in a 2008 interview with Upstart Business Journal.
Dr. Peter Scardino, chairman of the surgery department at New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, to which Koch has donated more than $66 million, said Koch meets with the center’s top cancer researchers each year and asks "provocative and interesting and challenging questions."