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Meet the Koch brothers, including the 2 you hardly hear about

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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.

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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.

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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."

Scardino said he always warns newcomers who are scheduled to speak before Koch, "Only plan to present your work for 10 minutes because he’s going to ask questions and extend it to 30 to 40 minutes."

David is equally passionate about his politics, once telling a reporter for the liberal blog ThinkProgress, when asked if he was proud of Americans for Prosperity, "You bet I am, man oh man." As for the tea party, David said, "There are some extremists there, but the rank and file are just normal people like us. I admire them. It’s probably the best grassroots uprising since 1776."

It’s the extraordinary success of Koch Industries that has allowed Charles and David to spend so freely. The two are tied for fourth on Forbes’ list of the richest Americans, with fortunes of $41 billion each. Since 1961, when their father persuaded Charles to come back to Kansas and work for him, the value of Koch Industries has grown more than 2,400-fold.

The company that was founded by the brother’s father in 1940 got its start building oil refineries. It now has 100,000 employees worldwide in a range of businesses that include refining, consumer products, chemicals and electronic components. That red and blue carpeting on Obama’s 2008 inaugural podium? Made with fiber from INVISTA, a Koch operation.

Like Charles, David rarely gives interviews; both declined requests to talk for this story.

But David hasn’t always been so reticent. In a 2010 interview with New York magazine, he chatted about everything from how hormone therapy for his cancer had affected his sex life to the reason for his knee replacements, joking that "If you spent as many years as I did begging girls for favors, you’d have bad knees too."

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