Koch brothers seek to soften image

Koch brothers seek to soften image

By Jonathan Swan and Kyle Plantz – 11/04/15 06:00 AM EST

The Koch brothers are on a publicity tour to change their image.

Long caricatured by Democrats as shadowy billionaires who buy Republican politicians so they can grow their profits and destroy the environment, Charles and David Koch did on Tuesday something they have never done before: a joint television interview.

The brothers’ appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” continues something of a coming-out tour for the publicity-shy Kochs, who became bogeymen to the left following their early funding of the Tea Party movement, their expensive and ultimately failed efforts to defeat President Obama, and their plan to spend $250 million to elect Republicans to Congress and the presidency in 2016.

Those who know the brothers say they remain incredibly private people who would rather avoid the media. But they decided fairly recently that they could no longer afford to stay quiet and allow their political enemies to define them.

Over recent months, elder brother Charles — who recently published the book “Good Profit” in explanation of his management philosophy — has led a media blitz to remake his family’s and company’s reputations. In the past two months, Charles has done multiple newspaper, magazine, radio and television interviews. He had done nothing like it in his decades-long career.

While the brothers — ranked sixth on Forbes’s list of the world’s wealthiest people — are going public, their private business, Koch Industries Inc., is running a multimillion-dollar nationwide branding campaign. “We Are Koch” is designed to humanize the company by telling the stories of the 60,000 people who work there.

The Kochs also allowed a journalist from Popular Mechanics magazine to take a tour of their industrial plants in Kansas, Nebraska and Louisiana.

But behind the scenes, the Koch brothers lead a complicated network of conservative and libertarian-leaning groups that plan to spend close to $900 million on all their activities, which include philanthropic and policy initiatives, criminal justice reform and education grants among them, over the 2016 cycle.

Leading Democrats running for president are already attacking the Kochs by name, foreshadowing the negative attention they will likely receive over the next year.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused ex-Republican candidate Gov. Scott Walker (Wis.) of taking “his marching orders from the Koch brothers.” Liberal rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) frequently denounces the Kochs in media interviews and at his rallies.

The Democrats’ anti-Koch campaign peaked during the 2014 midterm election season as the party fought to hold onto the Senate. Led by Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, Democrats ran TV commercials and made regular public statements condemning the Kochs. President Obama has also criticized their influence on the political system.

Koch supporters have long believed that if only people could see the two elderly men — who speak courteously and smile a lot — then they might be less inclined to see them as evil billionaires who purchase politicians and hijack democracy.

The brothers should have gone public “years ago,” said Minnesota billionaire Stanley Hubbard, who says he gives money every year to the Koch political operation.

“I’ve been telling them that for several years,” Hubbard said.

“I’ve said I think that Charles ought to get out and go public and let people hear from him what he thinks and what he believes. … They’re very smart to do it, and I wrote them a letter and told them, ‘Good for you, do more.’ ”

Another Koch donor who agrees about the new public-facing approach is Chris Rufer, a libertarian who runs a tomato processing business in California.

“I have encouraged Charles, and apparently recently he has done this … to be much more public,” Rufer said in a recent telephone interview.

“If [the donor conferences were] televised, people would have tears in their eyes, on what is trying to happen and what [Charles’s] motivations are,” added Rufer, who has given $150,000 to the presidential campaign of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

Eighty-year-old Charles is even taking to social media to soften his public image.

Two weeks ago, he allowed his company’s Twitter account to post a photograph of him wearing a Darth Vader costume. Not everyone in Charles’s conservative circles were thrilled with his game of dress-up, but it was his way of making fun of how he and David, 75, are viewed by many liberals.

Asked why the Kochs were changing their public relations strategy, James Davis, a spokesman for their political network Freedom Partners, said the free market reforms promoted by the billionaires “benefit all Americans, particularly those most disadvantaged, and that’s an important story to tell.”

Yet while they have changed their approach to the media, it can hardly be said that the Koch political network has fully embraced transparency.

A number of Koch network activities are run by nonprofit groups organized under the “social welfare” portion of the tax code, which allows them to keep their donors’ identities hidden.

Charles has said he would be happy to be more transparent but that many of his network’s donors do not want to endure the same scrutiny and threats that he does. The elder Koch says he receives more than 100 death threats a year.

Most Koch donors — people identified from leaked invitations and Federal Election Commission donation records — refuse to answer media calls or respond to emails to discuss their political spending. And there are many more donors whose identities remain unknown.

The Kochs allowed selected journalists to attend their summer donor conference at Dana Point, Calif. But there were strict rules: Reporters who attended agreed not to publish the names of any attendee unless he or she granted permission for an interview.

Sitting in their childhood home in Wichita, Kan., in Tuesday’s MSNBC interview, the Kochs spoke about their mission: They want to slash taxes, lighten prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, cut government spending and “corporate welfare,” and allow businesses — including their own carbon intensive petroleum and chemical companies — to operate with limited regulations.

They also refused to endorse a Republican presidential candidate for 2016, and contrary to speculation, they have yet to spend a penny on anyone in the Republican field.

Despite wanting to soften their image, the brothers will not waver from their political mission to change the way America is governed.

“People aren’t going to scare me off,” Charles Koch told the MSNBC interviewers.

“I’m kind of like Martin Luther when he was on trial. And he said, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other.’ ”

“I mean, I dedicate my life to this.”

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