Americans For Prosperity (AFP) is gaining in popularity in California. You may have heard of the group or seen its media stunts. It was the group of people who trotted out an inflatable ATM machine for the television cameras at rallies across the state last month. The idea was to illustrate AFP’s perception that the state legislators have been using Californians like an ATM by taxing citizens and businesses. AFP formed the group of protestors objecting to a teachers’ rally in San Diego, also last month. The purpose of the teachers’ rally was to beg the state legislature not to cut education funds any further. The purpose of the AFP counter-rally was to send a message to lawmakers to continue with the budget cuts and not to raise taxes.
AFP’s newest campaign is against Obama. It is blaming Obama for the high gas prices. An oil company that makes $100 billion a year is pointing a finger at, yes, regulations. The campaign is called “Running on Empty.” They also blame the partial moratorium on deep drilling in the Gulf after the BP disaster, canceling some leases in the Gulf, and using the Endangered Species Act to inhibit the oil companies need to drill on sensitive land and offshore. They say, “The federal government is working overtime to make sure Americans cannot access their own domestic resources.”
AFP says on its website that it is a nonpartisan grass-roots organization dedicated to small government, advocacy for taxpayers, and watchdogs on the alert for government waste. What the literature and members of AFP won’t say is that the group, according to various reports in the New York Times and SFGate.com, was started by and is funded by David Koch, the oil billionaire who, with his brother Charles, co-owns Koch Industries, the second largest privately held corporation in the country.
On May 12, the New York Times referred to AFP as “a libertarian group that provides a training ground for Tea Party activists.” On March 29, Bloomberg News wrote that AFP was a “Koch-backed advocacy group.”
The California chapter of AFP is headquartered in Camarillo, and the state chairman for the past three years has been Ventura County Supervisor Peter Foy.
Yet when asked about the connection to the brothers, Foy denied that any existed. “The group out here doesn’t have anything to do with Koch. He doesn’t fund any money to us or give us anything. The Kochs don’t have any influence on what we do.”
Top Target: California environmental law
As a county supervisor, Foy has considerable power on county issues. Foy said his personal principles are compatible with those of Koch and AFP, including county environmental issues.
“Let the free market run, get government off the back of business, and control regulations,” Foy said. “Let’s have reasonable regulations, reasonable environmental controls. The key there is the word ‘reasonable.’ What has happened, especially here in California, we’ve gone past that word ‘reasonable.’ ”
Foy is referring to AB 32, California’s law that will limit emissions either through a cap-and-trade program, where companies that are polluting less than the established cap can sell credits to companies that are polluting above and beyond the cap, or through a tax on carbon emissions.
Koch contributed more than $1 million to the Proposition 23 campaign during the last election. The oil company-sponsored initiative lost by a landslide. Prop 23 was the oil industry’s attempt to eliminate AB 32.
Although the impact of AFP on state issues has not yielded a major victory for Koch, the influence of AFP is being felt through the group’s effect in other parts of the country. For example, at the end of May, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie pulled his state out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), possibly in response to heavy AFP opposition to it. RGGI is a cooperative program of cap and trade involving 10 northeastern and mid-Atlantic states.
Koch Industries would naturally oppose any effort to limit pollution by its fossil fuels conglomerate. The attack by RGGI by AFP and the resulting withdrawal of New Jersey is certainly echoing in the legislative halls of Sacramento.
Like RGGI, AB 32 targets the pollution of oil companies and industry.
If you have heard more arguments against global warming in the past couple of years, you have been hearing the Koch point of view. David’s opinion is that global warming and climate change have always existed as the Earth is constantly changing. But he insists that such human activities as fossil fuel consumption and processing have had no effect whatsoever on climate changes.
Foy offered his views on global warming. “Weather changes historically,” he said. “We can trace weather for a hundred years, and we know that it changes. So what man is doing to change that, there is still a lot of speculative science out there that says 100 percent of it is what we do. But the idea that we are changing the whole global anything by some of the stuff we do, I’m not sure I see real evidence of science that has shown that.”
David Spady of Camarillo is the director of the state chapter of AFP. His argument falls along the same lines as that of Koch and Foy. “The science is unclear there. Let’s go about this in a reasonable way where there’s no economic impact.”
Another conservative used similar language when asked about climate change. Steve Frank is a political consultant in Simi Valley. “The science behind global warming is not science but politics, and it is not politics but ideology,” he said.
“And the ideology is for the state to control jobs and corporations. Regarding climate change, it is nothing that man has done. AB 32 has not been shown to be scientifically founded.”
Environmentalist and author Dianne Dumanoski strongly disagrees with that argument. “The claim that ‘there is science on both sides’ suggests that there is science of equal weight for and against the claim that climate has been changing and that human activity is driving much of the change that we are witnessing,” she said. “That is definitely not true. The vast preponderance of the evidence and the conclusion of several thousand scientists from around the world is that humans are rapidly altering the Earth’s atmosphere (based on ice core evidence).”
The very nature of the discussion of climate change has been altered by the relentless repetition of Koch’s preferred outcome. It is easy to claim that there are two sides to this issue. It is easy to obtain so-called scientific support for his point of view, given the enormous wealth of the Koch brothers which, according to Forbes.com, is $22 billion for each. They are the fifth wealthiest individuals in the country.
Paul Jenkin of the Ventura County chapter of the Surfrider Foundation said he objects to the way Koch and AFP have changed the nature of the discussion. “They are able to manipulate science into a belief-type question,” he said. “So it is almost like, do you believe in God? They are putting it on that level, where the science is actually quite clear. There have been documented changes around the planet as well as long-term temperature and ice records. Those economic interests [of Koch Industries] are bound to do everything they can.”
The mother’s milk of politics
Jesse Unruh, long a prominent California Democratic politician, famously called money the mother’s milk of politics.
Until this year, it was illegal for corporations to anonymously fund ads for political candidates. Limits were in place on how much individuals and corporations could donate to a candidate. Those limits were blown sky high last January with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The court was divided 5-4 and the majority created a new protected category under the free speech clause of the First Amendment. It held that corporations had a constitutional right to free speech, which allows them to donate unlimited amounts of money, anonymously, to political candidates and issues. You will see ads on television that advocate for a candidate, or negative ads against a candidate, and you will have no way of knowing who sponsored the commercial.
This decision in Citizens United vs. FEC is very important to AFP and its followers because Koch Industries is one of the country’s major beneficiaries of the new ruling. Common Cause, a nonpartisan campaign finance organization, has been yelling that this was not a fair fight. According to Common Cause, two of the Supreme Court justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, should have recused themselves from the case. That is because the Kochs, in written invitations to an annual conference of other major industry leaders, announced that Scalia and Thomas had made appearances at the gathering in previous years. It is not known whether either of the justices was paid for his appearance, but Common Cause said it looks like the Kochs were given special treatment by the Citizens United decision, which Scalia and Thomas both supported.
In his disgust at the majority opinion in the case, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his dissent, “While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”
The Koch brothers say their political views are libertarian. That approach is open to many interpretations because it is a philosophy of personal responsibility, an unfettered and unregulated free market, minimal taxation and an aversion to all social programs. This philosophy is fantastic for business owners, not so great for the workers or the less fortunate in society.
Foy, both as chairman of the state AFP and as a Ventura County Supervisor, has embraced the Koch approach. “We don’t get involved at all in social issues; it is just free market issues. We know that Californians are generous people.
Let’s take a bit and care for the less fortunate; let’s help them out.” Foy then added that we shouldn’t give them so much help that they become dependent on the aid.
Another local conservative activist, George Miller of the Ventura County Tea Party, volunteered the same sentiment, perhaps in a more colorful mode. He said he believed that Medicare should help out indigents but only within strict limits.
“People who are dying on the street should be given some care,” Miller said, “but we should not be giving them Cadillac care simply because we can’t afford it.” Miller then pointed to the immigrant community as the source of all recent epidemics.
A dislike of immigrant voters and the unions that serve them is another theme that runs through the Koch organizations. Foy and Spady separately pointed out what they called “a conflict of interest” for unions when they become involved politically.
Miller, without being asked, had no trouble tying all of these moral judgments together. He portrayed Latinos, in particular, as having the traits of being gullible, lazy and greedy. He said the reason that the Democrats swept all statewide California offices in the last election was “because a lot of new Latino voters tend to vote Democratic because of the propaganda they get from the unions and the perception that they’ll get more benefits.”
Greenpeace has done in-depth studies of the political practices and contributions of all of the Koch-created organizations. The observation was made that the Koch brothers, through AFP and other groups, have made inroads into communities across the country. It was Koch-affiliated people who bullied the speakers at town-hall health care reform meetings for months, although even they may not have known that their particular group was created by the Kochs.
Whether it is local school board elections in Texas, a proposed oil extraction tax to fund education in California or the participation of New Jersey in a regional anti-pollution program, the Kochs have made it their business to influence the results. Thus, the Greenpeace moniker for all of their operations as the “Kochtopus.” Its tentacles run, often unseen, through so many so-called grass-roots organizations that there may be few neighborhoods that have been left untouched.
Bringing it home
There is a very real question about a possible conflict of interest for Foy in his obligations and responsibilities as a county supervisor. Ever since Foy was first elected in 2006, he has consistently voted as a conservative. But since 2008, when he was named chairman of the state chapter of AFP, some have observed that he has taken on a “scorched earth” attitude against his fellow supervisors, a tactic that is prevalent in Koch-sponsored groups.
Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett said he has noticed that approach in Foy, a change since Foy joined AFP.
Instead of debating the issues, Bennett said, Foy has chosen instead to launch personal attacks at the supervisors with whom he disagrees. Coincidentally, Foy’s chosen issue of importance for AFP is the exact same issue that the Board of Supervisors is currently considering. That issue is public employee pensions. Not Foy’s pension, but those of union members. All unions are anathema to Koch Industries and are seen as a roadblock to greater profits.
Bennett said it is the public that is the biggest loser when political discourse strays from the issues and descends into personal criticism. “On campaign finance reform, he [Foy] was opposed to it because it was ‘self-serving’ on my part.
On redistricting, he said the proposal was done for political gain and was a power grab. Pension reform was the same thing; he was questioning our motives.”
Bennett said that before Foy joined AFP, the public was treated respectfully through civil debate and a presentation of the issues. But no longer. “This personalizing in a disparaging way and making up and questioning motives, that doesn’t contribute to the public debate.”
How much have the interests of Koch Industries influenced politics in California and the rest of the country? Jenkin said he has seen the results. “This group is having a tremendous effect. I would characterize them as very well-organized, very sophisticated, extremely well-funded. When you can hire the best lawyers and the best publicists and you can buy air time on Fox News, it has a tremendous influence, there’s no question.”