Americans for Prosperity, the conservative political advocacy group financed largely by billionaires David and Charles Koch, brings its war against President Barack Obama to Arkansas this week with a bus tour that will stop in six cities, starting with Jonesboro and Paragould on Wednesday.
The tour will feature former "Cheers!" actor John Ratzenberger, better known as barfly Cliff Claven. Ratzenberger, or at least the pretentious postman he portrayed, is fairly well known, but the Koch brothers are not.
They’ve chosen to use their wealth to influence elections, hiding behind the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case. That allows corporations to buy elections anonymously and political action committees to pour money into campaigns without limits or accountability.
Nobody gives money to politicians without hoping to gain something in return.
The Koch brothers have pledged to raise $100 million to defeat Obama, but they’re not stopping with the presidential election. According to the Washington Post, AFP "plans to spend more than $45 million targeting more than 40 [U.S.] House districts and half a dozen Senate races in key battleground states."
And AFP money has begun to show up in state legislative campaigns even in non-battleground states like Arkansas.
Two weeks ago a mailer financed by AFP went out to residents of state House District 59, which covers part of Jonesboro and other portions of Craighead County. It accused the Democratic incumbent, Butch Wilkins, of "raising our cost of living" and voting to advance a $1.1 billion fuel tax increase. He did vote to advance the proposal — to a vote of the people.
Americans for Prosperity also injected itself into the race for District 58 state representative, in that case financing a mailer supporting the Republican incumbent, Jon Hubbard of Jonesboro. The mailer didn’t mention Hubbard’s Democratic challenger, Harold Copenhaver, also of Jonesboro, but rather emphasized that Hubbard had "signed a pledge to protect hard-working Arkansas taxpayers."
The mailer didn’t mention what Hubbard has done as a legislator to oppose higher taxes, but he was among the minority who voted against the fuel tax election.
AFP is joined in the fight for control of the Arkansas Legislature by another shadowy group, the 60 Plus Association, originally formed with the help of an unrestricted grant from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
60 Plus sent out a similar mailer in support of Hubbard, focusing on the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
That group also sent out mailers accusing two Democratic candidates for the state Senate — Rep. Linda Tyler of Conway and Rep. Barry Hyde of North Little Rock — of voting to create health insurance exchanges in Arkansas under Obamacare. The problem is that the claim wasn’t true, as Hyde pointed out in a news release.
Since the Koch brothers have chosen to try to tell us who we should vote for or against, we should know more about them and what they hope to gain.
Business Week says that Charles Koch, 76, is chairman and chief executive of the energy conglomerate Koch Industries, and that his brother David, 72, is vice president. The magazine says further that the Bloomberg Billionaires index places them as the seventh- and eighth-richest people in the world, with a combined wealth of at least $70 billion.
Their company includes oil and ethanol refiners, pipelines, minerals and cattle. A subsidiary, Koch Supply and Trading LP, is one of the world’s largest energy traders, dealing in hedge and pension funds. That’s important because the 2008 financial meltdown occurred largely as a result of unregulated derivatives swapping and Congress subsequently tightened regulations.
Why are the Kochs interested in Arkansas?
One reason could be the company’s Georgia-Pacific plant at Crossett, which has been under fire because of alleged pollution of the environment. G-P operates a pulp and paper mill, stud mill, plywood mill, chemical plant and associated facilities.
Georgia-Pacific denies that it has caused any pollution, and several filings with the Arkansas Department for Pollution Control and Ecology have resulted in nothing more than a 2010 permit appeal resolution requiring the plant to make certain changes and increase monitoring, including a mercury minimization plan.
Nevertheless, USA Today has reported that the Alpha Alternative School District in Crossett ranks in the top percentile nationally for exposure to probable human carcinogens.
Crossett is a largely poor, minority community of about 6,000 people, about a third of whom work for the Georgia-Pacific plant. While most townspeople are reluctant to speak out against the town’s only industry, others have when contacted by interested media, and various experts have been called in to to test drinking water, air and soil.
In the 15 homes on Crossett’s Penn Road, near the plant, 11 people have recently died of cancer, and others complained to a Huffington Post reporter of breathing problems and their trees dying.
A new documentary featuring the problem, "Koch Brothers Exposed," says that Koch Industries has been required to spend $500 million in six states to fix environmental problems and has been fined $30 million for 300 oil spills across the country. Environmental regulations can be pesky things so it’s better to find legislators who will oppose them.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.