An Arizona group seeking to establish legal personhood for fertilized eggs and embryos is proposing a new way for the state to keep tabs on the personal reproductive decisions of its citizens: Embryo tracking.
An Arizona group seeking to establish legal personhood for fertilized eggs and embryos is proposing a new way for the state to keep tabs on the personal reproductive decisions of its citizens: Embryo tracking.
A bill quietly wending its way through the Arizona legislature would create a database to track every embryo in the state created through Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART), defined in the bill as: “Any procedure, treatment or medical or scientific intervention provided for the purpose of formation of a human embryo with the intent to produce a live birth.” It has nine Republican co-sponsors.
The proposed legislation, (SB 1376), was written by the Center for Arizona Policy (CAP), which bills itself as “Arizona’s leading pro-life, pro-family organization.” CAP pushes anti-choice legislation (including legislation to confer the full rights of personhood on fertilized eggs), opposes gay marriage, and seeks to promote “religious freedom.”
CAP also opposes the practice of assisted reproductive technology for couples or individuals struggling with infertility, and so their answer is to pry into the lives of those seeking such assistance and making all details of their medical treatment public. Similar to portions of SB 1361, another bill from the 2012 legislative session, this newer bill seeks to capture and make publicly available information on the disposition of every embryo created in the process of in-vitro fertilization, and the results of every treatment involving ART. The information required is largely redundant to the statistics and information submitted to the CDC, most of which is publicly available.
According to a source who works in communications in Arizona but spoke to us without attribution, “each legislative session since 2010 we have seen bills seeking to eliminate or reduce the ability of Arizonans confronted with infertility to utilize ART to build their families. These attempts have always included severe penalties for the physicians who treat these patients in our state.” CAP, according to the source, also has been:
“…trying and failing for full personhood that would ban abortion by, basically, making doctors and women guilty of murder. They have failed to date, thankfully, which is why CAP has altered their approach. Instead of coming after personhood head on, they are now taking smaller steps that seem somewhat innocuous. In addition to the redundant and unnecessary reporting, much of which is already required by the CDC, this is merely the beginning of a constant chipping away at the choices available for Arizona families.
“The bill,” noted the source, “is so poorly written and vaguely constructed that no one can say for sure how such a database will be used to go against doctors and even women later.”
Calls to both supporters and opponents of the bill were not returned as of this writing because of the federal holiday.
If passed, SB 1376 would threaten the practices and licenses of reproductive endocrinologists in Arizona. Failure to file reports or filing a false report on embryo creation, transfer, destruction, or movement from one facility to another would be a criminal act and result in an automatic determination of an act of unprofessional conduct. Facilities that violate the requirements are subject to discipline by the state Department of Health Services and also to civil penalties.
This bill requires all “ART” facilities to report annually (either electronically or in written form) the following information to the State Department of Health Services, which in turn would make it publicly available:
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Percentage of live births per completed cycle of egg retrieval
Percentage of transferred embryos that implant
Information regarding the safekeeping of embryos including:
Number of embryos formed
Number of embryos transferred
Number of embryos preserved
Number of embryos deemed not viable for transfer or preservation and destroyed
Number of embryos deemed not viable for transfer or preservation and used for training
Number of embryos not deemed viable for transfer or preservation and used for research
Number of preserved embryos destroyed
Number of preserved embryos used for research
Number of preserved embryos donated to any person for research
Number of embryos donated to another individual for transfer
Percentage of pregnancies resulting in multi-fetal pregnancies broken down by number of fetuses
Percentage of live births having multiple infants
Number of selective reductions performed, broken down by number of embryos transferred before the reduction
Percentage of selective reductions resulting in miscarriage
Percentage of birth defects per single and multiple births
Penalties for non-compliance include:
Failure to file a report results in automatic determination of an act of unprofessional conduct
Filing a false report is a Class 1 misdemeanor (just below felony in the law)
In addition to individual penalties, any organization or facility that violates the reporting requirements is subject to discipline by the Department including civil penalties.
Apart from intruding on the decisions of couples or individuals struggling with infertility, SB 1376 seeks to achieve other means, including intimidating doctors who practice assisted reproductive technology and eventually to shame those who rely on it to become pregnant, as well as a stepping stone to establishing “personhood” for fertilized eggs and embryos.
Since 2010, Sean Fieler, a New Jersey-based hedge fund manager and fervent Catholic, has personally contributed nearly $18 million to political candidates and causes that align with his anti-choice, anti-LGBT, and pro-theocracy views, according to an analysis of tax filings and campaign finance records by Rewire.
He’s a mega-rich member of the New York financial class who backs the Tea Party and rails against “elites.” He spends millions at a time funding extreme anti-government, anti-choice groups including the Susan B. Anthony List and Americans United for Life. He’s set up nonprofits that seem to act as pass-throughs for rivers of campaign cash.
And his last name is not Koch.
Since 2010, Sean Fieler, a New Jersey-based hedge fund manager and fervent Catholic, has personally contributed nearly $18 million to political candidates and causes that align with his anti-choice, anti-LGBT, and pro-theocracy views, quietly cementing himself as the ATM for the most extreme elements of the fundamentalist Christian and Catholic political machine, according to an analysis of tax filings and campaign finance records by Rewire.
“It’s enough money that folks ought to know who he has given to.”
Due to the opaque nature of federal and state disclosure laws, it’s impossible to know exactly how much any individual has given to political candidates, causes, and committees. Experts told Rewire, however, that $18 million places Fieler among the upper tier of political givers in the United States.
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“Whether he’s in the top ten or top 20, it’s impossible to say,” said Dale Eisman, spokesperson for Common Cause, a nonpartisan good government group. “It’s enough money that folks ought to know who he has given to.”
Fieler did not respond to Rewire’s requests for an interview, but our analysis of his public statements and financial contributions paints a picture of a man with extremely deep convictions, and the pockets to match. He has sprinkled funds amongst at least 77 candidates throughout 19 states, has almost single-handedly created a pass-through entity for funding extreme Catholic and Christian groups, and has laid the foundation for a policy center that appears intended to influence the Republican Party to bring ultra-conservative views to the center of its policies.
“When it comes to what are euphemistically referred to as the ‘social issues,’ we promise not to talk about life and marriage, the literal future and irreplaceable foundation of our society,” Fieler told his audience at last year’s annual gala for one of the nonprofits that he funds, the American Principles Project. “To win, we need but make one change, to emphasize, rather than run away from our principles.”
So ubiquitous is Fieler’s money, and so extreme are his views, that even other conservatives are willing to speak out against him.
“Very few people actually support the positions advocated by the groups that he funds but their funding is so massive that they’re able to project more strength than they actually have,” said Jimmy LaSalvia, a conservative strategist and commentator who formerly headed GOProud, a now-defunct group that advocated for LGBTQI people within the Republican Party. “Fewer and fewer conservatives are supporting such extreme social positions. The only thing keeping that movement alive is the funding because there isn’t popular support for those points of view.”
However, given Fieler’s wealth and the fervor of his convictions, it’s likely that he will have a growing influence on conservative politics and national political debates.
Fieler is the manager and co-owner of a financial firm called Mason Hill Advisors, which was formed on Christmas Eve of 2004. At of the end of 2013, the firm had more than $2 billion under management, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
“Fewer and fewer conservatives are supporting such extreme social positions. The only thing keeping that movement alive is the funding because there isn’t popular support for those points of view.”
The funds that Fieler manages through Mason Hill hold large amounts of stock in mining companies whose value depends largely on the value of silver and other metals.
Two such companies are MAG Corporation and Fortuna Silver Mines, both Canadian-based companies that operate in Mexico. (Fortuna also has sites in Peru.)
Like most hedge fund managers, Fieler and his partners take a percentage of their investors’ capital as fees, as well as a percentage of any profit they earn on those investments. While hedge funds are notoriously opaque, it’s clear that Fieler’s business has done well enough to enable him to shower dozens of candidates and a select few of his favored nonprofits with millions of dollars at a time.
The main beneficiary of Fieler’s generosity is the Chiaroscuro Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit that says it aims to “offer the saving grace of Jesus to all while defending everyone’s unalienable right to exercise the religion of their own choosing.”
Fieler appears to have given nearly $13 million to the foundation since 2006, with contributions ramping up in 2010. In fact, Fieler appears to be the only significant contributor to Chiaroscuro, with all other contributions totaling less than $90,000.
“Chiaroscuro” refers to the style of painting from the 17th Century—made most famous by Caravaggio and da Vinci—that emphasized contrasts between light and dark. One can’t help but think the name is a metaphor for how Fieler, who is chair of the foundation, and the group’s president, Greg Pfundstein, see the world: in stark terms, where their views represent the light, and other views belong in the shadows.
In all, Chiaroscuro disbursed some $19.2 million to conservative, and mostly religious, organizations between 2011 and 2013, according to an analysis of the foundation’s own numbers, as well as publicly available documents. (Because Chiaroscuro did not reply to our request for comment, we cannot account for the discrepancies between what they have reported on their site, versus on their tax filings.)
Recipients of Chiaroscuro’s largesse include:
Nearly $1.2 million to EMC Frontline Pregnancy Centers, also known as crisis pregnancy centers, a type of anti-choice center known for bait-and-switch tactics that mislead pregnant women into believing they offer abortion, when in fact they exist to peddle anti-choice propaganda such as debunked claims about the health risks of the procedure.
$650,000 to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the nonprofit law firm that, along with the Alliance Defending Freedom, has played a central role in the scores of lawsuits challenging the Affordable Care Act.
$295,000 to the extreme anti-choice group Americans United for Life.
$275,000 for the Susan B. Anthony List, a key anti-choice group that funds misleading attack ads against pro-choice candidates, while also backing anti-choice candidates.
$100,000 to Live Action, the group run by Lila Rose, a young darling of the anti-choice movement, whose so-called “sting” operations on Planned Parenthood clinics and other progressive groups have veered between over-hyped and clownish.
$20,000 to the National Organization for Marriage, a leading group that opposes equal marriage rights for same-sex couples.
(See complete lists of Fieler’s giving, both directly and through the multiple nonprofits he funds, here.)
But that is far from the full extent of Fieler’s giving. He has an entirely separate collection of entities known as the American Principles Project, with its affiliated groups, the American Principles Fund and American Principles in Action. According to public records analyzed by Rewire, Fieler appears to have given just shy of $1 million to American Principles in 2013 and 2014 alone.
American Principles paid nearly $800,000 in 2013 to 2014 for political advertisements attacking candidates for their stances on same-sex marriage and abortion. Key targets included Cory Booker, the former mayor of Newark, New Jersey, who is now a U.S. senator, as well as Elizabeth Cheney in her bid to win the Republican primaries to become a U.S. senator for Wyoming.
Why Fieler’s group would oppose Elizabeth Cheney—whose anti-gay rights views led to a bitter public conflict with her sister, Mary, who is a lesbian—is unclear.
“Regrettably, the Left’s spontaneous chant against life is not an aberration. It is part of a larger tension with human dignity that underlies their whole project.”
The third target of American Principles’ attack ads was Monica Wehby, a Republican challenger for a U.S. Senate seat from Oregon.
And then there’s Fieler’s personal giving, which he does directly in addition to the millions of dollars in contributions he makes to nonprofits and pass-through entities.
Since 2008, Fieler has contributed $2.5 million directly to 77 candidates in 19 states, including both state and federal races.
His largest contributions included denizens of the ultra-conservative movement. Ken Cuccinelli, the unsuccessful Republican gubernatorial candidate for Virginia, received $72,000. Cuccinelli supports so-called personhood laws, an anti-choice legal Trojan horse that would criminalize abortion and many forms of contraception under the guise of giving fetuses the full rights of legal “persons.”
Other ultra-conservative stalwarts—Mike Pence, Scott Walker, and Carl Paladino—each received $20,000 or more.
Fieler also gave $2,500 to Richard Mourdock, the GOP candidate for a U.S. Senate seat for Indiana who torpedoed his 2012 campaign when he said that pregnancies resulting from rape are a “gift from God.”
If that isn’t wingnuttish enough, Fieler also gave $3,500 to Edward Ray Moore, an unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor in South Carolina, who believed children should be pulled out of “godless” and “pagan” public schools, which he characterized as “the enemy.” He spoke at a 9.12 Project rally (a Tea Party-aligned movement run by Glenn Beck) and was behind a documentary called IndoctriNation, which warned Christians about the evils of public education.
But of all the states, Fieler paid special attention to Utah, giving more than $70,000 to candidates there.
Why would a New York-based hedge fund manager feel so passionate about politics in Utah?
The answer appears to be linked to legislation recently passed in Utah, relating to one of Fieler’s pet causes.
Fieler is a fervent advocate of returning to the use of silver and gold coins as currency in the United States, believing that “honest money” will rein in what he sees as a rogue U.S. Federal Reserve Bank. These views put him in the company of cranks like Glenn Beck, who has been shilling gold to his audiences for years, even while the firm he promotes, Goldline, had to repay millions of dollars to clients in order to settle a 19-count criminal charge in a California court in early 2012.
Indeed, surprising as it may seem, of all the issues supported by Fieler, he has perhaps been most vocal on “honest money.”
American Principles in Action cites promoting “a return to the gold standard and sound money” as its first priority, and Fieler has spoken about silver and gold money at gala events, as well as during interviews with people such as the head of the Gold Money Foundation.
The group has been lobbying lawmakers throughout the states to introduce legislation to allow silver and gold to be used as currency, Fieler said in a June 2011 interview, and trying to figure out how to “mainstream” the idea.
An employee of American Principles, Steven Lonegan, last month wrote a column in which he called the “fight” to return to the gold standard, a “moral issue.”
(Lonegan is a former Koch operative, having worked for Americans for Prosperity. Fieler contributed $10,400 to Lonegan’s unsuccessful campaign for a U.S. Senate seat last year, before Lonegan joined American Principles, according to news reports.)
At around the same time, Utah’s governor signed a bill that legalized gold and silver coins as legal currency in Utah, making it the first such law in the nation.
Who drafted that bill? None other than Larry Hilton.
An editorial in the Salt Lake Tribune called the law “outlandish,” and reported that Hilton claimed in 2011 that gold and silver currency were necessary because “one dollar will be worth one penny in five years,” due to inflation.
“The GOP is the party of life, marriage and religious liberty. Conservatives adopted these issues because they believe in them. Republicans need to push them, and govern with them, not run from them, in order to attract Latino voters.”
On his declaration of candidacy for that race, Hilton said he was on the advisory board of American Principles in Action (though the nonprofit’s most recent available tax filings don’t list Hilton as a board member).
Since Utah’s law passed, Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma have each implemented laws that make silver and gold currency legal tender, and that remove various taxes from transactions using those coins.
It looked as if Arizona was set to follow, with the legislature passing a similar bill in April 2013. However, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the bill, citing practical concerns but no philosophical objection to returning to metal money.
Another ten states are considering similar laws, and a federal version was introduced in 2011 by then Sen. Jim DeMint, who later left Congress to lead the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) reintroduced the bill last year (there was also a House version), but it died in committee.
In all of the public speeches and editorials that Fieler has written calling for the use of silver and gold as currency,Rewire did not find a single instance where he disclosed that he invests in companies that profit from digging up the metal.
There is nothing illegal about Fieler backing silver as currency while also profiting from investing in companies that dig up the mineral, or even any obligation to disclose those interests in the course of his advocacy and lobbying work, according to Eisman, of Common Cause. Eisman says, however, that he would prefer if Fieler chose to make those disclosures.
“It would be nice if he did [disclose],” Eisman said. “It would be reassuring about his commitment to public service if he did.”
In addition to showing candidates and causes with cash, Fieler appears to be trying to establish his groups as thought leaders in the conservative movement.
In October 2013, American Principles released a white paper called “Building a Winning GOP Coalition: The Lessons of 2012.”
Unsurprisingly, the report concluded that Republicans should be more aggressive on “social” issues, such as abortion and marriage.
But it also contained some nuances that explain why Fieler could be such an interesting complement to the Koch brothers.
The report—also known as the “autopsy” of the 2012 Republican defeat—urges immigration reform because, it argues, Hispanics are natural conservatives who are currently alienated by the GOP’s stance on immigration.
If the party shifted on immigration, the report argues, it could “use values issues to attract Hispanics.”
“The GOP is the party of life, marriage and religious liberty,” the report says. “Conservatives adopted these issues because they believe in them. Republicans need to push them, and govern with them, not run from them, in order to attract Latino voters.”
Fieler himself occasionally claims that his “project is nonpartisan,” as he did at the American Principles Gala in 2013.
“If only, there will a little room in the Democratic Party for the unborn, we would willingly engage with them,” he told the room. But then he made known his true contempt for people who disagree with his own religious views. “Regrettably, the Left’s spontaneous chant against life is not an aberration. It is part of a larger tension with human dignity that underlies their whole project,” he said.
Apparently, Fieler’s view of human dignity includes denying reproductive rights to women, denying family rights to anyone other than married heterosexuals, allowing employers to impose their religious views on workers, and imposing fundamentalist Catholic orthodoxies on society writ large.
And given his growing influence in the conservative movement, it’s possible that his views will grow in dominance at both state and federal levels.
The assault had been years, even decades, in the making. But three years ago, a Supreme Court case, the U.S. Census, and anti-Obama backlash set the course for the arsonists who trained their flame-throwers on women's fundamental freedoms.
In the dog days of summer, the “war on women” erupted into a full-fledged conflagration, as heated battles to roll back reproductive rights in the U.S. Congress and in state legislatures across the nation were met with protests from women’s rights groups and grassroots uprisings. While the religious right had, over the years, used its influence to restrict access to abortion and contraception and push for feticide and personhood laws, nothing quite like the anti-choice legislative frenzy seen this past summer had taken place before the Koch brothers entered the war, bringing reinforcements from their legion of wealthy associates.
In North Carolina, thousands of activists gathered weekly, throughout the legislative session, at the state capitol in Raleigh for Moral Monday protests of a host of right-wing measures ranging from voter ID laws to rollbacks of reproductive rights. Many were arrested for trying to enter the capitol building.
And in Texas, the state capitol building in Austin was crammed with protesters as state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) earned her place in Lone Star history with her 11-hour filibuster of a draconian anti-choice bill, SB 5, which, after being stopped by Davis and her pro-choice allies with a dramatic run-down of the clock, ultimately passed into law as HB 2 in a subsequent special session called by Republican Gov. Rick Perry.
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Back in Washington, D.C., the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed HR 1797, a bill that would ban abortion after 20 weeks post-conception.
To the untrained eye, it seemed that a sudden wildfire of anti-choice bills had engulfed the legislative agenda, but in truth the assault had been years, even decades, in the making. It wasn’t until three years ago, however, that conditions became so hospitable for the arsonists who trained their flame-throwers on these fundamental freedoms.
In 2010, three key events created the incendiary political landscape that fueled this summer’s inferno: the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down campaign finance restrictions in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, elections at the state and federal levels that rode the winds of backlash against the 2008 election of Barack Obama, and the subsequent census-year victories of right-wing Republicans whose gains in state legislatures and governors’ mansions gave them control of the process for drawing legislative and congressional districts.
There is little doubt that the rash of anti-choice measures that flooded the legislative dockets in state capitols in 2013 was a coordinated effort by anti-choice groups and major right-wing donors lurking anonymously behind the facades of the non-profit “social welfare” organizations unleashed to tear up the political landscape, thanks to the high court’s decision in Citizens United.
While similarly classified groups exist in progressive circles, they have nowhere near the funding provided to right-wing groups by wealthy, business-focused donors. Of the top-ten outside spending “social welfare” groups engaged in the 2012 elections, all but one were either right-wing or conservative.
Helping to drive the right-wing offensive in the states and in Congress is a network of deep-pocketed business titans convened by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, principals in Koch Industries, the second-largest privately held corporation in the United States. Like the Kochs themselves, many of the donors in the brothers’ networks signaldisinterest in fighting against women’s rights or LGBTQ rights, yet anti-choice groups have seen their coffers swell with millions of the network’s dollars.
“If you want to promote a pro-corporate agenda, you’re only going to get so far,” Sue Sturgis, the Durham, North Carolina-based editorial director of the progressive website Facing South, told Rewire. “But when you start weaving in these social issues like abortion and other reproductive rights issues, then you’re gonna appeal to a broader range of people, and a very motivated voting bloc. They will turn out. So it serves your larger cause.”
The Koch Connection
Rewire’s review of tax records filed by the Center to Protect Patient Rights (CPPR), taken together with a Politico report on the tax records of Freedom Partners, show these so-called free-market organizations, both linked to the Koch brothers, dispensing tens of millions of dollars to groups whose mission it is to end reproductive rights. CPPR was founded in 2009, and is described by the Los Angeles Times as “a primary conduit for anonymous political money in the 2010 midterm [congressional] election.” Freedom Partners was founded two years later, just in time to help shape the landscape of the 2012 presidential, congressional, and legislative races.
Koch Brothers Funding of Anti-Choice Groups, by Organization
more than $8 million to Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee
$32 million to Americans for Prosperity
$15.7 million to 60 Plus
Freedom Partners via CPPR
Since November 2011, the Center to Protect Patient Rights (CPPR) has recieved about $115 million from Freedom Partners. CPPR also took in some $11 million from Americans for Job Security, another pass-through group with connections to prominent businessmen Bob Fisher (director of The Gap, Inc.), Charles Schwab (founder and chairman of Charles Schwab Corporation), and Eli Broad (founder, KB Home and Sun America).
CPPR, in turn, has long had deep funding ties to anti-choice organizations. Here is a list of CPPR disbursements to anti-choice organizations by year.
$2.6 million to 60 Plus
$2.25 million to Americans for Prosperity
$250,000 to Independent Women’s Voice
$25,000 to Nebraska Right to Life
$9 million to 60 Plus
$1.9 million to Americans for Prosperity
$1 million to the Susan B. Anthony List
$559,000 to Americans United for Life Action
$45,000 to Americans United for Life
$2.4 million to 60 Plus
$1.5 million to Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee
Through the creation of non-profit organizations under sections 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) of the tax code, the Kochs and other political money-wranglers concocted several layers of obfuscation for their well-heeled friends to hide behind. The tax code protects groups in those categories from having to reveal their donors.
By its name, you might take the Koch-linked CPPR—now apparently defunct, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics—as yet another astroturf group launched to oppose Obamacare. Run by longtime Koch political operative Sean Noble, CPPR was indeed that, but it was much, much more. Known in political parlance as a pass-through group, CPPR was used by big, unnamed donors to pass money to other organizations, apparently as a means of further obscuring the original source of the funding.
Rewire, examining CPPR’s tax filings, confirmed reporting by NARAL Pro-Choice America and American Bridge that in 2010, it granted more than $1 million to the Susan B. Anthony (SBA) List, about half of the $2 million the group spent that year on advertising for anti-choice candidates and against pro-choice candidates in state and federal races across the country. The CPPR grant accounted for nearly 15 percent of the group’s overall revenues that year.
In Ohio, the SBA List mounted billboards in 2010 making the false claim that Obamacare included taxpayer-funded abortion. (When the Ohio Election Commission ruled that the billboards had to be taken down because the state’s election law prohibits false claims, the SBA List launched a legal challenge, which it has since lost in Ohio courts. The group has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review Ohio’s decision.)
In the 2012 elections, the SBA List upped its game, spending more than $11 million on races across the country, according to a memo reported by The Hill. Because 2012 tax filings were not yet available for public view at the time of publication, we cannot report whether CPPR provided any of those ad dollars.
CPPR’s generosity to groups that push for laws restricting access to reproductive health care and limit women’s rights in pregnancy doesn’t end with the SBA List. In 2010, it provided Americans United for Life Action (AULA) with 39 percent of the group’s operating budget that year. It’s likely that the $559,000 AULA received from CPPR accounted for the $425,374 that it spent, according to AULA’s tax filing, on elections that year. CPPR also gave an additional $45,000 in 2010 to AULA’s sibling organization, Americans United for Life.
In 2011, CPPR gave $1.5 million to the Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee (CWALAC); that more than filled the $500,000 hole Mother Jones’ Stephanie Mencimer reported the organization dug for itself after spending $2 million in the 2010 elections—with a cool $1 million left over for the committee’s anti-choice lobbying in state legislatures, and millions more to come from Freedom Partners, another Koch-linked group. CWALAC was deeply involved in pushing the passage of the Texas anti-choice law.
CPPR also dispensed smaller sums to other anti-choice groups, including $250,000 in 2009 to Independent Women’s Voice, which opposes the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act, and $25,000 to Nebraska Right to Life, which the following year helped pass the first state-level 20-week abortion ban, based on a model bill crafted by the National Right to Life Committee.
So where does CPPR get its money? Like other 501(c)(4) non-profits, it doesn’t have to disclose its donors. But tax filings from Freedom Partners, a 501(c)(6) organization, show, according to an investigation by Politico’s Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei, that since November 2011 CPPR took in some $115 million from Freedom Partners, which Politico editors dubbed “the Koch brothers’ secret bank.”
And lest you think CPPR’s $1.5 million grant to the CWALAC was extraordinarily generous, Freedom Partners also gifted CWALAC with more than $8 million since Freedom Partners’ founding in late 2011, according to the Politico report.
That would make Freedom Partners a sort of granddaddy pass-through group, providing pass-through money to another pass-through organization—CPPR—which, in turn, gave $1.5 million of granddaddy’s money to an anti-choice group, CWALAC, to which granddaddy had already given millions.
Until Politicobroke the story of Freedom Partners’ free-spending involvement in the 2012 elections, few in Washington knew of the group’s existence, despite the presence of longtime Koch confidante Richard Fink, a former president of two Koch family foundations, on Freedom Partner’s board. “[Freedom Partners] made grants of $236 million — meaning a totally unknown group was the largest sugar daddy for conservative groups in the last election,” write Allen and VandeHei.
Donors to the group, they report, are drawn from the network that attends the Koch brothers’ super-secret annual retreats, and pay around $100,000 annually in dues.
Americans for Job Security, another pass-through group with a “free enterprise” kind of name, donated some $11 million to CPPR. Donors to Americans for Job Security, according to the Los Angeles Times, include business giants Bob Fisher, chairman of The Gap chain of retail stores; Charles Schwab, chairman of the eponymous brokerage firm; and Eli Broad, the entrepreneur and philanthropist. All are billionaires.
Dark Money and Not-So-Strange Bedfellows
The court’s decision in Citizens United was handed down just as campaigns for the 2010 midterm congressional and legislative elections got under way, allowing the right to capitalize on resentment against the election of the nation’s first African-American president, who, during his presidential campaign, had been vilified with false narratives about his birthplace, religious faith, and ideology.
Now armed with the ability to spend unrestricted sums, yielded from the contributions of unnamed donors, to influence political campaigns, a group such as the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity—one of two major organizations responsible for organizing Tea Party groups in 2009 by ginning up opposition to the Affordable Care Act—was free to spend some $40 million, by its own accounting, on an estimated 100 races across the country in 2010. (The other was FreedomWorks, which was also founded with Koch money, but no longer receives funding from the brothers, according to FreedomWorks leaders.)
The result was a transfer of power in the U.S. House of Representatives from the Democrats to the Republicans, as the GOP picked up 63 seats. At the state level, the Republican gains were even more stark, with Republicans gaining control of an additional 11 state legislatures to the 14 they already held, and winning a net gain of six governors’ mansions, bringing the total number of GOP governors that year to 29.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, since 2011—the year those elected in 2010 took power—state legislatures have passed more than 200 restrictions on abortion. “That’s about the same number that had passed in the prior 10 years combined,” writes Esmé E. Deprez of Bloomberg.
Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner marks the attack on public workers in her state in 2010—spearheaded by the Koch-linked American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the national “free-enterprise” group that also led the charge against public-sector workers and unions in Wisconsin and Indiana that year—as the opening gambit in the right-wing, state-based legislative offensive that culminated this legislative session with the anti-choice measures shoved, last minute, into the state’s budget bill. “It’s not happenstance,” she told Rewire. “It is well-organized.”
It follows that attacks on reproductive rights came on the heels of the assault against labor unions, public-sector workers, and poor people that began, most famously, in Wisconsin, as soon as the Republican right racked up impressive state-level wins in 2010, or that renewed attacks on voting rights ensued at the same time.
Unlike the more homogenous Republican Party, the Democratic coalition includes voters from a range of populations, including members of organized labor as well as members of ethnic and racial minority groups whose participation in elections has historically depended on voting rights protections. If you make it harder to organize those voters, or more difficult for them to pass muster at the polls, as voter ID laws do, you diminish the coalition’s impact.
“So whether we’re going backwards with the ‘war on women,’ whether we’re going backwards with workers’ rights, or backwards with voting rights,” Turner said, “if you look at what is happening across this nation, we are not progressing; we’re regressing.”
Members of the Koch network are primarily motivated by a quest to eliminate worker, consumer, and environmental protections in the interest of reaping even greater profits for their businesses. In order to accrue power in the electoral arena, however, they’re apparently all too eager to feed the fears of white social conservatives—including the fear of government intrusion—who can be counted on to vote against liberals.
While most of the groups behind the attacks on unions claim no official position on abortion or reproductive health, they share an interest with anti-choice groups in depleting the power of Democrats, who are more inclined to support reproductive rights. In most states, in fact, the very same legislators who champion the right’s pro-business, anti-regulatory agenda were the ones who advanced legislation to heap new and destructive regulations on abortion clinics, and to restrict women’s rights.
In the Texas House, for example, Rep. Jodie Laubenberg (R-Murphy), who sponsored the anti-choice legislation that led to Davis’ Senate filibuster, also heads the state chapter of ALEC. (While ALEC’s designation under the Internal Revenue Service code as a 501(c)(3) organization prohibits it from directly participating in elections, the corporations comprising its membership [including Koch Industries] have political action committees that do.)
Even if their business-boosting patrons in the Koch network wanted to stop the Tea Partiers from ramming through draconian abortion restrictions by any means necessary—which the money men clearly don’t, even if party elders might—they probably couldn’t, said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, president of Lake Research Partners. “This is their ideological agenda,” Lake said of the Tea Party legislators. “They really believe in this. … This is what they always wanted to do.”
And they know that the measures they’re pushing are controversial, she said. Why else would they need to sneak them through the legislative process, as was done in the Ohio budget bill or the North Carolina motorcycle safety bill?
“Thieves in the night,” Nina Turner called it.
In Texas, the abortion bill required two special sessions to pass, and, according to state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), a defiance of Senate traditions in the manner in which the bill was brought up.
“Free Market” = Anti-Choice
To focus explicitly on the Koch network’s generosity to groups attacking reproductive rights alone only tells a part of the story of the anti-woman furor that rocked state legislatures and the U.S. House in 2013.
For instance, the $32 million given by Freedom Partners to Americans for Prosperity (AFP)—which describes its mission as “educating citizens about economic policy and mobilizing those citizens as advocates in the public policy process”—was nearly all deployed in support of candidates who are anti-choice, as was the $15.7 million bestowed on 60 Plus, “free-market,” anti-Obamacare group that claims to represent senior citizens.
Both of those groups also received windfalls from the Center to Protect Patient Right; Americans for Prosperity pocketed $2.25 million from CPPR in 2009 and $1.9 million in 2010, while 60 Plus won $2.6 million in CPPR money in 2009, a whopping $9 million in 2010, and another $2.4 million in 2011.
During the 2012 elections, AFP spent some $33 million on ads designed to defeat the reelection of President Obama, but that only scratches the surface of what the group was up to. It’s difficult to track how much was spent in state races, although the Washington Post reported that in Arkansas alone, AFP laid out $1 million for activities and ads in legislative races—and succeeded in turning the state house red.
Overall, AFP engaged in local and state-level issues and races in some 35 states, according to the Washington Post.
During the epic battle in July of the Texas abortion bill, Peggy Venable, director of AFP’s Texas chapter, tweeted, “#SB1 #HB2 will be determined by whether legislators believe a 20-wk-old fetus is a baby or a choice #TXlege #NoMiddleGround.”
So much for that singular economic policy mission.
In North Carolina’s 2012 legislative races, some $14.5 million was spent by the outside groups empowered by the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, a marked uptick from 2010, when 11 outside spending groups accounted for a total of $2.6 million. According to Facing South’s Sue Sturgis, 75 percent of that 2010 money came from groups supported by or affiliated with one man, Art Pope, a wealthy businessman who has also served as chairman of the board of David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity.
The 2010 Republican victories propelled by Pope’s groups yielded a majority in the legislature; the gerrymandered districts rendered by that majority gave the Republicans a veto-proof supermajority. Not that they needed the veto-proof part: Pope helped elect Republican Pat McCrory to the governor’s mansion and took the helm of the new governor’s transition team. The transition team named Pope to the position of state budget director, where he sits today.
Pope also leads and supports a number of North Carolina groups and think tanks, including the Civitas Institute, whose creation of an online database containing personal information about the protesters arrested in civil disobedience actions during the Moral Monday gatherings during the legislative session raised eyebrows, especially for including information about the protesters’ home addresses and the names of their employers.
A regular attendee of the Koch brothers’ retreats, Pope likes to be known as a champion of free enterprise, not an anti-choice zealot. Nonetheless, Pope money helped propel the anti-choice measures that were shoved into a motorcycle-safety bill, with the North Carolina Family Policy Council leading the charge. The Family Policy Council, as it turns out, is the state affiliate of the anti-gay, anti-choice Family Research Council, and Pope’s family foundation donates to both groups.
If 2010 offered the right an advantage in the midterm elections, thanks to Citizens United and the anti-Obama backlash, its place in the decennial calendar was a boon to the Kochs and their allies as they set about making over the Republican Party in their own image. It was a census year, and the U.S. Census, taken every decade in years ending in zero, also sets in motion the boundary-setting process for legislative and congressional districts. In each state house, the party in power gets to redraw district lines. (States each have their own rules about whether the process is conducted by the legislature or the governor’s office.)
Whether Democrats or Republicans are in charge, each party draws the districts to favor its candidates. But 2010’s Republicans are a special breed.
With right-wing Republicans having trounced Democrats in the midterms and several notable Republicans in the that year’s primaries, they gained control of the redistricting process in many states, where they set about redrawing the lines of congressional and legislative districts in such a way that only very conservative Republicans could win, for instance, finding ways to make the votes of Black and Latino populations less influential within a given district.
In some cases, the outcome of redistricting gave the right enhanced sway. In Ohio’s 2012 congressional elections, for example, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that even though the state’s population was almost evenly divided between Republican and Democratic voters, Republicans enjoyed a 12-4 edge in the outcome of House seat races, while the U.S. Senate seat contested that year was won by a progressive Democrat. (Senate races are statewide elections, not determined by district.)
“This is the reason why, in the State of Ohio, we can re-elect [U.S.] Sen. Sherrod Brown (D), we can re-elect the president of the United States, but we have a different result on the state level,” Nina Turner told Rewire. “It’s absolutely the result of gerrymandering.”
In North Carolina, Sue Sturgis sees redistricting as a factor exacerbating the polarization of her state, where abortion was among a host of contentious issues, including voting rights, that fueled the historic weekly Moral Monday protests.
“That’s certainly how it appears here, where you have a party that’s become more extreme, and is essentially rigging the system to be more extreme,” Sturgis said.
Republicans also won the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012, despite the fact that Democrats won a majority of the popular vote.
In Texas, meanwhile, the worst impulses of district cartographers had been kept somewhat in check by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which subjected Texas—because of its history of disenfranchising non-white voters—to “pre-clear” certain changes to its district maps with the U.S. Department of Justice. In fact, without Texas’ place on the list of jurisdictions subjected to pre-clearance under Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, Wendy Davis would likely have lost her last Senate race because of an attempt to redistrict her voters away.
Davis won a challenge to the new district lines under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Since then, however, the Supreme Court struck down the portion of the act that made Texas subject to added scrutiny, opening the way for more race-based gerrymandering.
But as Justin Leavitt, associate professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, sees it, redistricting doesn’t tell the whole story, which he sees as one more of political polarization than a simple tale of game-rigging.
How else to explain what’s happened to the U.S. Senate, where candidates run statewide, asked Leavitt, an expert in redistricting. “The Senate’s not districted, and, lo and behold, the Senate’s more polarized, too,” he said.
That’s where the influence of the big-money, right-wing groups really matters.
A major player in Republican primaries is the Koch-linked Club for Growth, which appears to exist almost solely to challenge Republican incumbents its leaders deem to be not right-wing enough. With the group’s ad money looming as a threat, GOP incumbents face primary challenges in statewide races if their legislative votes veer from the playbook prescribed by right-wing leaders. The Club for Growth played a critical role in the election of Ted Cruz (R-TX) to the U.S. Senate in 2012, and Mike Lee (R-UT) to the same body in 2010, both through the Republican Party’s nomination process.
Indeed, the draconian abortion law that passed this summer in Texas had its origins, in part, in Ted Cruz’s Senate campaign. Backed by the Club for Growth and other donors allied with the Tea Party, Cruz essentially won his seat in a primary challenge to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R-Houston), who was dismissed as not conservative enough by the right-wing groups that came to control the Republican primary process.
Now up for re-election to his current office, Dewhurst needed to prove his bona fides to the right, said Texas Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), who chairs the Democratic caucus in the Texas state Senate. “This really comes down to the issue of, if you get primaried, or if you look like a moderate Republican, you can’t play to an extreme base,” Watson told Rewire.
Justin Leavitt says the jury’s out regarding the origins of the polarization that characterizes our current politics.
“Political scientists have an endless, probably unresolvable debate about whether it’s the party elites polarizing more and bringing the people along with them, or the people are polarizing more and bringing the party along with them,” Leavitt said. “But there’s far less cross-over voting or ticket-splitting than we’ve seen in the recent past.”
But what if it’s neither the people nor the party leaders? Could it be that the influence of outside spending groups, bent on challenging the established leadership of one party, has intensified the polarization of the whole body politic?
In red states across the nation, that “extreme base” mentioned by Watson has been nurtured and riled by a steady flow of advertising dollars from, as well as rallies and events sponsored by, the very groups unleashed by Citizens United, including “free-market” groups such as Americans for Prosperity, the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, and the Center to Protect Patient Rights, and anti-choice groups such as the Susan B. Anthony List, Americans United for Life Action, and the Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee.
An Overplayed Hand?
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake can’t help but smile when she thinks back to the soul-searching by Republicans in the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s defeat in the 2012 presidential election. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus commissioned a strategy document that especially emphasized the party’s need to be more friendly to women and members of ethnic and racial minorities.
“He must think they’ve absolutely gone crazy to jeopardize their status as a major competitive party if they keep at this,” Lake told Rewire.
Sue Sturgis concurs. “The Republicans have really pissed off a broad swath of the North Carolina public,” Sturgis said. “If you look at the people who have been involved in the protests, it’s not all Democrats. There have been Republicans who have been arrested, and independents. And you know this is … a purple state; it’s not a red state.”
A poll by Public Policy Polling taken as the motorcycle abortion bill made its way through the assembly bears out Sturgis’ assertion.
Not every Republican in the Texas state Senate was happy to have to cast a vote on the notorious SB 5 abortion bill filibustered by Wendy Davis, said Kirk Watson. “The truth of the matter is there were a lot of Republicans on the floor with heartache about this because they know they’ve got women that didn’t support what they were doing. It was very difficult for [Lt. Gov. Dewhurst] to even get that to the floor,” he said.
According to one Democrat present in the Texas Senate during the debate over the SB 5 version of the abortion bill, keeping the heat on Dewhurst during the fight over the bill was Elizabeth Graham, director of Texas Right to Life, who the source said was seen in Dewhurst’s office during the proceedings. Texas Right to Life spokesperson Emily Horne said she couldn’t confirm Graham’s presence in Dewhurst’s office, but didn’t deny it. “I wasn’t with her the whole day,” Horne said of Graham, “but I don’t believe that’s true.”
A message left with the lieutenant governor’s staff requesting confirmation of Graham’s presence in Dewhurst’s office during the debate went unanswered.
But given the limitations imposed on pro-choice candidates by the redistricting crafted by hardline anti-choice Republicans, and the vast flows of money from right-wing outside spending groups, how are the current pro-choice minorities in the affected states ever to gain a political majority?
“Statewide offices,” said Nina Turner. “In these states, the districts are rigged to such an extent that it may be nearly impossible to win any of those [legislative and congressional] districts that are extreme. We’ve got to do it by taking back the statewide offices. That is my recommendation to people here in the state of Ohio.”
Turner, it seems, is taking her own advice, launching a 2014 campaign for the office of secretary of state, the office that oversees the conduct of elections, challenging incumbent Republican Jon Husted, whom Turner calls the “secretary of suppression.” (During the 2012 presidential race, the Obama campaign won a challenge to an Ohio law that “blocked early voting in person on the three days before election day,” according to the ClevelandPlain Dealer.)
The offices of governor, auditor, treasurer, and attorney general were named by Turner as examples as positions for which she’d like to see her pro-choice Democratic colleagues run.
In Texas, meanwhile, Wendy Davis is echoing Turner’s strategy, planning a run in 2014 at the governor’s mansion. The Lone Star state may be red, but a majority of Texans were none too keen about the draconian abortion bill that got through the legislature in spite of Davis’ filibuster, according to a poll conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research before the bill passed into law.
Sue Sturgis noted that North Carolina still has a vestige of the kind of divided government Turner seeks—that the Tar Heel State’s attorney general, Roy Cooper, is a progressive Democrat. But with the state’s new voter ID law coming into play, ground organizing of potential voters is critical, Sturgis said, and it’s already begun in advance of the 2014 midterms.
“You’re going to see efforts to register, efforts to make sure people have the kind of ID they need to have to vote, and you’re going to see big voter turnout efforts,” Sturgis said, adding that the 900 people who were arrested in the Moral Monday civil disobedience actions are being pressed into service as organizers.
For her part, Lake isn’t willing to concede the U.S. House of Representatives to the Republicans or its anti-choice Tea Party caucus. While acknowledging the difficulties posed by the 2010 redistricting, Lake believes enough seats could be in play by November 2014 to give pro-choice Democrats a fighting chance.
Turnout is the key, she said—a notoriously difficult task during midterm elections among the Democrats’ key constituencies, including young people and single women of all races, together with African Americans and Latinos in general.
“[I]f we get the turnout up, they’re gonna overshoot it, they’re gonna overshoot it for suburban women. They already are. This is just going too far,” said Lake of the anti-choice, anti-contraception crusade the Tea Party-driven GOP Congress has embarked on. But the key to Democrats winning in those tough congressional districts, Lake said, will be in raising the money and crafting the messaging to run on those issues.
In Tampa, Florida, at an event sponsored by Americans for Prosperity during the 2012 Republican National Convention, I got a few words with Art Pope, who was being honored at the party, alongside David Koch. Then, he urged caution to his Tea Party allies when looking forward to the 2014 midterm congressional elections. The Tea Party triumph of 2010, he said, “does not signify a permanent realignment.” Rather, he said, “it’s an opportunity.”
If the Democrats meet their turnout goals—and that’s not a given—the 2010 Tea Party victories could signal an opportunity blown. The legislative sessions that closed with vitriol and rights-rollbacks have left a lot of anger in their wake. How that anger manifests on election day is anybody’s guess.