Wisconsin protests: How did everyone in Madison become obsessed with the Koch brothers?

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Feb. 23 2011 7:44 PM

Public Enemies Nos. 1 and 2

How did everyone in Wisconsin become obsessed with the Koch brothers?

Anti-Koch signage in Wisconsin. Click image to expand.
Anti-Koch signage in Wisconsin

MADISON, Wis.—The standoff over the Budget Repair Act is about the portions of the legislation that scale back union rights. That's how it started. That's why the AFL-CIO, SEIU, AFT, and every other union with a bus is at the capitol. But many of the protesters think it's about something more insidious. On the walk into the capitol today, I saw these six signs in the space of 10 minutes:

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

Scott, How Much KOCH Have You Done?
Scott Walker is a KOCH Whore
CONFIRMED: Walker and Koch, Brothers With Bats
KOCH-SUCKERS
Drunk With Power—High on Koch
Recall Koch Bro's "Puppets"—"Scott Walker" & "Republicans"

None of the protesters knew the other, but some of them bonded over their obsession: the influence of David and Charles Koch, two of the wealthiest men in America, donors to a bouquet of libertarian and Tea Party causes. Amy Janczy, from Lake Mills, Wis., carried the "Drunk With Power" sign; David Wend, from Madison, carried the "Puppets" sign. They stopped to talk.

"I've been doing a lot of reading about the Kochs," explained Wend.

"I read the legislative summary of the Budget Repair Act," explained Janczy, "and saw the stuff in there about the giveaways for the power plants. I saw the Kochs' fingerprints on that."

She was talking about Section 16.896 of the bill, which empowers Gov. Scott Walker to "sell any state-owned heating, cooling, and power plant or may contract with a private entity for the operation of any such plant, with or without solicitation of bids." That section started to get attention on Monday; by this morning, Democrats in the state Assembly were using the floor time allotted to them in their quasi-filibuster to ask whether the Kochs were behind it, or interested in buying the plants.

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Madison's liberal Capital Times newspaper got a flat denial of that claim. "We have no interest," said Philip Ellender, Koch Companies' president of government and public affairs, "in purchasing any of the state-owned power plants in Wisconsin and any allegations to the contrary are completely false."

I pointed this out to Janczy. "Well," she said, "they may say that, but I don't believe it."

When it comes to the Kochs, progressives in Wisconsin are ready to believe the absolute worst. Inside the capitol there are dozens of agitprop signs accusing the brothers of buying the election for Walker. There are detailed lists of Koch companies and which products to boycott in order to starve them. There are articles taped to the walls from Forbes magazine ("Texas Koch Brothers Behind Wisconsin Effort To Kill Public Unions") and the New York Times ("Koch Brothers' Money Fuels Wisconsin Fight"). On Wednesday, a new sign started appearing around the halls, informing protesters of a picket outside the stately office building, not far from the capitol, where Koch Companies have hired seven lobbyists.

In sum: They have found the enemy, and it is Koch.

But how big a role are the Kochs actually playing in Wisconsin? A popular argument on the streets here is that Walker got $43,000 from Koch's PAC, and that the PAC gave $1 million to the Republican Governor's Association—a fact dug up first by Andy Kroll of Mother Jones. One protester pointed out to me that Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., had spoken at one of the Kochs' annual conferences. Thanks to the no-cameras-please PR strategy of the Kochs (none of their Madison lobbyists responded to my interview requests today), these mid-sized donations have taken on mythic proportions.

How can we judge how deep the Kochs' influence runs? That New York Times story points out that all Koch-affiliated companies and employees gave about $1.84 million to Republicans, nationwide, in the 2010 election cycle. Americans for Prosperity, the nonprofit Tea Party-organizing group co-founded by David Koch—he's still on the board—had a $40 million budget in 2010. (On Tuesday AFP announced a $342,000 ad buy supporting Walker.) Nationally, the labor movement spent far, far more than this. To take one example, AFSCME, whose green-shirted members have made their presence known in Madison, spent $87.5 million on the election.

Many protesters, and some Democratic politicians, are blunt enough to say that the labor movement is essential because of its financial generosity. (One sign I saw listed the 10 biggest sources of money in politics to make the point that unions were the only thing keeping Democrats in the game.) Liberals here and elsewhere were infinitely more critical of the Citizens United decision than conservatives were, but that decision gave unions the same get-out-of-disclosure-free card it gave to corporations.

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