Sam Brownback’s Blind Ambition Tour

Sam Brownback’s Blind Ambition Tour

The Kansas senator has been grandstanding for the right for years, and now he has his sights set on the White House.


On June 6, just two weeks after declaring, “All of the President’s nominees–both now and in the future–deserve a fair up or down vote,” Kansas Senator Sam Brownback used a parliamentary maneuver to block the nomination of Julie Finley to be US Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Finley is one of the Republican Party’s most effective fundraisers, “the queen of soft money,” as the New York Times‘s Jill Abramson described her in 2000. She is a forceful advocate for the expansion of NATO and “democracy promotion” in former Soviet-bloc countries–issues that would occupy a major part of her job at OSCE. She is also the founder of Women in the Senate and House (WISH), which raises money on behalf of female Republican candidates who are prochoice. It was that aspect of Finley’s résumé that riveted Brownback’s attention, even though abortion is practically irrelevant to the mission of OSCE.

To block Finley, Brownback exercised the privilege called a hold, by which a senator can put a presidential nomination in purgatory indefinitely. Brownback’s hold went largely under the radar in Washington, but outside the Beltway, his base was ecstatic. On May 3 the Republican National Coalition for Life had issued a press release declaring, “We are concerned that, given [Finley’s] history of support for liberal abortion policies, she will be able to promote her proabortion views through the OSCE.” The Republican National Coalition for Life is directed by Colleen Parro, who told me she “admires Brownback very much for blocking [Finley].” She shares Brownback’s belief that the Republican Party should require a litmus test on abortion for GOP members who seek promotion through the party’s ranks.

“There are a lot of issues about which reasonable people can agree,” Parro said. “That takes place all the time in the Republican Party on matters that are not fundamental. But the right to life is fundamental. You are either prolife or you’re not. If you’re not, and you want to be a Republican, you should just be quiet.”

In 1990 conservative doyenne Phyllis Schlafly started the Republican National Coalition for Life to counter Republicans for Choice’s campaign for a prochoice platform at the 1992 Republican National Convention. There Parro, a veteran antiabortion activist, locked horns with Finley, who had thrown her fundraising muscle behind Republicans for Choice’s efforts. In the platform battle, the Christian right emerged victorious. By last year’s convention, the GOP’s prochoice wing was completely marginalized. On the convention’s second day Parro hosted an extravagant luncheon for social conservative leaders at Central Park’s Tavern on the Green. While she and her guests made the requisite calls for Bush’s re-election, the spotlight was on their hero, Sam Brownback, who was honored with an award and given the podium for a speech. The movement was beginning to size up his presidential potential.

Brownback’s ambition is becoming clearer by the day. He has already made trips to the primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire. And just as his likely contender for the Republican nomination, Senate majority leader Bill Frist, exploited Terri Schiavo to burnish his “culture of life” credentials with the GOP’s religious base, Brownback has used Julie Finley. The difference is that Frist got burned publicly and was widely criticized for his maladroit handling of the Schiavo affair, while Brownback received credit from the religious right for standing up on principle to President Bush, while most of the mainstream media gave him a pass. Having reaped the political benefits of opposing Finley, Brownback quietly lifted his hold on her nomination on June 10. With social legislation as his tool, Brownback leverages the support of the Christian right forces, which helped lift him from obscurity more than a decade ago. The culture war also serves as Brownback’s means to divert attention from the alliances with elitist religious cults and corporate front groups he has assiduously cultivated throughout his career.

A soft-spoken farmer’s son and former broadcaster who attended auctioneering school, Brownback married the heiress of the Topeka Capitol-Journal and other media properties, including television stations. “While the Kansas conservative style generally features loud, sweaty campaigning at the most energetic and antihierarchical sort of Protestant churches,” Thomas Frank writes in What’s The Matter With Kansas, “Brownback favors the approach of the unhurried insider, the ultramontane, even.” Brownback began his political career in 1986 as Kansas’s youngest-ever Agriculture Secretary, a post to which he was appointed under archaic rules by a panel of agribusiness leaders. Among Brownback’s most notable accomplishments was the gutting of restrictions on the herbicide atrazine, which has been proven to increase the incidence of lymphoma among residents in areas where it is used. By the time Brownback’s appointment to Agriculture Secretary was ruled unconstitutional in December 1994, he had already been elected to the US House.

Two years after winning his House seat, Brownback declared his candidacy to replace then-Senator Bob Dole, who had abandoned his seat to run for President. First Brownback vanquished Dole’s chosen replacement, the prochoice Republican Sheila Frahm. Then he ground out a commanding victory in the general election against centrist Democrat Jill Docking, who had made Brownback’s far-right views a central theme of her campaign. The race was dead even throughout, but as the two neared the finish line, Brownback suddenly pulled away. He attributed the last-minute surge to a push by Christian right forces. “Pat [Robertson] got me elected in 1996,” he recently told Newsweek, It is true that Brownback generated unprecedented support from social conservatives in his victory, but something much darker was also at play, a scheme he remains mum about to this day.

In June 1996, during Brownback’s run against Frahm, he was visited by Carlos Rodriguez, a consultant to Triad Management Services, a shady, for-profit corporation run by a veteran Republican fundraiser. After the meeting, Rodriguez shot off a memo reading, “This is perhaps one of the most, if not the most important races in the nation in regards to the conservative coalition. As such we must do everything in our power to ensure a Brownback victory in the primary.” Triad funneled cash to Brownback’s campaign through its scores of clients, including two of Brownback’s in-laws. Triad’s finance director even accompanied Brownback to Republican headquarters to dial for dollars. Under federal election law, corporations are not allowed to make direct contributions or provide free services (like fundraising help) to politicians. After helping him defeat Frahm, Triad steered $410,000 to a front group, Citizens for the Republic Education Fund, that ran a single attack ad against Docking repeatedly throughout a two-week period, propelling Brownback to victory. Democratic Senate investigators believe this money came almost entirely from the Wichita-based Koch Industries, America’s largest privately owned energy company, which had already contributed more than $30,000 to Brownback’s campaign.

Though Brownback denies knowledge of the contributions, he has been the darling of the Koch Family Foundation during his years in Washington. Brownback has a 100 percent rating from the Cato Institute, an antigovernment, libertarian think tank founded by Charles Koch, who directs it along with his brother David. Brownback toes Cato’s line on blocking the passage of hate-crimes laws. (“Shouldn’t our law make room for the possibility that people can exhibit some variation of bigotry in life–but then change?” the associate director of Cato’s Institute for Constitutional Studies said before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1999.) Brownback has written a glowing blurb for a Cato-published book promoting the privatization of Social Security, and he supports Cato’s efforts to gut environmental regulations like the Oil Pollution Act and the Clean Water Act, which have been used to levy $35 million in fines against Koch Industries for illegally dumping waste across the country. The Koch family has rewarded Brownback handsomely for his efforts on their behalf, donating $64,000 to his 2002 re-election campaign and $30,000 to his Restore America PAC. That same year, Brownback was fined by the Federal Election Commission for violating election guidelines in 1996 through his dealings with Triad Management.

In spite of his pious public image, Brownback’s spiritual life seems to be defined by his wealth and corporate ties. In 2002 he converted to Catholicism under the guidance of the Rev. John McCloskey, a leader of the secretive right-wing cult Opus Dei. At the time. McCloskey operated out of a K Street office with a mission to spread the Gospel exclusively to the rich and powerful, whom he calls “the righteous remnant.” Brownback refuses to discuss his conversion, perhaps because of the controversy McCloskey has generated by, for instance, demanding that Catholics who use birth control leave the Church. Or perhaps it’s because McCloskey leads an organization founded by a clerical fascist, Josemaría Escrivá, an ally of Spain’s Franco. Escrivá prescribed that members sleep on wooden boards and flagellate themselves to expiate their sins. Brownback is also reticent about his membership in The Family, a shadowy Christian-right group comprising all-male elites. Some of its most famous members have included Watergate crook Charles Colson, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint and the brutal Somalian former dictator, Mohammed Siad Barre. “The goal [of The Family] is an “invisible” world organization led by Christ–that’s what they aspire to,” Jeff Sharlet, a journalist who revealed The Family’s inner workings in Harper’s Magazine, said in an interview with Alternet.

Few Kansans, including his conservative Christian admirers, are aware Brownback travels in such circles. He is better known as “the new internationalist,” as the New York Times‘s Nicholas Kristof has decribed him, working across the aisle to stop human trafficking and genocide in Africa. He’s the racial healer who presses for a formal US government apology to African-Americans and Native Americans. Or he’s the preacher who channels Martin Luther King Jr. to promote his values. “A spring has begun,” he declared in April during an antiabortion rally on the Mall in Washington. “A spring when all babies…babies of all races will be born, not aborted, and grow up playing with each other.” He’s presented himself as anything but just another Republican insider.

With a bill headed for the Senate that would increase federal funding for research on surplus stem-cell lines, Brownback is poised to set himself apart from the crowd once again. The bill is likely to garner support from at least sixty-seven senators–enough to override Bush’s promised veto. Brownback is vowing to prevent the bill from reaching the floor; he will even filibuster, if necessary. As he told the Kansas City Star on June 6, “I’ve learned how to delay and stop things.”

President Bush, his agenda on Social Security and other issues stalled, lashed out in frustration on June 14, claiming the Democrats “stand for nothing but obstruction.” But Bush neglected to mention Brownback’s hold on the Finley nomination and his threatened filibuster against the stem-cell research bill. The obvious hypocrisy of his opposition to filibusters against Bush’s judicial nominees while embracing the tactic against the appointment of prochoice Julie Finley and stem-cell research doesn’t bother Brownback or his Christian-right supporters.

On June 13 Brownback informed the Topeka Capital-Journal editorial board that he would not seek another term in the Senate but was exploring a run for the presidency instead. “It’s such a long race that you’ve kind of got to line up way early, particularly if you haven’t been out in that field before,” he said. Grandstanding is an accelerator for his ambition.

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