Late in January, a small army of right-wing oligarchs and political operatives gathered in Southern California for the Koch Network’s annual winter seminar. They were there to learn about the network’s plans for the 2018 midterm elections. They learned, for instance, that the sprawling political organization will spend at least $400 million next fall to help the Republican Party maintain its majority in Congress. They learned that the network will target Senate Democrats in states where Trump was victorious in 2016, including Wisconsin, Indiana, and Missouri. They learned that the billionaire brothers and their backers will launch a massive direct-mail and get-out-the-vote effort beginning this summer. Relying on their vast financial resources, Charles and David Koch and their friends hope to fix the outcome of the democratic process.
Meanwhile, elections haven’t been the only targets of the titan elite. In courts around the country, wealthy conservative donors have also been busy trying to fix the judicial process. Consider the Janus v. AFSCME case, which is currently before the Supreme Court and which could devastate public employee unions by gutting their ability to collects fees from workers they represent. On its face, the case is being brought by a discontented public-sector worker from Illinois named Mark Janus. In reality, the case is all about furthering the political agenda of the reactionary rich, and especially the agenda of Richard Uihlein. Uihlein is a powerful industrialist who bankrolls right-wing groups and candidates in the Midwest, and his money is behind the conservative legal group that represents Janus in the case.
And then, there’s Amazon and its extortionist efforts to find a new home for its second headquarters. The nearly $700 billion company is using its vast financial clout as a weapon with which to extract tax breaks and other incentives from cities that covet its new headquarters. This has led a series of major American municipalities to offer secret bids to the company, offering to shower public money on the private corporation without disclosing the precise details of their plans. Jeff Bezos, all the while, watches and waits while his net worth—more than $120 billion—grows ever larger.
All three of these cases illustrate the alarming power of organized money—the way that the ultra-wealthy use their resources to hijack the political and electoral machinery that is meant to represent all Americans. But even as they’ve been busy doing their best to rig the system, a cast of local activists, organizers and elected officials have been pushing back with the full force of their grassroots savvy. These urban progressives don’t have the clout, the means, or the money of their foes, but they have determination, and they’ve been deploying it in cities across the country—in Arizona and New York, Ohio, Texas, and well beyond—to try to thwart the dominion of billionaires.
Here’s what they’ve been up to recently.
Tempe Votes Out Dark Money
Since taking office in 2015, City Council member Lauren Kuby has been on a nonstop mission to make Tempe, Arizona’s elections squeaky-clean. In 2015, during her first year on the council, she founded a campaign-finance working group with her colleagues and created an online searchable database that displays every expenditure and contribution in city elections. In 2016, she and her fellow officials established a lobbyist registry for the city and spearheaded a local ballot initiative that strictly capped political contributions by individuals and political-action committees. In 2017, they passed an ordinance that requires city council candidates to explicitly disclose donations they receive from registered lobbyists. And in 2018, Kuby and her allies went further still.