Last week, the world of journalism was rocked when hyper-local outlets Gothamist and DNAInfo abruptly shut down a mere week after their reporters voted to unionize. Their billionaire owner, J. Joe Ricketts, and a DNAInfo spokesperson both pointed to vague concerns about nonexistent increased costs from the unionization effort. Many were shocked that a seemingly benevolent billionaire like Ricketts would engage in such a transparently anti-union action.
But anyone who would have examined the last decade or so of the Ricketts clan’s political spending would not have been shocked. As Ricketts made known in September this year, he believes “unions exert efforts that tend to destroy the Free Enterprise system.” And he’s certainly put his considerable money where his mouth is.
Over that period, Ricketts, his wife, and his children have spent millions of dollars on various anti-union and anti-worker candidates and campaigns, ending up the fourteenth-biggest individual donors in the 2016 election cycle, just behind Democratic mega-donor Haim Saban. At both the state and the federal level, the Ricketts have been active class warriors while largely escaping the kind of sustained scrutiny given to other big-money, right-wing donors.
A Match Made in Union Hell
Exhibit A in the Ricketts’s anti-worker ethos is the family’s love for Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who became a household name by systematically crippling unions in the state over the course of his six-year tenure. Highlights from his two terms include 2011’s Act 10, which severely restricted public sector unions’ bargaining rights, and the 2015 law that turned union-proud Wisconsin into the country’s twenty-fifth “right-to-work” state. The laws devastated the state’s unions, with membership declining by nearly 40 percent since 2010.
Over the course of 2012–13, members of the Ricketts family gave Walker a total of $170,000, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s campaign finance database, including $110,000 from Ricketts himself and $55,000 from son Todd. Todd also donated an additional $10,000 to Walker this year.
The Ricketts’s support for Walker doesn’t stop there. Marlene, Joe’s wife, poured $4.9 million in early 2015 into the Unintimidated PAC, a Super PAC set up to support Scott Walker’s failed presidential run (though the PAC ultimately returned just under $4 million to Marlene after Walker’s campaign quickly sputtered out and died).
Walker ran arguably the most extreme anti-union presidential campaign in modern memory: he railed against “big-government union bosses,” claimed that “collective bargaining is not a right,” and promised to pass both a national right-to-work law and a national Act 10, abolish the National Labor Relations Board, bar federal workers from collectively bargaining, block Obama’s executive order mandating paid sick leave from federal contractors, and stop Obama’s then-proposed overtime expansion. Unintimidated planned $16 million worth of ads before Labor Day weekend attacking workers’ movements.
Marlene also gave $100,000 in 2016 to the Reform America Fund, which spent more than $7 million last year to beat Hillary Clinton and ex-Senator and then-Senate candidate for Wisconsin Russ Feingold. The fund had various ties to anti-union and Walker personnel. It was headed by Lorri Pickens, the executive director of Wisconsin Right to Work, Inc., a nonprofit that campaigned for Wisconsin to become a right-to-work state, and a former director of state operations for the Koch brothers–funded Americans for Prosperity. Its executive director was Keith Gilkes, one of Walker’s closest aides who served as both his 2010 campaign manager and, briefly, his chief of staff, and whose political consultancy, the Champion Group, pocketed $10,000 for providing strategy consulting to the fund. Also listed as a strategy consultant was Johnson & Jordahl, headed by Wisconsin GOP operative R. J. Johnson, and which counts Walker as a former client.
It’s also worth remembering who the Reform America Fund was meant to be defeating: the union-backed, staunchly pro-worker Russ Feingold, for the benefit of Ron Johnson, a man who is neither of those things. Johnson, a right-to-work supporter, used his time in the Senate to co-sponsor a number of anti-worker bills, including a bill that repealed the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931, which mandates that federal contractors pay their workers a certain wage level.
Johnson wasn’t the only senator the Ricketts financially backed. They promoted a variety of congressional candidates through Joe’s Ending Spending Action Fund, a Super PAC that started life in 2010 as anti-earmarks nonprofit advocacy named Taxpayers Against Earmarks, and soon transformed its mission to one of supporting “spending sheriffs” and opposing “budget bandits,” or those perceived as supporting wasteful spending.
The Ricketts poured obscene amounts of money into the Super PAC. Marlene, for instance, gave just under $6 million in 2016 (along with another $850,000 in August 2015), which made up more than a third of its spending that year. In 2014, Joe was its top donor, contributing $8 million of the $22 million it spent that year (incidentally, the Super PAC also received $1.75 million that year from Renaissance Technologies, Robert Mercer’s firm). In 2012, Hugo Enterprises — a Ricketts holding company — accounted for virtually all of its spending that year.
Its mission to curb federal spending often in practice amounted to supporting anti-labor GOP candidates. Some of the congressional candidates it backed included Kelly Ayotte, Roger Marshall, Liz Cheney, Drew Ferguson, Cory Gardner, David Perdue, Ted Cruz, and Jeff Flake. All supported national right-to-work acts, often multiple ones, and all but Ayotte backed measures like the Employee Rights Act, which, among other things, mandated that unions win the support of the majority of all workers rather than just those who vote. There were also those like Joe Heck, who believes social security is a “pyramid scheme.”
Many of them also supported bills like the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act, which excludes Native American tribes and institutions on tribal land from the National Labor Relations Act, and the Save Local Business Act, which made it harder for workers with joint employers to collectively bargain, as well as a host of other measures meant to further water down the power of unions. Unsurprisingly, these candidates also have uniformly toxic legislative voting ratings from the AFL-CIO.
To this end, Joe also gave $1 million in 2016 to Future45, a Super PAC that ended up running an anti-Bernie-Sanders ad that warned of the supposedly job-killing potential of a $15 minimum wage.
The Ricketts family has also donated at the state level in states other than Wisconsin. In 2016, Marlene waded into the Missouri gubernatorial race, donating $50,000 to Eric Greitens in 2016, according to the Missouri Ethics Commission. The Ricketts have not donated any other time in the state.
Greitens, besides having some of the more insane campaign ads of the 2016 election season, was also a staunch right-to-work supporter. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch put it last November, his win “virtually guarantees that Missouri soon will join the ranks of so-called ‘right-to-work’ states,” which it did in February with Greitens’ signature, becoming the twenty-eighth to do so. The state’s unions are now organizing to undo this.
Son Todd, who was briefly in the running to be Trump’s deputy commerce secretary, has been an active donor in Illinois, financially backing right-to-work-supporting Governor Bruce Rauner and his political allies. Besides donating $2,500 to both Rauner’s campaign and that of Jim Durkin, the Illinois House Republican Leader, he put a total of $75,000 toward the Liberty Principles Super PAC in 2014 and 2016.
Liberty Principles has been described as “a chief conduit for allies of Rauner to influence legislative races across the state without any restrictions.” The man who heads the PAC, Dan Proft, is also a senior fellow at the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank run by another Rauner ally that — surprise, surprise — loves right-to-work, hates the higher minimum wage and mandated sick leave, and is fiercely opposed to unions. Despite Todd’s donations, and Rauner’s best efforts, Illinois has not become a right-to-work state, though Rauner did succeed in creating a pointless budget crisis that plunged the state into chaos.
The other state the Ricketts have been active in is Nebraska, where son Pete is governor. His parents were by far the biggest donors to his 2014 campaign, giving him more than $1 million (the next biggest donor gave $150,000). Brother Tom is his fourth biggest donor, with $77,000, while Pete also received $33,000 from Todd, and a token $5,000 from his Obama-supporter sister, Laura. Joe and Marlene have also given far smaller but still substantial amounts to the state’s Republican Party and Nebraskans for the Death Penalty Inc., a group that launched a petition drive to (successfully) overturn the state’s 2015 abolishment of capital punishment.
Nebraska has long been a right-to-work state, but that doesn’t mean Ricketts couldn’t find other ways to make life miserable for working people as governor, refusing to allow Medicaid expansion in the state and making $56 million worth of particularly heartless budget cuts that devastated vital services for the elderly, developmentally disabled, and poor at the same time that he pursued tax cuts. Mom and dad must be proud.
Taken in total, Joe Ricketts’s decision to spitefully shutter his own thriving media enterprise as retaliation for a successful unionization effort is not some aberration. It’s part of a much longer history of anti-union and anti-worker efforts by a family that stands as one of the country’s foremost conservative financiers. The only mystery is how the Ricketts managed to fly under the radar for this long.