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Democrats Fight — With Each Other — Over The Kochs

Democratic side of the bipartisan coalition to produce change in the criminal justice system defends Koch Brothers against attacks from a Democratic research firm.

Posted on July 17, 2015, at 11:39 a.m. ET

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

WASHINGTON — Democrats are defending the efforts of the Koch brothers. And they're defending the Kochs from attacks by other Democrats, who say the brothers' criminal justice work is just a "scam."

On Thursday, the Democratic-leaning research firm American Bridge Thursday released an opposition-research-style report, "The Koch Brothers' Criminal Justice Pump-Fake" that argues the criminal justice advoacy that the Kochs have poured money into is little more than a bogus attempt to distract from the Kansas billionares' anti-progressive agenda.

"A key point here is we're not making allegations against the Koch brothers, we're not trying to put our heads inside their head. We're literally quoting them about what their intentions are behind their criminal justice push," said Eddie Vale, president of American Bridge, adding that the report was timed to coincide with the growing momentum for bipartisan criminal justice legislation on Capitol Hill. "Kudos for honesty, their PR department has straight up said they like to talk about this because it deflates a negative narrative around the Koch brothers."

Criminal justice advocates on the left defended the Koch Brothers and said the attack missed the mark.

"I hope they hold onto that report and frame it," said Van Jones, a progressive organizer and former Obama administration official currently leading #Cut50, a prominent bipartisan criminal justice effort. "They can frame it right next to the picture of Obama signing a bill by Christmas and keep it as an object lesson in the downsides of division and also the incredible possibility in a democratic system for ideas to breakthrough."

It's a weird turn of events, but the unsurprising conclusion to the drug war collision course: progressives and libertarians, led by the Kochs, agree that the tough-on-crime policies of the 1980s and '90s need to change, from mandatory-minimum sentencing to the use of criminal records in hiring. President Obama even praised the Kochs this week, a week in which he commuted the life sentences of 46 drug offenders and advocates say big changes could really be coming.

Some of Jones' allies worried that the timing of the American Bridge attack could threaten the burgeoning bipartisan criminal justice coalition on Capitol Hill just as it is beginning to show signs of potential success.

"Whether their intentions are good or not, they've been very helpful in getting conservatives on board," said one activist, who said progressive criminal justice advocates have sometimes had to deal with liberals whose knee-jerk reaction to the name Koch brothers is to recoil after years of anti-Koch messaging. "Lefites will sometimes ask 'what's up with this Koch brothers bill? Why are you supporting it?' We have to explain it's also backed by the White House."

For Democrats trying to get bills passed in Congress, the timing of the American Bridge attack was a head-scratcher. Progressives credit Koch-backed efforts inside the GOP with bringing old-school tough-on-crime Republicans to the bargaining table with advocates, seen as the key to getting a legislation done and sealing another part of Obama's legacy.

"It doesn't make much strategic sense," said one Obama administration ally. "Who fucking cares why they're doing it if Republicans can point to them when they're supporting reform?"

Beyond the politics, many progressive-leaning advocates inside the criminal justice movement actually don't think the Koch brothers — or brother, as they often point out, noting that the criminal justice focus is supported most specifically by Charles Koch — are trying to pull a fast one with their support for the cause. Mark Holden, Koch Industries' general counsel, can talk for hours about the minutae of the criminal justice system and the ways it should be changed to be fairer to the poor and minorities. Liberal advocates often single him out as a powerful ally.

Outside of the legislative fight, the Kochs have won praise from the left for instituting changes within Koch-owned companies advocates on the left have long said would mitigate the impact a conviction could have on felons long after they leave prison. In April, Koch Industries stopped asking prospective employees about their criminal history on applications, joining with the so-called "ban the box" movement that argues those questions should wait for later in the hiring process, so felons who have served their time aren't weeded out before they have a chance to prove themselves. Ban the box has predominantly been led by progressive groups like the NAACP.

The box ban proved the American Bridge take on the Kochs and criminal justice, according to Vale.

"From our perspective, proves our point about what's behind this. Banning the box is good, no question about it," he said. "But in my book when you layoff workers to close plants and you layoff workers to outsource jobs and you don't give people a raise in the minimum wage and you want to take away their health care, doing something that is good doesn't absolve you of your other sins when the latter are much outweighed by the former."

Holden said the banning the box was an effort to make hiring at Koch Industries a model.

"We removed the box from our application because we are focused on finding the best candidates for employment based on who they are now and their entire person," he told BuzzFeed News in an email. "We don't think it is fair to exclude someone from the outset based on a mistake they may have made in their past."

The Kochs remain among the deepest pockets funding efforts to defeat progressive candidates for office and many progressive goals like new climate change regulation and an increase in the minimum wage. The brothers do not want a Democratic president nor do they want more Democrats in Congress. That hasn't changed even as they've allied with the White House recently. The criminal justice coalition is generally characterized by both sides as a marriage of convenience rather than a permanent long-term relationship.

"We have disagreed before. And it's likely we'll disagree again," Neera Tanden, president of the left-leaning Center For American Progress, told PBS in a joint interview with Holden in April. "But I think [the coalition] really speaks to the importance of this issue. We are willing and our friends on the right are willing to come together and work on it."

Vale was not as generous. He noted the Kochs have expressed support for politicians like Scott Walker, who has a legacy of boosting incarceration rates while also taking on public employee unions. When the Koch priorities of criminal justice and union busting are in opposition, he said, the Kochs will back away from the criminal justice.

Thursday's rift between Democrats over the Kochs defined the ways the criminal justice advocacy movement can both run alongside and counter to mainstream politics — often at the same time. The recent success of the criminal justice advocates can be traced back almost entirely to Koch-backed efforts in red states like Texas and Georgia to reduce nonviolent drug sentences and release prisoners into less expensive community outreach programs and supervised probation. That effort linked libertarians, evangelicals and social justice progressives in the the states.

In Washington, progressive lawmakers who had pushed for changes to the criminal justice system as it relates to the drug war for years found themselves with Republican allies as the libertarian wing of the Tea Party movement took power. Those Republicans quickly became the most vocal supporters of criminal justice legislation on Capitol Hill, joining with progressive Democrats to support bills aimed at eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and other priorities.

At the same time, Obama's Justice Department, with the support of the progressive movement, was making big changes to prosecutions and clemency review aimed at unilaterally making changes to the criminal justice system favored by advocates.

The two sides formally combined their national efforts after Republicans won the Senate in 2014. Criminal justice was on the short list of agenda items the White House said could be possible in the new political reality, and it wasn't long before the Kochs and CAP linked up to to create the high-profile Coalition For Public Safety, which promised to pour millions into a push to pass new criminal justice laws. Those efforts mirrored existing left-right partnerships in the states and some smaller coalitions already formed in Washington, such as a group formed by two former co-hosts of Crossfire, Jones and former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

The efforts also left Democrats, who have made the Koch Brothers enemy number one in more than one election cycle, in a tricky position.

Koch-funded advocates and their allies are a regular part of the coalition to make bipartisan criminal justice legislation happen before the end of the year. That group has the support of the White House, which has regularly hosted meetings between criminal justice advocates, including Koch-backed advocates, and administration officials.

At the same time, nearly a billion dollars in Koch money is being deployed across the country to create field programs and ad campaigns aimed at defeating Democrats, especially the party's presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton, at the polls in 2016. The party has already promised to make the Koch brothers a focus of fundraising and organizing efforts this cycle, and that push has already begun.

Vale said American Bridge's ongoing effort to prove the Koch brothers don't actually care about criminal justice won't derail bipartisan efforts to pass a bill.

"I do appreciate other people's characterization of how much influence and power we have," Vale said. "If I thought that legislation in the United States congress would hinge on the words of American Bridge, then I would be a very happy camper. But I'm not going to grant myself that much power."

Jones said the partisan battles in Washington will rage, but the criminal justice movement will survive it.

"Underneath all this crap of the food fights that American politics have become, and all the incentives to keep the food fight going...underneath all this crap is a real pent-up desire to do something on the part of an awful lot of people in that town," he said. "People don't actually go through all the crap of being elected so they can literally get nothing done."

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.