Politics

‘Let’s Stand Together’: Koch Meeting Closes On Opioids, Homelessness, Criminal Reform And Rehabilitation (And No Politics)

Christopher Bedford Editor in Chief, The Daily Caller News Foundation

Palm Springs, Calif. — The 2019 winter Koch Seminar conference closed Monday with barely a mention of the 2020 elections.

Skipping the subject 22 months before the election actually takes place might seem totally normal, but in the elite world of high-dollar Republican donors, maybe less so. Words and phrases like “election, “campaign spend” and “issue ad” were replaced with “sentencing reform,” rehabilitating” ex-cons, “fighting opioid addiction,” “empowering the homeless” and, especially, “broad-based coalitions”– or, working with liberals on issues where there’s agreement. Indeed, the previously omnipresent torch logo of Americans for Prosperity, an umbrella group associated with tea party activism and center-right policy prescriptions, was hard to find, though its officers still littered the crowd and spoke on the stage.

Billionaire industrialist Charles Koch’s libertarian Seminar Network has always stressed issues outside of Washington, a city he’d rather never think about, but recent mainstays of the meetings have shifted, replaced with a concerted effort to promote organizations like Stand Together, a group that focuses on working with successful nonprofits to scale their operations.

“We’ve got to stand together!” Charles Koch told attendees– a call to action repeated by not only his son and officers, but a host of guest speakers ranging from sports legend Deion Sanders to ex-cons. (RELATED: Deion Sanders Is On The Same Team As Charles Koch)

Non-profits like The Phoenix, a now-national, free exercise club for addicts who’ve been clean for at least 48 hours, took center stage. In three states and seven communities when they hooked up Standing Together, they’re now in 22 states and 36 communities. “We were one of their earlier catalysts,” founder Scott Strode told reporters Sunday evening. “We had been operating for eight years, nine years [when we connected with the network] … “That’s not just because of capital investment, that’s because of Stand Together helping us to refine our business practices.”

Strode, who beat a crack addiction in the boxing ring 22 years ago, was beaming when he told reporters the Koch Seminar Network had donated another $3 million to The Phoenix for 2019. “We’re gonna use 2019 to really deepen our capabilities so the organization can go to 3-times its current size over the next two years.”

Another touted organization, The Last Mile, goes into prisons to train convicts on coding, tech, and other high-skill, high-pay trades, and touts a record of zero graduates returning to prison.

Alice Johnson, a woman pardoned by President Donald Trump after 20 years when Kim Kardashian West intervened on her behalf, is now the face of the network’s criminal justice reform message. “And by the way, I had no idea who Kim Kardashian was,” she said to laughter. “My friends had to tear out pages in the magazines and show me what she looks like!” Johnson received the only standing ovation of any meeting reporters were invited to. (RELATED: ‘Since I Left Prison, I Haven’t Stopped Running’: Alice Johnson And Charles Koch’s Fight For Sentencing Reform)

Another organization, Chrysalis, works to place former prisoners in jobs in Los Angeles. With Stand Together’s help, they expanded to Anaheim. Celebrity chef Curtis Stone, who says he has hired over 50 Chrysalis graduates for his two restaurants, was on hand with two former inmates to cook and promote what business owners can do to help. When Darrell Stevenson, who spent 12 years in prison over four sentences and now manages the kitchen manager, pointed to his father out in the crowd, attendees erupted in applause.

British billionaire Richard Branson sent in a video touting his work employing ex-cons. Liberal activist Van Jones sent in a video discussing his work with the network on the First Step Act. (RELATED: Van Jones: John Lewis, Sheila Jackson Lee Opposed Criminal Justice Reform Because ‘They Just Didn’t Want Trump To Have A Victory’)

“Because of our national scope, we can network these organizations together, Evan Feinberg, executive director of Stand Together, told attendees. With 118 non-profits partners focused on workforce development, addiction, mental health, homelessness, jobs, he plans to add 64 more “catalysts” each year. “Our goal is to really build a movement where people based on their own unique gifts and talents are able to succeed.”

“This is very different from anything we’ve done in the past,” Koch Institute and Koch Foundation President Brian Hooks told reporters in an introductory meeting Saturday morning. “We see this as the next big step in the evolution of this network. … The big step forward will be some pretty big changes in the approach we’ve taken in our strategies [to affect societal change].”

Even when politicians like Republican Sen. Mike Lee took the stage, the message was light and focused on how to work with diametrically opposed colleagues like Vermont’s Bernie Sanders. “When thinking, even in the political realm, I’m looking for fellow [party] heretics,” Lee told attendees.

“A large part of [the network’s effectiveness] is due to its partnership with so many of you [partners],” Charles told attendees, “but also because its learned to unite with people all across the spectrum of viewpoints, with different ideas, including those who have been adversaries in the past.”

The weekend’s meeting was the first this year of the Koch’s Seminar Network, which brings together allied leaders and organizations with 634 “partners,” or donors who give $100,000 or more per year, and over 100 new attendees.

The libertarian network, which is is made up of largely center-right, conservative and Republican donors, is frequently hit by players on the left and the right, with President Trump targeting them for opposition to his trade and immigration agenda in tweets sent during their July meeting. (RELATED: What Washington And The Media Still Get So Wrong About The Kochs)

The shift in priorities was not without warning. The network’s rare, 2012 foray into presidential politics to support Sen. Mitt Romney against President Barack Obama is regarded within and outside the organization as an expensive failure. And as tea party Republicans they had supported broke with the network’s libertarian principles time and time again, they soured on the process. “People are taking us for granted,” Hooks told donors at the 2018 summer meeting in Colorado Springs. “This network has got to lead.” (RELATED: Kochs Slam GOP: ‘This Network Will No Longer Follow Anyone’s Lead Or Be Taken For Granted’)

Though there’s undoubtedly a the shift in public priorities, and although the network is sitting out the 2020 presidential election, its officers have made clear they’ll support candidates they feel align with their limited government, pro-Dreamers, free-trade agenda, and politicians in attendance such as Lee and Sen. Ben Sasse certainly hope to benefit from campaign assistance.

“Our north star hasn’t changed over the years,” Hooks told reporters. “Our goal is to find the best ways that we can to help people improve their lives. Obviously, public policy plays an important role in that.”

Editor’s note: Christopher Bedford is editor in chief of The Daily Caller News Foundation, a non-profit that does investigative reporting and trains journalists. It is supported by donors, including individuals, corporations and non-profits, and including The Charles G. Koch Institute and The Charles G. Koch Foundation. From 2010-2011, Bedford was an associate at the Charles Koch Foundation, where he spent a year studying economics, philosophy and business management.  

Follow Bedford on Twitter