Using Millions to Bully His Way to Political Power


berko-2Rex Sinquefield is a legitimate “rags to riches” story. However, instead of using his millions to improve the lives of the poor and working people, our protagonist is bullying his way to political power in pursuit of an agenda that benefits the privatizers and the rich and powerful. You probably never heard of him, you wouldn’t know him if you ran into him at a St. Louis Cardinal game at Busch Stadium or rode in the same elevator to the top of the city’s Gateway Arch. If you live in Missouri—thereby directly effected by the way he wields his wealth—and if you want to understand how one very wealthy and powerful individual goes about the business of building influence throughout the state, consider the story of Rex Sinquefield.

According to a new report by the Center for Media and Democracy titled, “A Reporter’s Guide to Rex Sinquefield and the Show-Me Institute: What Reporters, Citizens, and Policymakers Need to Know,” since 2008, Sinquefield, a financial tycoon, “has poured tens of millions of dollars into elections and referenda to try to secure legislators and laws to advance his agenda. He has dumped millions into front groups and lobbying entities to massage politicians, spin the press, and try to soften up public opinion toward his personal wish list for changing Missouri law.”

Rex Sinquefield “is one of the top right-wing political funders in the country, and the single top political spender in Missouri, where he has spent at least $31.5 million since 2006 seeking to reshape Missouri laws, legislators, and policies according to his own ideological mold,” said co-author Brendan Fischer, General Counsel of the Center for Media and Democracy. “Plus, like the Kochs, he pursues his agenda through a diversity of avenues, including his pet think tank the Show-Me Institute and front groups and lobbying entities, in order to massage politicians, spin the press, and try to soften up public opinion toward his personal wish list for changing Missouri law.”

A Reporter’s Guide points out that two years ago, “Sinquefield told the Wall Street Journal that what he had spent so far is ‘merely the start of what he’ll spend to promote his two main interests: ‘rolling back taxes’ and what he describes as “rescuing education from teachers unions.’ He has also invested in groups working to thwart fair wages in Missouri, and undermine other long-standing union rights.” Greasing the skids for Missouri politics, “Key findings from the report include”:

    • Sinquefield has disclosed spending at least at least $31.5 million on state elections since 2006.
    • In 2013, Sinquefield spent at least $2.35 million over a one-week period unsuccessfully urging legislators to override Governor Jay Nixon’s veto of Sinquefield-backed tax cut legislation. In 2014, he has already given Missouri Club for Growth $973,000, which will spend some of that money to replace the 15 Republicans who sided with Nixon.
    • He gave $100,000 to the Speaker of the Missouri House, Tim Jones, for his 2012 campaign—despite Jones running unopposed. Jones is a member of the ALEC Education Task Force and was previously the ALEC State Chair for Missouri.
    • Other states that have cut income taxes have offset the lost revenue by taxing capital gains or hiking property taxes, but Sinquefield, whose vast wealth has come from investments and who owns two of the most expensive mansions in the state, wants instead to hike the sales tax, which disproportionately affects working people.
    • Sinquefield called neighboring Kansas’s steep tax cuts “unbelievably brilliant” in 2012 and predicted that Missouri businesses would quickly flock across the border. But in the year following the cuts, Kansas’s economy has lagged behind most of the region and has actually added fewer businesses than Missouri.
    • Sinquefield’s Pelopidas has bankrolled ALEC, sponsoring ALEC’s 2013 Annual Meeting to the tune of six figures and also sponsoring a workshop at the meeting.
    • Sinquefield has given hundreds of thousands to ALEC legislators in Missouri, who have used ALEC model bills to advance Sinquefield’s school privatization agenda.
    • In 2014, Missouri Club for Growth, which is almost entirely bankrolled by Sinquefield, sent mailers in an effort to influence a referendum on school funding in tiny Nixa, prompting outrage from the community.
    • Sinquefield backed Todd Akin’s candidacy for the Senate, even after Akin said that women who are victims of what he called “legitimate rape” rarely get pregnant. Nevertheless, Sinquefield continues to try and repeal the progressive income tax system, thwarting efforts to secure fair wages for hardworking Missourians and investing in legislation that weakens Missouri’s public schools.

Rags To Riches Story

berko1Sinquefield has an actual “rags-to-riches” story. His father died when he was young and he was sent to live with the nuns of the Sisters of Christian Charity at the German St. Vincent Orphan Home, until he returned home to St. Louis to attend a private Roman Catholic school. He joined the Army during the Vietnam War and spent two years at Ft. Riley in Kansas.

He received an MBA from the University of Chicago, and “[while] there, he became enthralled by ‘free market’ economists, like Merton Miller and Gene Fama, who later won Nobel prizes for theories about efficient markets.” After working for American National Bank (which ultimately became part of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.), in 1981, Sinquefield, along with classmate David Booth, founded Dimensional Fund Advisors. “DFA made a fortune on ‘passive’ stock market investment in index funds rather than betting on shares of individual companies, a limited version of the efficient-market hypothesis. Basically, DFA creates mutual fund portfolios for investors, such as government pension boards that manage the defined benefit plans (DBPs) of workers or individuals with defined contribution retirement plans that lack the same financial security as DBPs.” After 40 years of living outside the state, Sinquefiled returned to Missouri in 2005 and since then he’s been trying to “fix” the state.  The “jewel” in Sinquefield’s “privatization crown” is Missouri’s Show-Me Institute (SMI), described by A Reporter’s Guide as “a right-wing ‘think tank’ that pushes education overhaul (and other policies), and receives just shy of $1 million every year from the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation.” Brenda Talent, the wife of former U.S. Senator Jim Talent, currently leads SMI.

Not surprisingly, SMI describes itself as a nonpartisan “research and educational institute dedicated to improving the quality of life for all citizens of Missouri.”

Despite its description, the report points out that the Show-Me Institute intimately tied to the State Policy Network (SPN), a centrally funded, nationally organized $83 million operation [whose] [d]onors…include some of the biggest ideological interests of the right. SMI is also funded by some big out-of-state interests,” including the Koch-tied Donors Capital Fund which has given over $567,941 to SMI between 2005 and 2011 [and] such longtime right-wing funders as the Roe Foundation, the JM Foundation, and the Castle Rock Foundation.

The report notes that “SMI is also a member of the controversial American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and helps push the ALEC cookie cutter agenda in the state of Missouri.” According to Progress Missouri areas, SMI pushes the ALEC agenda in the following areas and more:

    • Protection to make it difficult for employees to fund unions
    • Privatizing public education through vouchers and charter schools
    • Teacher tenure “reform”
    • Opposing the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion
    • Opposing raising the minimum wage
    • Eliminating defined benefit pensions for public employees (calling for a shift from defined-benefit plans

Another Sinquefield-related project is Pelopidas LLC, a sophisticated and savvy lobbying outfit. Pelopidas was “Founded in 2007 by Travis Brown, a former lobbyist for Monsanto and K12, and his wife Rachel Keller Brown, who lobbied for the education privatization group Advocates for School Choice, the firm pushes bills and ballot initiatives; lobbies legislators, and helps campaigns develop ‘issue ads’; and aims to swing both public opinion and legislative votes.”

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Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.