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Fiorina's billionaire backers

Billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch appear to be taking a particular interest in California politics this year.

September 25, 2010|Tim Rutten

California, birthplace of the modern environmental movement, remains one of the greenest of blue states, even while it struggles to cope with levels of unemployment unseen since the Depression.

That makes the budding relationship between Republican senatorial candidate Carly Fiorina and billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch all the odder. The Kochs own and run America's second-largest privately held company, Koch Industries — an amalgam of oil, gas, pipeline, chemical, fertilizer and wood products companies, including Georgia-Pacific. Lump them together, and the Koch brothers have the country's third-largest fortune — $35 billion — after Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

According to a New Yorker profile, the Koch brothers' father was one of the original members of the John Birch Society, and his sons embraced his conservative politics, ultimately drifting into the anarchist-inflected wing of the libertarian movement. They're currently major funders of the "tea party" and of conservative Republican candidates across the country.

Though one brother lives in Wichita, Kan., and the other in Manhattan, they seem to be taking a particular interest in California politics this year. They helped mount the campaign for Proposition 23, the ballot measure that essentially would gut AB 32, the state law mandating lower carbon emissions as a step toward addressing global warming. A Koch Industries PAC has also donated $5,000 to Fiorina, and the company was among the sponsors of a Washington fundraiser for her Thursday night.

After a good deal of back and forth, Fiorina — who also supports offshore oil drilling, another Koch favorite — recently endorsed Proposition 23, just as the Koch brothers' company pumped $1 million into its campaign. This month, Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Morain noted that, while the brothers' oil companies stand to profit mightily from Proposition 23's passage, they also have an interest in seeing that other states don't emulate California's attempt to reduce carbon emissions. Two years ago, this state adopted model air-quality regulations curbing cancer-causing emissions of formaldehyde in the forest products industry. Federal interest in adopting similar curbs is causing Georgia-Pacific no end of grief.

As the New Yorker's Jane Mayer wrote recently in the first detailed journalistic profile of the Kochs and their activities, they "are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy and much less oversight of industry — especially environmental regulation." Koch Industries was named recently in a study as "one of the top 10 air polluters in the United States," the article noted, and "Greenpeace issued a report identifying the company as a 'kingpin of climate science denial.' The report showed that, from 2005 to 2008, the Kochs vastly outdid ExxonMobil in giving money to organizations fighting legislation related to climate change."

For years, according to the New Yorker article, the brothers and their company funded organizations promoting "environmental skepticism," including the notion that acid rain is "a myth."

Charles Lewis, founder of the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity, told Mayer that when it comes to the amount of money they donate to politics, "the Kochs are on a whole different level.... They are the Standard Oil of our times."

Organizations that monitor employment practices also cite Koch Industries as one of the most ruthless exporters of American manufacturing jobs to foreign countries. Before she was ousted as chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, Fiorina laid off 30,000 workers and outsourced thousands of positions abroad, so perhaps the Kochs sense a kindred spirit.

It's hard to see that many Californians will. Polls show that two-thirds of them support AB 32. They understand the threat posed by global warming, which — as Energy Secretary and Nobel physics laureate Steven Chu said in an interview last year — is a "local issue" here. Without greater controls on carbon emissions, Chu said, "you're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California. When you lose 70% of your water from the mountains, I don't see how agriculture can continue. California produces 20% of the agriculture in the United States. I don't actually see how they can keep their cities going."

That's a lot to risk, though Fiorina seems to believe not too much to keep the Kochs happy — and win a Senate seat.

timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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