The Koch Brothers Want It Both Ways

How can they support criminal justice reform and Scott Walker at the same time?

Scott Walker

Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker prepares to face off with Democratic challenger Mary Burke in a debate at the WMVS-TV studios on Oct. 17, 2014, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Photo by Darren Hauck/Getty Images

David and Charles Koch have been credited with making criminal justice reform an issue that conservatives are allowed to care about. They have also gone out of their way to emphasize the bipartisan nature of the reform movement, by very visibly partnering with the ACLU and other liberal organizations to promote shorter prison sentences and a less punitive criminal code. While some on the left have seen no reason not to join forces with the conservative megadonors when they get behind something worthwhile, others have questioned their sincerity.

Yesterday, the Kochs did something that made the skeptics look right to be circumspect. It happened at a fundraiser in Manhattan, where David Koch seemed to signal that he and his brother would like the Republican nominee in 2016 to be Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. According to the New York Times, David Koch told the crowd that, “When the primaries are over and Scott Walker gets the nomination,” he and his brother—who are reportedly planning to spend nearly $900 million during the 2016 election—would support him.*

David Koch later issued a statement to the Times clarifying that he was not formally endorsing Walker. Nevertheless, there’s no disputing that the Kochs like him as a politician. Even if they haven’t decided whether they’ll support him financially during the 2016 race yet, it’s clear they are in his corner, as they have been for a number of years. (According to ThinkProgress, the Kochs spent generously to help Walker win races in 2010, 2011, and 2014.)

Here’s why the Kochs’ apparent enthusiasm for Walker’s presidential prospects is surprising: Of all the Republicans who are expected to run for the party’s nomination, Walker stands out as distinctly unfriendly toward criminal justice reform.

Writing in the Nation in February, Scott Keyes ran through Walker’s record on the issue and concluded that, over the course of his political career in Wisconsin, Walker had passed one law after another that resulted in more people being sent to prison for longer. “In just the 1997–98 legislative session, Walker authored or co-sponsored twenty-seven different bills that either expanded the definition of crimes, increased mandatory minimums for offenders, or curbed the possibility of parole,” Keyes reported.

Michael Tanner of the National Review, a magazine that has a solid claim on being the Nation’s exact ideological opposite, came to the same conclusion last month. “Most of the Republican presidential candidates are touting their positions in favor of reducing prison time, allowing some felons to expunge or seal their criminal records, and even reforming federal drug laws,” Tanner wrote. But, he added, “One big exception to this trend is Scott Walker.” Here’s Tanner summing up Walker’s achievements on criminal justice:

Walker ran for governor of Wisconsin as an old-fashioned “law and order” Republican, pledging “to protect our families, our senior citizens and our property.” Bills that Walker sponsored while a legislator would have increased mandatory minimum sentences for everything from perjury to privacy invasion to intoxicated boating. He was perhaps the leading backer of Wisconsin’s “Truth in Sentencing” legislation, which ended parole opportunities for many categories of prisoners and increased prison time for others. As governor, Walker has resisted efforts to liberalize the state’s parole system, and the proportion of inmates granted parole has fallen in half during his tenure.

How can the Koch brothers support a candidate who has spent his career fighting for policies they now passionately oppose?

The Kochs seem to draw a strange distinction between the causes they support as activists and the candidates they support in elections. In a November 2014 story for Yahoo News Liz Goodwin interviewed Koch Industries lead counsel Mark Holden, who has emerged as the Kochs’ voice on criminal justice reform. Holden indicated that David and Charles Koch would not necessarily be trying to advance their views on incarceration and overcriminalization by backing pro-reform candidates in elections.

“That’s not what’s driving what we’re doing,” Holden told Goodwin at the time. “We are focused more on the society well-being side of it here. We should all put the politics aside because that can muddle things.” The point itself was a bit muddled, but the takeaway seemed clear enough: People should not expect the Kochs’ actions as political donors to dovetail with their activism in the criminal justice realm.

When I asked Holden about David Koch’s Scott Walker comment yesterday, he defended Walker’s record on criminal justice, pointing to Wisconsin’s expansion of drug treatment courts, as well as specialty courts aimed at helping veterans who have committed crimes, during his time in office.

“While Gov. Walker has been in office, Wisconsin has taken positive steps towards addressing nonviolent offenses in a humane and effective way that enhances public safety and helps individuals potentially avoid criminal issues and incarceration,” Holden wrote in an emailed statement. He declined to comment on the punitive policies that Walker has supported. 

What do the Kochs’ liberal bedfellows think about the brothers’ apparent embrace of Walker? I called the ACLU, the organization that has allied itself with the Kochs on criminal justice reform, and started a new advocacy group with them called the Coalition for Public Safety. Alison Holcomb, the national director of the ACLU’s Campaign to End Mass Incarceration, was unequivocal in her assessment of Walker’s record on criminal justice.

“Gov. Walker’s position on laws like truth-in-sentencing and mandatory minimums is a throwback to the tough-on-crime rhetoric of the 1980s,” she said. “It’s out of step with where Americans are today on the issue of overuse of our criminal justice system.”

Holcolmb told me she hopes the Kochs will try to turn Scott Walker around on criminal justice issues and put pressure on him to ditch his “law and order” past in favor of a less punitive outlook.

“The Koch brothers have the power to be quite influential with candidates because they have the power to see those candidates get elected,” she said. “Through their significant financial resources, they’re in the position of shaping the American debate on this issue because they’re in the position of shaping the messages of the people who are going to command the bully pulpit for the next 18 months.”

If Walker—who has not even announced his candidacy yet—starts speaking in positive tones about criminal justice reform as the election gets underway, it may signal a willingness on his part to evolve. That, or a willingness on the part of the Koch brothers to align their favored candidates with their favored causes after all.

*Correction, April 21, 2015: This article originally misidentified the amount the Koch brothers plan to spend on the 2016 election. They plan to spend nearly $900 million, not nearly $900 billion. (Return.)