Billionaire tied to Wright ad blitz a rising force
The wealthy executive who considered and then dropped a proposal
to revive controversy over the relationship between President
Barack Obama and his former pastor is a rising conservative
maverick with ties to the Chicago Cubs baseball team. He’s also
linked to a ”super” political action committee that bankrolled an
upset in Nebraska’s recent Republican Senate primary.
J. Joseph Ricketts, 70, a politically conservative Nebraskan
known as ”Joe,” built the TD Ameritrade brokerage firm into a
billion-dollar empire that backed the purchase of the Cubs as well
as interests in film, media, resorts and bison meat products. As
the man reportedly behind a planned $10 million anti-Obama ad blitz
– a spokesman on Thursday blamed the proposal on consultants and
said it was being shelved – Ricketts is a new force in GOP and
It doesn’t run in the family: Ricketts’ daughter, Laura, is a
prominent lesbian activist who is a volunteer fundraiser for
Joe Ricketts was identified by a Republican strategist Wednesday
as the financier behind plans being drawn up for a $10 million
campaign that would have targeted Obama’s relationship with the
Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the Chicago pastor with a history of racially
incendiary sermons. Wright’s relationship with Obama, his former
parishioner, was a hot-button issue in the 2008 presidential
Obama’s 2008 rival, Sen. John McCain, mostly steered clear of
the topic and aides to Mitt Romney quickly repudiated the tactic on
Thursday, leading Ricketts to torpedo the plan.
The new super PACs allow well-funded business and other interest
groups to wade into political issues that are too sensitive for
rival campaigns. Ricketts is on the cutting edge of that
phenomenon, one of several wealthy conservative financiers who have
single-handedly set up super PACs and nonprofit foundations to
advance their pet issues.
Ricketts spent nearly $1.2 million in 2010 to create Ending
Spending Action Fund, which was reportedly considering the Wright
attack ads. The committee has a sister nonprofit, also called
Ending Spending, which Ricketts set up for issue advocacy. It was
preceded by Taxpayers Against Earmarks, an advocacy group for
Ricketts’ campaign against the use of congressional provisions to
benefit specific projects in legislators’ districts.
Calls to Ricketts at Ending Spending were not immediately
returned, but the president of the committee, Brian Baker, said in
a statement on the group’s website that the planned ad campaign
”reflects an approach to politics that Mr. Ricketts rejects.”
Baker called the plans ”only a suggestion” and added that
Ricketts was ”neither the author nor the funder” – despite
indications of deeper involvement.
A champion of limited government and free enterprise who once
supported Democratic Party candidates, Ricketts joins such
well-heeled conservative activists as the Koch brothers, who head
the conservative Americans for Prosperity organization, in pumping
millions of dollars into campaigns to influence elections and
public policy. His Tampa, Fla.-based super PAC spent $600,000 in
the Nevada Senate race in 2010 in a failed attempt to unseat
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
But Ricketts has also shown an independent streak, willing to
take on rival conservatives as he did in Nebraska’s recent GOP
Senate primary. Ricketts’ super PAC quietly fronted $130,000 for
ads supporting Debra Fischer, a state senator who upset a
well-funded rival supported by other influential conservatives.
Fischer had tea party support but was opposed by Sen. Jim DeMint,
R-S.C., and other top conservatives.
Ricketts’ website describes him as an advocate for ”responsible
government that promotes freedom, fosters free enterprise and
encourages individual opportunity.” The site also describes
Ricketts’ ventures since he retired in 2011 from TD Ameritrade,
including the American Film Company; DNAinfo.com, a New York
hyper-local website; and High Plains Bison, a bison meat product
Ricketts’ family in 2009 purchased 95 percent ownership of the
Chicago Cubs for a reported $900 million. The main investor was
Ricketts’ son, Tom, who is the team’s chairman, but Ricketts’ other
three children, Laura, Pete and Todd, also have interests and are
on the team’s board. Joe Ricketts also has an interest. Despite his
limited government philosophy, the ball club is pressing for $200
million in state-backed bonds to renovate Wrigley Field, the Cubs
stadium also owned by the family.
On Wednesday, Tom Ricketts directly confronted the reports that
his father was behind the anti-Obama ad campaign. ”As chairman of
the Chicago Cubs, I repudiate any return to racially divisive
issues in this year’s presidential campaign or in any setting –
like my father has,” he said.
Laura Ricketts also spoke out. ”We have different political
views on how to achieve what is best for the future of America, but
we agree that each of us is entitled to our own views and our right
to voice those views,” she said.
Laura Ricketts is listed by the Obama campaign as a bundler
raising between $200,000 and $500,000 in donations. She introduced
Obama last February during a Chicago fundraising event that took in
more than $1.4 million.
Associated Press writer Beth Fouhy in New York contributed to