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

conservative politics.

It doesn’t run in the family: Ricketts’ daughter, Laura, is a

prominent lesbian activist who is a volunteer fundraiser for

Obama.

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

race.

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

firm.

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

this report.