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Is Special-Interest Spending Killing Democracy?

PoliticKING with Larry KingAug 01 '14

Filmmaker Carl Deal investigates the money behind the Tea Party, and traces the impact of unlimited election spending by corporations & billionaires. His documentary, 'Citizen Koch,' offers a controversial look at private donors vs. the voting public.

KING: Big money’s huge impact on American politics. Can democracy survive special interest campaign spending. We’re gonna take a look at that on this edition of Politicking. Welcome to Politicking, I’m Larry King and on today’s show, Oscar nominated filmmaker, Carl Deal, his new documentary is Citizen Koch. It investigates the money behind the tea party. Traces the impact of unlimited election spending by corporations in billionaires, it’s a controversial look at private donors versus the voting public and Carl joins us from New York. What was the impetus for Citizen Koch Carl?

DEAL: Well, you know Larry, I guess after President Obama was elected, one thing that we all observed, I think, was an outpouring, it was the rise of the tea party, and the public discourse around the most important issues that affect us every single day had turned ugly, you know, that’s the time when we needed a lot more Larry King’s out there, but instead we were getting a lot of this FOX News stuff, and we, uh, my partner and I, Tia Lessin, were interested investigating where all this vitriol was coming from, you know, they didn’t even give the president a chance.

KING: You know, you’re a Oscar nominated, you co­produced with Michael Moore “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Bowling For Columbine,” “Capitalism: A Love Story,” how come Michael isn’t involved in this? It seems right up his alley. DEAL: Yeah it is right up his alley, boy I wish that, uh, mich­, I, you know, Michael is only one person, he does so much good around here, um, this is a film that we made, and we’ve gotten quite a bit of support, I have to say, from Michael Moore, he played it at his film festival, he’s been giving us a lot of support along the way, and really strongly believes that this is an important issue of the day and something that people should pay attention to it. And in fact, people are paying attention to it, if you think about it, it’s one of the main that unites people on the left on the left and on the right, people think too much money is being spent on elections.

KING: Why did you call it Citizen Koch?

DEAL: Well, here’s the thing, you know, the citizen’s united decision was handed down in January of 2010 and that decision made it a lot easier for corporations, and then as we later learned, billionaires are the wealthiest americans to spend money on elections, corporations could now spend money out of their general treasuries through superpacks, and the same thing applied to billionaires and a lot of these political non profits like the Koch backed and Koch funded americans for prosperity, so, you know, we felt like theres so much emphasis with this election spending on shaping the message, on shaping the way we understand issues, and, on­on­on­on­on, sending a message to candidate that if they step out of line, they’re either gonna face money spent against them, or they’re not gonna get any support at all, and so, in a way, it was a bit of a callback to the film “Citizen Kane,” which is all about shaping a message, you know, I’d have to say that the, uh, antagonist in “Citizen Kane” ended up being a bit more of a sympathetic character at the end of that film than at the end of our film. Um, but it’s playing with the whole idea, private, you know, private interest versus public citizens.

KING: You know there was also the great book, “Citizen Hearst,” about William Randolph Hearst, who, uh, dominated things through the media. Before we get into the Kochs and everything, we’ll show younow a clip from Citizen Koch. This looks like a great documentary Carl, but, I would fairly say that if the Koch brothers walked down the street, in any big street in New York, or LA, anywhere, no one would recognize them. There are four Koch brothers. There’s Fred, Charles, David, and William, but it’s Charles and david that are the most active, and David’s actually a twin, but his brother William, explain who the Koch brothers are.

DEAL: Well, David and Charles Koch are billionaire industrialists that they inherited their fortune from their father, Fred Koch, who made a lot of money in the fossil fuel industry. They refine a lot of fossil fuels, they transport fossil fuels, but they’ve also diversified their interests so much that, while we don’t know who, we may not recognize the Koch brothers, we use their products because, uh, you know, it’s in everything that we consume every single day, they happen to own, for example, the largest paper company with Georgia Pacific, and Brawny Paper Towels, and all of those products are owned by this private corporation called Koch Industries, and the reason that we took a look at them is they also over the last several decades really gotten good at deploying money into the political process in very creative ways, so you don’t always know who’s spending the money, who’s shaping the message, and who’s influencing the politicians that we elect, you know, and just to further answer your previous question about who Citizen Koch is, you know, to our minds, somebody like Senator Scott Walker in the state of Wisconsin, who was elected with massive support from David and Charles Koch, can stay in office, with a lot of spending that was made possible by the Citizen’s United Decision, well, Governor Walker is a public official, but he could be Citizen Koch as well.

KING: Now, only two of the four brothers are directly involved with this, right? Well, there are two brothers who are particularly active in the political world, and you know, the thing that’s, to note about how they spend their money is up to this year, they’d like to do it very much in the dark, they do it secretly and one thing that the Citizen’s United Supreme Court Decision said is that disclosure’s important but that’s up to Congress to regulate how campaign spending is disclosed and they left open a lot of loophole, and that’s spending money through these dark money organizations like the Americans for Prosperity, which was founded by David and Charles Koch, um, these groups can spend money politically around elections, but they don’t have to disclose who their donors are, and they also don’t have to adhere to the same rigorous disclosure, uh, campaign spending disclosure laws, to, for example to say, “We spent this much money on this election,” so it takes a long time to really sort out and figure out who’s really spending the money around elections, and then the elections are gone, and we don’t really know who’s interest those politicians are serving.

KING: Many think that was one of the worst decisions in Supreme Court history, the father, Fred, was one of the founding members of the John Birch Society, which was really a wacko group, which is now almost extinct, but he once said that the colored man looms large in the communist plan to take over America. Does race play any part in the Koch brothers’ campaigns?

DEAL: Well, let me answer it this way, I think that race has played a big role in the public discourse, and in the rise of the tea party, we hear a lot of coated language about, after President Obama was elected, about taking our country back, which begs the question back from whom, and so I do believe that there isa lot of racially motivated dialogue and attacks on President Obama, now that’s not to say that he’s above reproach for what he actually does, but I feel like these organizations on the ride and on the extreme ride that are backing the tea party, remember, the Koch brothers are, they bankroll on large part the tea party, they’ve been involved with it since its inception, and so I think there are some parallels between the John Birch Society and the Modern Day Tea Party, and, it’s one of the reasons we highlight that quote, in fact, we open our film, Citizen Koch, with that quote from the elder Koch, cause we wanted to draw that line, it’s very similar what’s happening, and I think the reason that people are exploiting race these days is that it’s something the ride is long­been successful at is exploiting peoples fears in order to get them to do what they want, and so when you ask why is it that working class, you know, and a lot of elderly white americans are flocking to the tea party, and lobbying for causes that are against their own personal best interest, I think that playing that race card has been one of the keys to building that kind of support.

KING: One of the puzzling things about the Tea Party is they’re opposed to compromise, yet the country was founded on compromise. It was a republic, and not a democracy, based on compromise. The Tea Party, when it wants to go back to the beginnings, seems out of whack with the beginnings. Nevertheless, are the Koch brothers the only ones? Are they the only big financiers on the right?

DEAL: Absolutely not. And just to be clear, our film Citizen Koch—it’s entitled Citizen Koch—and it deals with some of the political operations of the Koch brothers, but there are people on both sides who are exploiting these loopholes in very sinister ways. And the reason I use the word “sinister” is I think it really undermines intent of our democracy: that people are empowered to create their own lives and to elect the people that represent their interests. And so the Citizens United decision—and a whole series of Supreme Court decisions—in its aftermath have made it easier for people on both sides to spend money and it takes away the voice of the rest of us.

KING: Is there a liberal counterpart to the Kochs?

DEAL: Well, I think every spending group is a little bit different. The right and the Tea Party likes to point their finger at George Soros and Tom Steyer, and look, the amount of money that’s being spent—the amount of dark money being spent, in particular—by folks on the far right eclipses the money being spent by the Democrats or by sympathizers to the Democrats. So while there are a lot of people who do this, I think that the Kochs merit a special look. They deployed $400 million dollars into the last round of elections in 2012, and a lot of that was their own money. And most of that money was spent in the dark. That’s more than individual super PACs spend, and super PACs—at least you know who’s spending the money. I think the Kochs definitely need to be put under the microscope a bit more, and we tried to do that with this film.

KING: You mentioned Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, a very anti­union governor of Wisconsin. They helped get him elected. They tried to recall him and then they saved his recall. He’s up for re­election this fall. He’s got a tough race with the—Mary Burke, who’s a former state commerce secretary. Latest polls say it’s very tight. What do you hear?

DEAL: I hear they’re running neck­and­neck, and one thing that’s happening right now in Wisconsin that’s of interest is governor Walker is now under criminal investigation by a special prosecutor of his own party for his collusion with dark money political groups like the club for growth in Wisconsin, like Americans for Prosperity. In fact, I shouldn’t say like—with those very groups. It’s interesting, because it’s the one activity that the Supreme Court pretty much said candidates can not engage in, and that is colluding with these third­party groups like super PACs and political nonprofits. And that’s apparently what Scott Walker did. So it’ll be interesting to see how that investigation pans out and if that has any impact at all on this year’s election. And Scott Walker apparently has designs on higher office and has some support within the Republican Party to perhaps participate as a candidate in the 2016 presidential race.

KING: The documentary is Citizen Koch. We’ll be back with filmmaker Carl Deal after these words.

KING: That was a clip from Citizen Koch, a documentary that takes a look at American Democracy and the fracturing of the Republican Party. We’re talking with the man behind that film: Carl Deal. He’s with us from New York. You talk about why working people vote with the right wing, which seems against their interests. Why do you think they do?

DEAL: Well, it’s really hard to say, but let me say that a different way. Because of the things that surprised us when we went to Wisconsin in 2011 after governor Walker attacked the union bargaining rights for public employees—we always suspected that campaign spending was a transpartisan issue. But when we got on the ground there, we realized that governor Walker had invoked not just the wrath of the usual suspects, of the liberal union wing of the Democratic Party, but he kicked a hornet’s nest. And a lot of his own supporters—people who actually voted for him, lifelong Republicans—were fed up, and they started to understand that their party has been corrupted by big money coming in from out of state. And so one thing that you’ll learn in our film is you get very close to three of these lifelong Republicans—a prison guard, a VA nurse, a teacher, anti­abortion activist—people who are committed to their party for certain reasons but understand now that they don’t—or, feel like they’re not being represented well, and they point right to people like the Koch brothers and lay the responsibility on them for having corrupted their party. To say a little bit more about Wisconsin, one of the things that Scott Walker did in attacking the unions, is it wasn’t just a showdown between labor and management. It was a political strategy designed to take the money—the support that organized labor is able to give to Scott Walker’s opponents—out of the equation entirely. Because big labor—they aggregate the money of a lot of smaller donors of these working people, and they spend some of that money politically. And so if you take that money out of the equation entirely, then the Republicans are the only show in town.

KING: Did you once say that you were addicted to Glenn Beck?

DEAL: I did.

KING: Why?

DEAL: I did, and my wife never lets me forget it. I thought it was really fascinating in 2010, 2011, that this network—Fox network—rose in the ratings and became the most­ watched 24­hour news show, or news network. I thought it was interesting to—it was a way to find out what the folks on the right are really thinking and what their strategies are. We like to tell people that we watch Fox News so they don’t have to. The idea being, we got some real interesting nuggets that we included in film, like Karl Rove spelling out exactly that strategy on Fox News about why it’s important to take organized labor out for political reasons, for financial reasons.

KING: Glenn Beck is to the right of Fox News isn’t he?

DEAL: Yeah, apparently he got a little too far to the right and they had to cut him loose. But isn’t it interesting why somebody who so clearly is as much an entertainer as a commentator is holding sway over so many people, and so many people believe that what he’s telling you is the gospel truth? And it’s shocking.

KING: Yeah, me too.

DEAL: You know, there’s something about it, I guess, is like watching a train wreck.

KING: Would the other side say, though, that mainstream media leans left? And mainstream media has a lot of power, and that counterbalances the Kochs.

DEAL: They would say that. They would say that.

KING: And what would thou say?

DEAL: Well, I would say that the mainstream media is now strategically deploying hundreds of millions of dollars into the political process to influence the outcome of elections to the benefit of their bottom line, and that’s so cynical about this. It’s not really an ideologically­driven agenda, and if it is, isn’t it convenient that it just happens to serve the Kochs’ bottom line? So in Wisconsin nowadays, there’s very little enforcement of environmental regulations, and it just happens to be that the Kochs own three paper factories, an oil pipeline, a number of polluting industries in the state of Wisconsin, and the heat is off. So there haven’t been any fines, any environmental fines in the last four years in Wisconsin. I think there’s a big difference there.

KING: Is self­financing okay? Is it okay to, let’s say Michael Bloomberg self­financed all his campaigns.

DEAL: Yeah, he did, he did. And maybe that’s the um, you know, maybe that’s the second best thing to public financing of elections cause, can a person corrupt themselves Larry? I don’t know. (Laughter)

KING: Do you think the public cares about this? A recent survey by the Pew Research Center indicated that people haven’t paid any attention, really attention, to Supreme Court ruling on campaign finance.

DEAL: Yeah, I think people care deeply about it cause there have also been poles over the last few years that have shown that across the party lines, the democrats and republicans, you know, I think the last one that I saw is 89% of Americans believe that there needs to moves to reduce the influence of billing and errors in the political process, to regulate campaign spending. Um, you know, it may not be the first issue that people point to, it’s not a very sexy issue, but it really gets at the fabric, it depends, whatever it is that you care about Larry, it matters. The way that people can spend money to influence public policy is gonna make a difference to you and it should. You know, it’s about the water we drink, it’s about the air we breathe, um it’s about the products that we consume, you know, government is important and government needs to be able to function well and uh, and the way that it’s played out over the last few years is a lot of this money has been geared towards reducing the power of government to regulate. And so I’m on the record now, pro government regulation.

KING: Here's another look at Citizen Koch (pause for clip)

KING: Citizen Koch takes a strong look at the tea party movement, how influential is it? It’s not gonna win a national election is it?

DEAL: I don’t know, it’s hard to say, we’re gonna get a good look here at this next midterm…

KING: Yeah but those are congressional…I’m talking about, are the tea party gonna elect a president?

DEAL: Well you know, there are a lot of people who will say that, well I don’t know Larry, but I do know that the Tea Party is (LOST AUDIO 20:50­21:03) …

KING: Alright Carl, we talk about the Tea Party and how relevant it is, it obviously has some strength in local elections, congressional elections, do you think it can elect a president?

DEAL: I think we’re gonna see in 2016, there are people who will argue right now that the Tea Party has already pushed the republican party so far to the right that the mainstream republicans have adopted a Tea Party Agenda. So we’ll have to see who floats to the top in 2016, but it’s gonna be really hard to say, I think is it gonna be Michelle Barton? Who supposed to identify with the Tea Party movement? I doubt it.

KING: What I mean is, can the Tea Party elect a president?

DEAL: Well what I’m saying is, they can rally voters support but, one of the ways that this money, including the money, it’s the same money that backs the Tea Party that gets spent on elections, one of the ways that this impacts elections, is it narrows, it pushes candidates off of their own agenda to adopt another agenda, ‘cause they don’t want to face that big money jug or not, and so you know, we may very well elect somebody who appears to be a mainstream republican but they’ve been forced to adopt a Tea Party agenda. So you know, I don’t know, we’ll see, it will be interesting to watch, won’t it?

KING: Are you, based on all you know and doing these documentaries, I would gather you’re pessimistic about this country.

DEAL: I am not pessimistic, it’s interesting. But uh, if I were pessimistic I don’t know if I would be, if I’d have the energy to wage these battles because it’s not easy to get these films made. Um, one of the things that we learned in making Citizen Koch is even though there’s so much money being spent and it feels very hopeless, it feels like, you know, there’s all these efforts to take away the vote from individual people, what I take heart in is knowing that the reason people want to spend so much money to make it harder for your vote to matter, is because your vote matters. It’s that one moment when everybody is equal, it’s when they pull that curtain closed in the voting booth and decide who they want to vote for. You know, I think we saw that despite all the money that was spent, a lot of the dark money spent on the presidential election in 2012, it was the get off the boat effort, the boots off the ground, the real citizen engagement with democracy that determined the outcome of the last presidential election so in a way you know, I feel, I feel confident that if people get involved, and it people participate that the people will win.

KING: What do you want the people to take away from this film?

DEAL: I want them to take away that the principals of our democracy matter, that the rights that we have matter, that the freedoms that we enjoy matter and that they can do something about it, that they need to stand up and they need to fight for it, you know. We can’t just roll over and hand over our voting rights for example, which is happening in dozens of states around the country, is where the right is trying to limit the electorate by requiring these voter ID laws, by passing these voter ID laws. Um, you know, there are some states, like in California, that are passing new disclosure laws around campaign spending that make it impossible for these dark money groups to spend money without revealing who’s behind them. And so, you know, I want people to engage, I want people to feel proud of the country that they live in and want to support it by participating.

KING: Do you think the republicans might take the senate?

DEAL: They very well might. They very well might, you know what I hope happens though, is that, is that people know, when it happens, or if it happens, that we're able to, when the dust settles, really understand how it was that that happened. Where the money came from, who spent it and whose interest these elected officials are really there to represent and then hold them accountable.

KING: Bill Richardson told us the other day that his biggest fear is ‘if this cleavage continues, we’re always gonna have a split system, we’re gonna have a republican congress and a democrat president’ you agree?

DEAL: Uh, I, yeah I’d would probably have to agree with Bill Richardson, not knowing the full argument that he’s a much smarter guy than I am. Um, but what I would hope is that, is that maybe there’s gonna be a space created for more voices to be heard, you know, we’ve got this entrenched two party system and one of the parties is divided in two now so it’s almost like we’ve got a three party system, but, youknow, I think we need some alternative view points that are free of the money and able to participate and public financing could help. I live in New York City, we elected Bill de Blasio, the mayor, and we have a public financing system for our mayor elections and there’s no way that somebody like Bill de Blasio could have gone as far as he did without public financing so it really broadens the pool of candidates and makes more possible.

KING: Hey Carl thanks so much, I’m anxious to see it, I love what I’ve seen so far. I want to thank Carl Deal. For more information on the phone, check out Citizen And for my viewers out there, I want to hear from you, what do you think about this topic and this documentary? Join the conversation on my Facebook page, share your thoughts on twitter by tweeting @KingsThings and use the PoliticKing hash tag. That’s all for this week’s PoliticKing. Thanks Carl.

DEAL: Thank you Larry, I really appreciate it.

# # #

Clip 1: Milwaukee, Wisconsin One week before the recall election

(NATS SOUND) Here is your phone for you. Hanna will tell you how to get on the system. Hi this is Jeremy, I’m a volunteer for Americans for Prosperity just wanted to let you know that Mayor Tom Barrett has raised taxes in Milwaukee every year but one since he became mayor. Thank you so much for your time. I urge you to go to Americans for Prosperity. [Do you think in the ­­­ united world you have more freedom to do what you have...]

TIM PHILLIPS, PRESIDENT AMERICAN FOR PROSPERITY: Doesn’t impact us at all we don’t do election advocacy. [really?] Again ­­ impacts Americans for prosperity in no way shape or form. [This is not election advocacy?] We are an issue group and we want to make sure that Wisconsin citizens they heard our side of the story. [But what about your corporate funders? Isn’t AFP just another way for them to get money to elections?] Well, we don’t discuss our funding. We don’t discuss our funding.

Clip 2: Door to Door recall voting recruiting

Kaitlyn [yes] could you write down the numbers on the map [so like by the street that they are on?]. Sweetheart we are on South St. [ok]. Reminding you about recall elections. You all good then? [hit the road]. He’s like ‘get going, hit the road’ [did he really say that]. Yea Remind you to get out and go vote on Tuesday. Just remind him to vote. Don’t forget. [we’re going to vote] Thanks. I’m a disable veteran. I can’t get a damn thing. My mortage payment is 11­hundred a month here. These people down in Madison are just not responsive. [exactly]. I can’t even go to McDonald’s and eat.They’ve broke faith with the people. Hey, get out and vote. Get out and vote. This is our opportunity to turn this thing around. [ok thank you]. We’ve forgot where the real power is. You could be living in a cardboard box underneath the highway somewhere and you at one moment in time have as much power as they guy down the street living in the mansion and that’s when you go to vote.

Clip 3: Big Money Influence

I don’t want big money from out of state with a slick ad influencing me. I consider myself a fairly intelligent human being and I can figure things out for myself. The most important thing that the Republican party stands for that I will always support and always agree with is the right to life. And yet on both ends of the life span they are doing things like taking healthcare away from the children, they are taking healthcare away from the senior citizens. I’ve gone over and over and over in my mind and in my heart about what I need to do at this time that I can square with my conscience. Its been a long, tough decision making process. I’ll do some thinking and praying tonight. That’s how seriously I take it.

Clip 4: Billionaires Helping Walker

[What do out of state billionaire like Trevor­Rees Jones and Bob Perry and Foster Friess and the Koch brothers seek to get from Governor Walker? They’ve contributed millions of dollars to his campaign.]

CIARA MATTHEW, WALKER CAMPAIGN SPOKESWOMAN: More than 76% of the governors contributions… [I’m talking about the high dollar donors.] sure. More than 76% of the governors contributions have been for 50 dollars or less [but how about the high dollar donors?] sure I’m not in the position to speak for these contributors to the campaign but what I can tell you is that more than 76% of the governors contributions have come [but you aren’t answering my question]. I’ll take another question. Clip 5: Republicans Recalling Walker (NATS) This is my neighbor Gordy. He lives just down the road from us. A lot of people say ‘Gee, You’re a republican, how can you recall a republican?’ And its like, Governor Walker is a Tea Partier. Tea Party and Republicans are not the same thing and I personally do not espouse the Tea Party principles of cutting government service in order to balance our budget. Walker’s a bully and I’m a union man and if it wasn’t for the union I couldn’t have retired. I would have worked until I was 100. Both my wife and I are county workers and when I took the job, I took a pay cut for benefits and I’m loosing my benefits. [How have you been doing?] Really good. We only have 900 people in this town and we already got about 50 signatures. (NATS) [You don’t pay taxes?] I pay employment taxes [a bunch of goons] I pay employment taxes, I pay business taxes, I pay plenty of taxes sir.