Cash Flow

Koch Brothers Invade Tiny Iron County, Wisconsin

A mining town of 6,000 people isn’t too small for billionaires to mess with to get their way. Inside the race bringing in big money.

Royalbroil/Wikimedia Commons

It has all the makings of a Hollywood movie. Politically connected billionaires target a local election to secure victory for candidates supportive of a proposed billion dollar-mining venture. Their only obstacle is an underfunded, ragtag group of locals who want to preserve the environment. Who will win?

This isn’t a movie, however, it’s actually happening in Iron County, Wisconsin ‘s April 1 County Board of Supervisors election. This sleepy part of Northern Wisconsin, home to about 6,000 people, is described as “a place of incredible natural beauty” with “300 pristine lakes,” waterfalls, and “500 miles of great snowmobile trails.”

But Iron County has one other thing: Iron ore. And therein lies the interest of the billionaires. And not just one, but three, plus Wisconsin’s ambitious Governor Scott Walker.

Billionaire number one is Chris Cline, the man behind Gogebic Taconite (GTAC), the company that in 2011 first proposed $1.5 billion dollar massive open pit iron ore mine. The (over) promise of new jobs excited many in the county. But some local residents, including the nearby Chippewa Indian tribe, objected because of the environmental hazards posed by the mine that would ultimately extend for 22 miles.

This fight has now become the central issue in the next week’s Iron County election. In the past, these races have been generally uncontested with the winner in each district receiving a few hundred votes. But this year, ten of the fifteen county seats are being contested as the pro and anti-mine candidates have squared off.

So enter billionaires two and three: Charles and David Koch and their Americans for Prosperity group. This is the same group that spent $120 million plus in the 2012 election cycle supporting Republicans and are currently pouring millions into the 2014 election cycle on behalf of GOP candidates.

Last week, the Koch brothers’ AFP mailed out two different sets of fliers to Iron County residents, the first attacking candidates who oppose the mine and the second praising those who support it. As AFP’s Wisconsin director David Fladeboe told The Wisconsin State Journal, these mailing were just the start of a campaign, “to educate folks in Iron County about the issue.”

Here’s what one of the fliers read:

“Iron County, and the iron mines that drive our economy, is being targeted by wealthy environmental groups from outside of Wisconsin. They do not care if our stores close and our families go on welfare-they just want to shut the mines down, no matter what.”

The flier then lists the names of the seven candidates targeted by the AFP along with their respective phone numbers and urges residents to call these “anti-mining radicals.”

Being from New Jersey, I never spoke to an “anti-mining” radical, so thanks to phone numbers provided by the AFP, I called two of them. Aileen Potter explained she was “shocked” AFP was targeting her, especially since she had not taken a position on the mine yet because she was awaiting more environmental studies.

Potter also pointed the AFP’s ludicrous allegation that some want to “shut the mines down.” As Potter explained, there hasn’t been a working mine in the area since the 1960s. So how can you shut down something that doesn’t exist?

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Richard “Dick” Thiede, a 73-year-old retired businessman running in the 10th district, actually does oppose the mine. Thiede had been appointed in late 2011 to Iron County’s “Mining Impact Committee.” However, the County Board disbanded the committee shortly after a January 2012 meeting in which members “grilled” GTAC president Bill Williams.

The committee, per Thiede, was then re-formed in April and packed with only pro-mining advocates. Curiously, the minutes for the January meeting with GTAC’s president Williams are not posted on the county’s website even though almost every other meeting’s minutes are and, Thiede, who was secretary of committee at the time, submitted them.

Thiede, who currently has 102 likes on his campaign’s Facebook page, scoffed at the idea that wealthy environmental groups are funding the candidates. Thiede noted he has raised about $300 for his campaign to date and hopes not to raise over $1,000 or he will be required to file election reports.

I know “all politics is local,” but to truly understand this issue, you have to look beyond the pristine lakes of Iron County and to the state capitol where Governor Walker has a cozy relationship with pro-mining interests. After all, between 2010 and 2012, pro-mining groups donated over $11 million to Walker's campaign including thousands from GTAC’s Chris Cline.

So how did this relationship help GTAC? Well, in January 2013, Walker signed into a law a Republican championed pro-mining bill that was drafted with the “input” of GTAC. This law, which passed without a single Democratic vote, “dramatically” reshaped Wisconsin's mining regulations, making it easier for GTAC to secure regulatory approval.

And that brings us back to Iron County’s April 1 election. The anti-mining local candidates, if they win, could potentially stand in the way of this elaborate scheme. But thankfully the Koch brothers are there, just as they have been in the past when Scott Walker needed them.

This all appears to be legal, but I doubt I'm the only one who feels something is horribly wrong. This is reminiscent of the “cooper kings” who in the early 1900’s controlled Montana politics with their mining money.

So how will the movie end? Will the underdogs prevail through hard work and gumption or will billionaires turn Wisconsin into their own playground? I'm hoping for a fairy tale ending, but millions of dollars in campaign contributions and the Citizens United decision tells me otherwise.