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Citizen Koch Premieres

Citizen Koch director Carl Deal joined a political panel moderated by Lauren Steiner following Friday night’s LA's theatrical premiere.

The financial influence of David Koch stopped the documentary Citizen Koch from airing for free over public television, but the film has arrived in theaters around the country this month.

The film, by Academy Award-nominated directors Carl Deal and Tia Lessin (Trouble the Water), examines the fundamental shift on American democracy since the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In a strange reversal of the tradition of narrowly interpreting laws specific to only the case at hand, the Supreme Court issued a strikingly broad ruling that held that corporations and associations have First Amendment rights to unlimited, anonymous political spending.

The title of the film refers to the brothers Charles and David Koch, who control the second largest privately-owned company in the United States, Koch Industries. The Koch family gives millions of dollars to conservative and libertarian political action groups, including Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks, as well as think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

While Democrats rested in a moment of post-election euphoria at the beginning of the Obama presidency, Republican strategists immediately began spending millions of dollars to influence the 2012 election. As the Washington Post revealed in January 2014, Koch-backed organizations spent $400 million on the 2012 election cycle. The film reveals secretly recorded remarks from the biannual Koch fundraising retreat of the country’s wealthiest conservatives, politicians, and pundits.

As the New York Times revealed in early 2014, the Koch brothers and other powerful corporate interests worked state-by-state to establish a “sophisticated political apparatus designed to channel political money from around the country into states where conditions were ripe for Republican takeover.” The strategy achieved marked success in the 2010 elections.

In Wisconsin, Koch money helped elect Gov. Scott Walker, who proposed eliminating collective bargaining rights for public employees (or in other words, “bust the unions,” to turn Wisconsin into a right-to-work state). Nearly 38% of union members, plenty of them Republicans, had voted for this candidate who turned on them once he was in office. Tens of thousands stormed the state capitol building in protest.

The film Citizen Koch follows several heartland union members as they react to Gov. Walker’s union-busting attempts on their state. A Republican teacher, nurse, and correctional institution guard all share their outrage at the takeover of their party by wealthy corporate interests.

Filmmakers Carl Deal and Tia Lessin believe the political drama of Wisconsin to be the cutting edge of a strategy to “undermine the already diminished power of working and poor Americans with the passage of voter ID laws.” They repeatedly “heard Republican operatives say that Gov. Walker’s Wisconsin was ‘a model for the country,’ that his moves against organized labor would help turn President Obama out of the White House in 2012.”

The film introduced many in the audience to 2012 Republican presidential candidate Buddy Roemer. The former governor of Louisiana (the only candidate with congressional and gubernatorial experience) ran a campaign financed entirely on individual donations. Roemer was shut out of the Republican debates despite polling at 2% and higher during his campaign, leading him to conclude that money is a weapon used to buy elections. His grassroots New Hampshire campaign office shown in the film was a striking contrast to the lavish, bustling campaign headquarters of other candidates who accepted PAC funding.

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Moderator Lauren Steiner, with panelists Carl Deal, Ted Lieu, Daniel Lee, and Trent Lange.

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Following the film, Carl Deal answered a question about why the film was not shown on PBS, despite initial interest from a funding agency for public television. While in negotiations to become an Independent Lens production, the filmmakers were told they would have to change the title of the film and reduce the focus on David Koch. Why? New York PBS affiliate WNET was courting a seven-figure donation from David Koch, who sits on the boards of both WNET and WGBH.

On the corrupting influence of money in public broadcasting, Lauren Steiner commented that the American National Gas Association is one of the largest donors to NPR. As a result, NPR has reported on the virtues of fracking and supposedly “clean” natural gas.

The political panel discussed concrete solutions to the problems raised in Citizen Koch. State Senator Ted Lieu explained that his goal in authoring SB 1272 to overturn Citizens United in the CA legislature was to arouse other states to do the same, which will create nationwide pressure for a constitutional amendment. He was originally inspired by the 2012 “Money Out, Voters In” grassroots mobilization and the overwhelming support for Proposition C in Los Angeles.

Politicians have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and keeping political funds flush with cash. As Daniel Lee of Move to Amend explained, “We’re going to have to force them to do this, not just ask them really loud.”

He described Move to Amend’s success getting the Los Angeles City Council to unanimously pass a “We the People” resolution in December 2011, supporting a constitutional amendment establishing that money is not speech, and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights. After Los Angeles became the first major city to formally reject corporate personhood, similar measures were proposed in Pasadena, Santa Monica, and other localities. Initial resolutions were passed with surprising ease, but by late 2012, business interests had started mobilizing to lobby against city council approval of such resolutions.

Trent Lange of the California Clean Money Campaign discussed another bill to increase transparency in political spending. Viewers are purposefully misled by fine print disclosures at the end of current political ads. For example, how many people would have voted for Proposition 26 in 2010 if they knew the group Stop Hidden Taxes flooding the airwaves was really Chevron, Phillip Morris, and Anheuser-Busch? SB 52, the California DISCLOSE Act, would require the three largest funders of political ads to be clearly and prominently identified.

America is beginning to realize it has a Koch problem—dark money buying our democracy in the House, Senate, Supreme Court, and even the Presidency. More than one filmmaker has pulled back the veil on these billionaire conservatives; Robert Greenwald reissued an updated version of his film Koch Brothers Exposed in 2014. This summer, progressive advocacy group MoveOn.org launched the America Has a Koch Problem campaign, providing resources for movie houseparties screening Koch Brothers Exposed. Coaching services are available to anyone interested in leading a local campaign against the Koch brothers' toxic influence on our democracy. Lauren Steiner will be one of the coaches, having organized a successful action to stop the sale of the LA Times to the Koch Brothers in May of 2013.

After Friday night’s Citizen Koch screening, moviegoers adjourned to the upstairs theater lounge to continue asking questions of the director and other political panelists. One attendee commented on the tendency of liberal audiences to splinter into a diverse set of issues, lacking a single focus. Others addressed the need to move past polar political labels.

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Daniel Lee remarked that he had conversations with people of the most varied political backgrounds during the heyday of the Occupy Wall St. movement in 2011, talking to Libertarians, Democrats, Greens, Ron Paul Republications, and others, all of whom were able to coalesce around the issue of the corrupting influence of corporate power.

Watch the trailer and find a screening of Citizen Koch in your city.

Jessica Lux

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