Meet Joe Ricketts — and Family

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Joe Ricketts and family members at Wrigley Field in 2010. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Joe Ricketts, second from left, and family members at Wrigley Field in 2010. From left are Laura Ricketts, Joe Ricketts, Marlene Ricketts, Todd Ricketts, Tom Ricketts and Pete Ricketts. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

The sound of backpedaling from the stationary bikes in the right wing’s exercise room was loud across the land on Thursday after The New York Times published a front-page article outlining a $10 million plan “to mount one of the most provocative campaigns of the ‘super PAC’ era and attack President Obama in ways that Republicans have so far shied away from.”

“Timed to upend the Democratic National Convention in September, the plan would ‘do exactly what John McCain would not let us do,’ the strategists wrote.

The plan, which is awaiting approval, calls for running commercials linking Mr. Obama to incendiary comments by his former spiritual adviser, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., whose race-related sermons made him a highly charged figure in the 2008 campaign.”

What’s more, the Times reported, the proposal included “preparations for how to respond to the charges of race-baiting it envisions if it highlights Mr. Obama’s former ties to Mr. Wright, who espouses what is known as ‘black liberation theology.’ The group suggested hiring as a spokesman an ‘extremely literate conservative African-American’ who can argue that Mr. Obama misled the nation by presenting himself as what the proposal calls a ‘metrosexual, black Abe Lincoln.’”

No sooner had the plan — one of several presented to conservative billionaire Joe Ricketts — been revealed than it was under attack from the Obama campaign. Then in rapid order the Romney campaign and representatives of Mr. Ricketts and his super PAC, the Ending Spending Action Fund, practically fell over themselves rejecting the whole thing.

Mitt Romney : “I repudiate the effort by that PAC to promote an ad strategy of the nature they’ve described. I would like to see this campaign focus on the economy, on getting people back to work, on seeing rising incomes and growing prosperity — particularly for those in the middle class of America.”

Matt Rhoades, Romney campaign manager: “It’s clear President Obama’s team is running a campaign of character assassination. We repudiate any efforts on our side to do so.”

Brian Baker, president, Ending Spending Action Fund: “Not only was this plan merely a proposal… but it reflects an approach to politics that Mr. Ricketts rejects and it was never a plan to be accepted but only a suggestion for a direction to take. Mr. Ricketts intends to work hard to help elect a president this fall who shares his commitment to economic responsibility, but his efforts are and will continue to be focused entirely on questions of fiscal policy, not attacks that seek to divide us socially or culturally.”

But despite the denials, journalists Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg, who wrote the original Times story, later noted that the proposal “indicates that Mr. Ricketts was more than a passing participant.”

“It opens with a quote from Mr. Ricketts saying if an advertisement about Rev. Wright that Mr. McCain’s team had produced four years ago – which Mr. McCain rejected — had aired, ‘They’d never have elected Barack Obama.’

And, a note about staffing for the effort reads, ‘With your preliminary approval at the New York meeting, we have discussed this plan in highly confidential terms with the following proposed team members. All are ready to jump into action upon plan approval.’”

Joe Ricketts is the latest in a series of tycoons who have emerged in this post-Citizens United, anything goes election era willing to spend millions to bankroll the conservative candidates and agendas they favor. He was much in the news this week, not only because of the Obama attack ad controversy, but because his Ending Spending super PAC at the last minute threw more than a quarter of a million into TV ads for state legislator Deb Fischer, who scored a surprise victory Tuesday, winning the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in Nebraska. She will face former Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey in the November election.

Ricketts began his political spending with a group called Taxpayers Against Earmarks. His Ending Spending super PAC first attracted attention in 2010 when it spent $860,000 in Nevada trying to defeat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. It is also funding ads in support of Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker — fighting against June’s recall effort — and contributed $500,000 to the anti-incumbent group, Campaign for Primary Accountability.

“Ricketts… is a former Democrat who became a Republican and later an independent,” The Washington Post reports, “… a reclusive executive type who has rarely sought the spotlight or spoken publicly.” He made his fortune as founder of the online brokerage TD Ameritrade. “Between building Ameritrade into what it is today and his newfound political involvement, Ricketts launched a number of start-ups in different industries…”

“The Ricketts family also owns the Chicago Cubs, which is in negotiations with former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel (now the mayor of Chicago) to get city help in renovating the team’s 98-year-old stadium, Wrigley Field. One of Joe’s sons, Tom, leads those negotiations as the Cubs’ chairman.”

The Post reported Thursday afternoon that because of the anti-Obama ad scheme, “Emanuel is ‘livid’ according to an aide, with the Ricketts family and has cut off communications for the time being.”

The Ricketts family’s ownership of the Cubs caused Tim Murphy of Mother Jones to call Joe Ricketts’ criticism of government spending hypocritical. He points to a report from CBS Chicago:

“The Cubs want to use $200 million in public funds to construct the long-planned Triangle Building along Clark Street in front of the ballpark. The Triangle Building would house team offices, a restaurant and parking, and would feature a Chicago Cubs Hall of Fame, a Cubs Pro Shop, and new ticket windows… The Ricketts family also wants to use amusement tax revenue to fund the renovation…”

Tim Murphy writes, “In addition to using local amusement tax funds that might otherwise be spent shoring up actual public services, the Ricketts family is seeking a large federal subsidy to pay for a renovation of Wrigley Field.”

One further interesting connection to Barack Obama: according to Clare O’Connor of Forbes Magazine, Joe Ricketts daughter, Laura, “is one of President Obama’s bundlers, or super-fundraisers, tapping her network of wealthy, influential friends, colleagues and peers to raise an unlimited amount for his 2012 campaign.

“So far, the openly gay lawyer and mother has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the cause… Laura is a well-known figure in her adopted hometown of Chicago, both for being the first openly lesbian owner of a major sports franchise and for her work in pushing for marriage equality.”

In a statement on Thursday, Laura Ricketts said, “All of my family members and I love this country and are passionate about doing what is right for the country. That love of country was instilled in us by my father.”

“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. Though we may have diverse political views, above all we love and respect each other.”

In this fraught and money-driven election year, it was a rare demonstration of bipartisan grace. But as Emily Goodin of the congressional newspaper The Hill observes, “In the end, the biggest lesson from this story might be the power of the super PACs. Thanks to the Citizens United decision, we know they have more influence than ever — this shows how it’s possible for them to hurt a candidate they are trying to help and just how little control the party has over them.”

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