Who, again, is Joe Ricketts?

September 18, 2012

Four months after he first made a splash in the 2012 presidential race, Joe Ricketts is back on the radar.

The wealthy entrepreneur, who funds his own super PAC, is pledging to spend $10 million on helping Mitt Romney win the presidency and $2 million to help GOP House and Senate candidates.


TD Ameritrade Chairman and founder Joe Ricketts talks to shareholders in Omaha, Neb., on Feb. 16, 2005. (Dave Weaver/AP)

But unlike previous wealthy super PAC donors, Ricketts is a decidedly private and unassuming character. That changed a little in May, when a proposal was leaked in which an ad-maker urged Ricketts to fund ads focused on President Obama's ties to his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, just days after Ricketts played a big role in helping Nebraska state Sen. Deb Fischer pull an upset in her state's Republican Senate primary.

Here's a look back at the profile we did of Ricketts in May (the full post is here):

But just who is (Joe Ricketts)?

Actually, he’s a man with some pretty close ties to Obamaworld and the Democratic Party.

Ricketts himself is a former Democrat who became a Republican and later an independent.

His daughter, Laura, is a gay and lesbian activist and big-time Obama bundler, having raised around half a million dollars for the man her father would apparently like to bring down.

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.

(We reported Thursday afternoon that Emanuel is “livid,” according to an aide, with the Ricketts family and has cut off communications for the time being.)

And another Ricketts son, Pete Ricketts, is a Republican National Committeeman from Nebraska who unsuccessfully self-funded a 2006 Senate campaign against Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). Pete and Laura also serve on the Cubs board, along with a fourth sibling, Todd.

“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,” Laura Ricketts said in a statement today. “Though we may have diverse political views, above all we love and respect each other.”

The seed money for all this activism and entrepreneurship is the elder Ricketts, a self-made man who started TD Ameritrade in the 1970s when it was known by a different name, First Omaha Securities.

The family’s net worth has been ranked as high as 93rd on the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans. In 2009, Joe Ricketts himself ranked 371st, with assets estimated at $1 billion.

According to those who know him best, Joe Ricketts, 70, is a reclusive executive type who has rarely sought the spotlight or spoken publicly.

He left the company’s board of directors in February but gave little indication that he intended to get more involved in politics.

“I don’t think he seeks to be the public face of anything like that, but I would say the things that he believes in, he’s very passionate about,” said Robert Slezak, a former Ameritrade executive who worked with Ricketts for a decade. “I think he would prefer to deflect the spotlight on someone else.”

Yet Ricketts has been an emerging financial force in politics in recent years — first by launching an anti-earmark campaign called Taxpayers Against Earmarks. Later, with the advent of super PACs, Ricketts launched Ending Spending, a super PAC and nonprofit issue advocacy group that spent $860,000 against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in the 2010 election.

This year, Ending Spending is promising to get even more involved, including helping Fischer to victory Tuesday and spending on behalf of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) in his recall election next month.

The group also had crafted an ad to be run against Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) in his primary, but wound up backing off when it became clear he was going to lose.

Ricketts is also a top donor this year to the anti-incumbent Campaign for Primary Accountability, a group that has targeted long-time incumbents regardless of their party affiliation or politics.

Between building Ameritrade into what it is today and his new-found political involvement, Ricketts launched a number of start-ups in different industries.

He’s owner of a successful new New York news website, DNAinfo.com, a natural bison meat producer, and the upstart American Film Company, which produced the 2010 Robert Redford film "The Conspirator,” a historical documentary about the legal aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

The Ricketts family acquired a 95 percent share of the Cubs in 2009, but the team since then has experienced a drop in attendance, and in 2011, the Chicago Tribune reported that the team was one of nine major league baseball teams in violation of the league’s debt rules.

Joe Ricketts is not directly involved in the team’s finances, though, as his children run the team.

According to a 2006 profile of Pete Rickets from the Omaha World-Herald, Joe Ricketts wouldn't allow any of his children to work for Ameritrade before their 30th birthday, wanting them to expand their horizons before returning to the family business.

In that profile, Joe Ricketts is described as a man who was business-first and didn't coddle his children.

That approach seems to live on today, with Ricketts’s political power moves running interference on his children’s business and political interests.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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