The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Charles Koch calls on fellow conservative donors to expand their commitment

FILE: Charles Koch in his office at Koch Industries in Wichita, Kansas. (AP Photo/The Wichita Eagle, Bo Rader)
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RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif.— Conservative benefactor Charles Koch on Saturday called on other wealthy donors to expand their commitment to promoting free-market ideas and shrinking government, saying they would only succeed if the cause was “a central part of our lives.”

Speaking at the opening dinner of a three-day donor conference, the billionaire industrialist alluded to the November victories of a slate of Republican candidates that the group supported during last year’s midterms.

“Americans have taken an important step in slowing down the march toward collectivism,” he said, according to excerpts of his speech shared with reporters. “But as many of you know, we don’t rest on our laurels. We are already back at work and hard at it!”

“In fact, the work never really ends,” Koch added. “Because the struggle for freedom never ends. Much of our efforts to date have been largely defensive to slow down a government that continues to swell and become more intrusive – causing our culture to deteriorate.”

Koch’s remarks were released by Freedom Partners, the tax-exempt business league that functions as the hub of a sprawling network financed by the Kochs and other major donors on the right. The organization is primarily made up of nonprofits, such as Americans for Prosperity, that do not reveal information about their financing or their spending. Because of that, the Kochs have been lambasted by senior Democrats and others on the left for trying influence politics with secret money.

This weekend’s gathering, one of two donor conclaves that the network holds annually, is being held at an exclusive desert resort perched on a rocky hillside near Palm Springs, with stunning views of the palm tree-speckled desert floor. Among the more than 450 attendees expected to join Charles Koch and his brother David are top donors on the right and prominent Republican officials.

Visitors who attempted to enter the grounds of the resort Saturday were told politely by security officials that the venue was closed for a private event.

But for the first time, officials are providing a look at what happens inside the gathering, a significant change in approach. On Sunday, Freedom Partners is going to share with reporters a live Web stream of a panel featuring three potential 2016 presidential contenders: Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida that is taking place as part of the conference.

In the excerpts of his speech released Saturday, Charles Koch described what he said is the group’s vision of society, one that “maximizes peace, civility and well-being.”

“A society that is free in which people succeed by helping others improve their lives,” he added. “A society with a culture of integrity, responsibility, hard work, tolerance and treating others with dignity and respect. Such a society secures individual and property rights with equal protection for everyone under the law. It ensures free speech and free markets so everyone has the right to express their views and the opportunity to benefit by benefiting others.”

Koch said creating that society “is up to us.”

“Making this vision a reality will require more than a financial commitment,” he said. “It requires making it a central part of our lives. This group has created millions of jobs and improved the lives of countless people through hard work and philanthropy. Imagine what we can achieve together if we focus our time, talent and resources on the cause of freedom and well-being.”

“To me,” he added, “there is no more worthy cause.”

Earlier in the day, at the base of the curving driveway that led up to the resort, less than a dozen protesters stood on a busy street corner, waving a large American flag and holding up signs denouncing the Kochs and their reach.

“They claim they’re being more open,” said Tracy Turner, a 49-year-old retiree from Palm Springs, noting that the press was barred from the event. “Clearly, that’s not the case. They’re scripting it very carefully.”

Keith Coleman, a 57-year-old activist from Cathedral City, organized the demonstration after reading about the event in the local newspaper.

“The Koch brothers are too influential in politics,” he said. “With all their oil and gas interests, it’s a very anti-environmentalist stance. They influence a lot of Republicans.”

Bill Baker, 78, a former computer engineer from La Quinta, said what most offends him is the idea that those assembled for this weekend’s gathering have more political power because of their wealth.

“I totally disagree with what the Koch brothers stand for,” Baker said. “It’s not democratic. It’s an oligarchy they’re supporting. It shouldn’t be about money – it should be about the best people.”

He waved a sign reading “KOCH$ R BAD 4 U” as cars zoomed by, the drivers occasionally honking in support.

“I’m surprised how positive the reception is,” Baker said.

Just then a white Porsche peeled down the driveway of the resort and past the protesters. A woman stuck her arm out the window, making an emphatic thumbs down sign as she passed.