COLORADO SPRINGS — Billionaire industrialist Charles Koch on Saturday chastised the political class, saying that those seeking public office were offering "frightening" answers and largely failing to promote a society that provides opportunity for all.
“Our goal is to unite people from all walks of life to work for what we call a free and open society — a society of opportunity, of free speech, free exchange, and what we call permissionless innovation,” Koch told conservative donors assembled in a hotel ballroom here for the opening reception of his political network’s semiannual retreat.
“This would be a society where people succeed not by rigging the system, but by helping others improve their lives,” Koch said.
“It would be great if politicians were supporting us in these efforts,” he added, without calling out any by name. “And a few are. But, by and large, they aren’t. And the good news is that we have built this network for just such a condition. And that puts us in position to make progress, in spite of the current political situation, where we don’t really, in some cases, have good options.”
Koch's remarks came as his network was set to host nearly a dozen Republican elected officials, including U.S. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, at this weekend's policy and political seminar. But he appeared to be making veiled reference to the current battle for the White House and his resistance to engaging the network in support of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.
On Saturday, network officials said that Koch-backed groups would begin invoking Democratic contender Hillary Clinton in paid outreach to voters in key U.S. Senate races, but would not run an overt campaign against her presidential bid or jump in on behalf of Trump.
So far, the network, which is active in six competitive Senate races, has spent $21 million on paid ads and has reservations for at least $20 million more. In addition, its advocacy groups, such as Americans for Prosperity, the Libre Initiative and Concerned Veterans for America, together have 1,600 staffers deployed across 38 states — a political infrastructure that rivals that of the two main political parties.
This weekend’s gathering, held on the lush, sprawling grounds of a Colorado Springs resort, is designed to showcase the reach of the network for the 300 major donors in attendance. Each committed at least $100,000 annually to support the network’s political, policy and educational efforts. Another 100 potential contributors are also on hand, the largest number of new prospects who have participated in one of the network seminars, which began in 2003, officials said.
The Washington Post and other news outlets were invited to cover portions of the weekend gathering on the condition that they do not name donors in attendance without their permission.
As donors sipped wine and cocktails in a packed ballroom, Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado introduced Koch, thanking him and his brother David “for the incredible work that you’re going to be doing here this weekend.” Koch, for his part, praised Gardner "for what you’re doing to try to preserve our free society."
In his 10-minute welcome, Koch stuck closely to his prepared remarks, noting that he has been “talking a lot off the cuff” and that it is “easy to spin what I say a little.”
He cast the network as an organization determined to level the playing field for those left behind — a theme that has dominated this year’s election season. In trying to describe current American society, “I can’t think of a better way than the opening line in ‘Tale of Two Cities,’” Koch said: “'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.'”
The chief executive of Koch Industries, who is worth an estimated $44 billion, described an “increasingly stagnant, two-tiered society, with the rich and politically connected doing well, and most everybody else stuck down below.”
“No wonder that people have by and large lost their optimism,” he said, adding that the answers provided by politicians are “frightening.”
“By and large, these answers would make matters worse,” Koch said. “I recognize reluctantly that politics needs to be a piece of this strategy, but we’ve got to keep in mind, just one piece," he said. "If we just focus on politics, we’re going to continue to lose, we’re going to continue to deteriorate,” drawing scattered applause from the audience.