Last June at the Coronado Bay Hotel in San Diego, at a breakfast plenary session for the 2014 conference of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, Cristóbal Alex, head of the liberal nonprofit Latino Victory Project, called out his conservative counterpart. He turned to Libre Intiative president, Daniel Garza, who like Alex, was raised in Texas by immigrant Meixcan workers, and assailed his organization for it controversial funding source.
“I like Daniel, I think he’s a nice guy,” said Alex, “But I don’t like to see Libre Initiative, with Koch Brothers money attack Latino candidates that are champions of things like immigration reform, that bothers me.”
Unfazed, Garza decided to aggressively stand his ground. “What Cristobal is saying is an old tactic, to demonize the messenger,” bristled Garza. “Everything we do is fact-checked. This is a game of ‘let’s have this conversation and we’re not going to back down. We don’t want centralized government! We don’t want collectivism! We don’t want bigger government! That’s the battle we’re having.”
To the conference attendees, it seemed like a typical debate between right and left, liberal and conservative, representing ostensibly non-partisan organizations, on a platform designed to celebrate the emergence of Latinos in US politics. But while Latino Victory might have critics who claim it is the vehicle of Obama donor bundlers Eva Longoria and Henry Muñoz, the Libre Initiative is part of the shadowy dark money tentacles of Koch Brothers network organizations that have multiplied rapidly since the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling of 2010.
(Note: Despite repeated requests made to Garza and Libre’s Communications Director, Brian Faughnan, no interview was granted.)
Alex was referring to a series of ads that attacked Hispanic Democratic candidates like Representatives Pete Gallego (TX) and Joe Garcia (FL), as well as Ron Barber and Ann Kirkpatrick who supported the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. Various reports state that Libre has spent $700,000 on the Gallego and Garcia ads alone. The ads use the standard conservative Republican arguments: that Obamacare has raised premiums, caused dropped coverage, and turned full time jobs into part-time jobs.
“We all know there are problems with Obamacare but the Libre Initiative has no interest in actually solving problems, they exist to play dirty politics and lie to the Latino community,” said Anthony Gutiérrez, Gallego campaign spokesman. “If they were actually paying attention they would have noticed that Rep. Gallego and his opponent actually have almost identical positions on Obamacare, both are on the record saying they would fix, rather than repeal, the law.”
Many observers interviewed for this article feel the Libre Intiative—whose name derives from the Spanish word for “free”–has the effect of influencing campaigns while using language loopholes to technically avoid violations of Federal Election Commission and IRS protocols. According to House Majority PAC’s Matt Thornton the Libre Initiative, is “yet another example of the Koch Brother’s spinning their money to influence the outcome of this election cycle.” Much of the money they spend on ostensibly political ads (without actually advocating for a candidate’s removal through election) ‘s done outside the FEC’s reporting windows.
At the NALEO Conference, Garza proclaimed the Libre Initiative to be “A non-partisan, nonprofit organization that advances the principles and values of economic freedom to empower the US Hispanic community by developing a network of Hispanic pro-Liberty activists across the US,”
According to the Center for Responsive Politics’ Robert Maguire, the wording in an ad criticizing Joe Garcia is crucial. “It’s not saying ‘vote for/vote against,’ it’s saying ‘call Joe Garcia’ or ‘Joe Garcia, why are you supporting this law?” Maguire and CPR have undertaken several investigations into the Koch network, revealing that the Libre Initiative is part of a vast sea of nonprofits with names like Generation Opportunity, Concerned Veterans for America, and the 60 Plus Association that receive funding from Koch groups like Freedom Partners and the Center to Protect Patients’ Rights. A recent Washington Post report stated that the Koch-backed donor network has raised $400 million to influence elections.
But the Kochtopus web doesn’t administer these funds directly, using subsidiaries called “disregarded entities” usually named with mysterious four letter acronyms like TDNA, which tax documents show is listed by Libre Initiative as the source of $4.96 million of income in 2012. “The point we always try to make is that this isn’t unique,” said Maguire. “We’re not saying that liberal groups don’t do this. The Koch network is unique because of the concentration of money and the lengths that they go to, to make the flows of money as complex as possible.”
A Spanish-language ad attacking Florida Representative Joe Garcia went beyond the pale. Excerpting an informal comment Garcia made—in jest—about communism, a Libre Ad claimed that this former head of the notoriously anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation, was a Communist. “This ad was incredibly disingenuous,” said Garcia campaign spokesman Miguel Salazar. “It’s absurd to think that the son of Cuban immigrants, whose family left because of repression there, would be advocating Communism.”
The Libre Intiative, founded in 2011, is not exactly nonpartisan when you look at its major players, either. Garza is a former George W Bush staffer, National Strategic Director is Jose Mallea, was formerly the campaign manager for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio; its Policy Director Jorge Lima was once an adviser to former Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño, who tried to impose Scott Walker-style reforms on the US island territory’s unions; Chief of Staff Andeliz Castillo led outreach to Hispanic media for the RNC in 2008, and National Spokesperson Rachel Campos-Duffy is married to Wisconsin Republican Rep. Sean Duffy.
To fulfill its goal of outreach to the Latino community, which Garza feels has been subjected to leftist propaganda, the group offers an array of social services, which a Yahoo News report characterizes as “an unusual move for a political group of this kind.” Libre offers free tax preparing services, English classes, health and wellness checkups and a free GED course. Garza himself is a GED recipient, and tries to translate his humble beginnings into a kind of Horatio Alger story by way of Ayn Rand.
The main issues on Libre Intiative’s agenda are opposition to Obamacare, smaller government (critiquing spending on entitlement programs and regulation), jobs and economy (they are against raising the miniumum wage), lowering taxes, and immigration reform (they promote a ‘market-based’ solution that emphasizes border security and guest worker status while being vague on a path to citizenship). Adhering to the Koch network agenda, they steer clear of the “culture wars,” and their women’s, youth, and faith initiatives are understated compared to much of the radical right.
It’s clear that the group hopes to step into an opportunity provided by the Obama administration’s failure to produce immigration reform while increasing deportations, as well the continuing stagnant economy. But while Ronald Reagan once declared that Latinos are “natural conservatives” because of their family orientation and strong religious affiliation, many observers doubt that the Libre Initiative are in step with a majority of Latinos.
“One study we’ve done,” said Marc Hugo Lopez of the Pew Hispanic Center, “shows that Latinos have been more supportive than the general public of a government that provides more services. That’s something that we consistently found over the years. Lopez also cites the common wisdom that has motivated various Republican outreach efforts, like Newt Gingrich’s “The Americano” website and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads Spanish-language ads, to desperately try to bring back Latinos to the Republican Party in numbers comparable to the 40% that voted for George W. Bush in 2004.
“The share of Latinos who say the Democratic party has been over 50% for the last couple of years and the share that say the Republican Party has been at around 12, 14% in recent years,” said Lopez. “So there’s a big gap in what Latinos view as the party that’s more concerned for the community and the gap has only grown in recent years.” Lopez adds that Latinos’ affiliation with the Catholic Church is on the decline, and while there has been an uptick in evangelical affiliation, he notes that adults who say they have no religious affiliation was on the rise. “I think it’s interesting because the rise of non-affiliation among Latinos is coming from those US born young people who in many respects look like other US born young people.”
The Libre Initiative’s seemingly out-of-step philosophy creates a strange synergy with their polished media presentation. The “Share the Dream” video series— featuring Garza, Rachel Campos-Duffy and a New Mexico preacher named Pasto Mike, posted on its YouTube page is a heavy-handed bully pulpit inveighing against entitlement programs linking “tyranny” in Cuba and Venezuela with the dependency-inducing government dole. Like many neoconservative fantasies, the mid-20th century prosperity America experienced as a result of government programs and regulatory mechanisms is ignored, as well as the fact that the Libre Initiative wouldn’t exist without millions of donated cash from the Koch Brothers. Garza’s personal income listed on Libre’s 2012 return approaches $200,000, none of it derived from his direct involvement in free market enterprise, unless you consider the Koch handout a direct link to hardcore capitalism.
Libre’s misguided rhetoric doesn’t stop with anti-big government talking points. When the disturbing crisis of unattended children crossing the border erupted in July, Libre spokesperson Judy Pino, appearing on “Fox and Friends,” blamed the crisis on “the perception that the President of the U.S. has created, where he can, with a flip of the pen, change the rule of law at any time, circumvent Congress…and when you have that perception you create a crisis.”
The ties to the Koch Brothers are not just visible through the slowly released tax documents—the process is in fact, so time-lagged that the big money influence is not quantifiable until long after an election cycle. Garza has apparently attended the last mysterious Palm Springs gathering of Koch Brothers honchos in January, with Mother Jones reporting in January that he met with Paul Foster, president of Western Refining Inc., a man whose wealth is estimated at $1.1 billion.
Some of Libre Initiative’s website material appears to be standard conservative filler. When you click on the tab on the Libre Intiative website under “Issues” called “Resources,” you are taken to a page listing PDFs that are merely reproductions of pro-Federalist Society screeds that are identical to those featured on the site of American Majority, which has ties to the Koch Brothers as well as blogger Michelle Malkin and Tea Party Express. When Garza spoke at the NALEO convention, he claimed that “Univision is running left-slanted news packages on an 8-1 ratio,” taken from a study by Brent Bozell’s notoriously right-wing Media Research Center.
Predictably, the Libre Intiative receives a pass from many media outlets in the sense that they are usually not identified as a right-wing conservative group. Many Libre spokespeople have popped up on HuffPost Live and MSNBC—Judy Pino actually made a rather ineffective appearance on a recent Melissa Harris Perry Show discussion about Latinos and race—as little more than typical Hispanic talking heads. And of course Garza’s archly written op eds about Obamacare have appeared in NBC Latino, the San Antonio Express, and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
In the end, while the Libre Initiative operates the various programs mentioned above, it is in essence a message-delivery machine. The tax documents provided by CRP show that in 2012, only two independent contractors employed by Libre were listed. $500,000 went to Mentzer Media Services, an ad-production group that was profiled in the Washington Post whose clients include American Prosperity and Rove’s American Crossroads, with $300,000 went to Noiseworks Media. And Libre’s message, honed by a conservative media machine that is regularly called out as inaccurate, is hard to believe.
“This organization has problems with the truth,” says Cristóbal Alex of Latino Victory. “The media firms that they’re hiring have real problems with it.” Alex went on to hammer away at Libre’s connection with conservative groups who are behind efforts to block voting rights of Latinos and other minorities. He also finds it telling that Libre has no apparent position on protecting the environment.
“Their position generally is—they call it economic freedom on their website—essentially about removal of regulations,” said Alex. “For us you can tell a lot about a person by the company he keeps. And the company the Libre Intiative keeps are the Koch Brothers, who stand to profit from hurting our environment because that’s where they literally make their money. It directly contradicts what the Latino community values.”
(This is an abridged version of an article that appeared in the September 2014 issue of The Progressive magazine.)