Our Money = Good, Their Money = Bad

Today the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran a flattering profile of Alida Messinger, the top supporter of liberal causes and political candidates in Minnesota. Ms. Messinger was born Alida Rockefeller and inherited an enormous amount of money. At one time she was married to department store heir Mark Dayton, now the Governor of Minnesota. Neither of them has ever held what most people would consider a job. Despite their divorce, they remain on good terms, and Messinger has made it her personal mission to return Minnesota’s legislature to DFL control:

Alida Messinger, an heir to the fabled Rockefeller fortune, has quietly given at least $10 million to candidates and causes over the past decade. Some recent gifts have been extraordinary: $500,000 to a group that last year backed her former husband, Mark Dayton, for governor. And before that, $1 million to help bankroll the ballot campaign for the Legacy amendment, which raised the state sales tax to create 25 years of new funding for conservation and cultural projects.

Now, Messinger is preparing for a new showdown that will be expensive, contentious and, for the first time, public.

She is vowing to do all she can to help the DFL regain control of the Legislature and get President Obama re-elected. Her millions could also become a force in the fight over the constitutional amendment on the ballot next year to define marriage as a union of man and woman — not gay couples. Messinger, 62, contends GOP politicians are harming Minnesota.

The Strib assures its readers that Messinger’s motives are pure:

Her first big philanthropic endeavor came in the late 1960s, when she was a college student in California and wanted to block logging companies from clear-cutting redwood forests. More than 40 years later, the anger she felt toward environmental degradation still burns.

“I have the same feeling of indignation at companies and corporations that scoop up natural resources and then dump pollutants,” she said. …

A political turning point came for Messinger in 2004, with the re-election of President George W. Bush. “I just felt that administration was the opposite of everything I believed in,” she said. “It was the first time I felt I had to do more than just write a check. I couldn’t sit still after that.”

Now, she says, she is angry that many lakes in her chosen state are too polluted for people to eat the fish from them. She is frustrated Minnesota schools no longer lead the nation. All the reasons she loved the state so much when she moved here, she said, are under attack.

So basically, Messinger agrees with the Strib’s editorial board about everything. The article does include comments on Messinger by prominent local Republicans, but they don’t say anything very bad about her. This is as harsh as it gets:

“Alida Messinger has used her money to bankroll some of the largest buckets of mud that have been thrown in the last election,” [former GOP official Michael] Brodkorb said. “She’s now trying to use her money to get rid of her ex-husband’s enemies in the Legislature. She clearly believes Republican legislators are an obstacle to her ex-husband, who is pursuing a liberal agenda they both truly want.”

All of which is, I think, undeniable. It is natural that the Republicans quoted by the newspaper don’t say anything harsh about Messinger or question her right to spend her money as she sees fit. After all, while they may think her policy preferences are foolish and naive, it is her money.

I couldn’t help noticing the contrast between the Strib’s treatment of Alida Messinger and the news stories and op-eds that have proliferated over the last year or two with respect to wealthy individuals who support conservative causes. Somehow, this profile seemed a whole lot more sympathetic. Just for fun, I searched the Strib’s archives to see what they had to say about prominent conservative donors. I found this column by Nick Coleman, who shares the Strib editors’ and reporters’ liberal views: “Elections are for sale, and that stinks.” So, is it Alida Messinger’s pouring of millions of dollars into Minnesota elections that “stinks”? What a silly question! Coleman is talking about conservative donors:

What should we call people who want to influence the outcome of elections without having to disclose campaign contributions or allow their behind-the-scenes maneuverings to be revealed to voters?

How about “cowards”?

Well, you say–Coleman goes on to rip conservative donors, but maybe that is because Ms. Messinger goes beyond the law’s requirements and transparently discloses her contributions and “behind-the-scenes maneuverings.” Um, no. This is the conclusion of today’s article:

For her part, Messinger says she has no idea how much she has given to causes over the years — or how much she will end up contributing in the months ahead.

“And even if I knew,” she added, “I wouldn’t tell you.”

Coleman continues:

We are now seeing how wealthy special interests — including billionaires who dabble in and promote kooky ideas about climate change, human evolution and unchecked exploitation of natural resources — are trying to buy the 2010 elections.

Yes, the idea that scientific principles should be applied to wild claims about “climate change” is certainly kooky! But after all, the laws that govern contributions to candidates and causes don’t depend on Nick Coleman’s opinion about what is “kooky,” do they? In the view of liberals, apparently so. Coleman doesn’t so much as hint at criticism of any liberal donor.

In the freshest example of the high-stakes shell game going on, the New York Times reported Friday that a group calling itself Americans for Job Security (its only employee is a 20-something Republican operative) is a front for wealthy conservatives to skirt campaign finance laws and pour unreported money into attacks on Democrats. Jobs are not on the agenda. Political domination is.

This is, of course, exactly the same as the political contributions that Alida Messinger makes, only on the other side.

The Tea Party movement, too, is financed by hidden interests, as was reported in an Aug. 30 New Yorker magazine article by Jane Mayer. Mayer detailed the wacky beliefs and ruthless political strategies of David and Charles Koch, oil billionaire brothers (they own the Flint Hills Resources’ Pine Bend Refinery in Rosemount) who have given unknown millions to further right-wing causes surreptitiously while spending more millions fighting environmental initiatives and pollution laws.

“If we want to keep a government of the people and by the people and for the people, we better start paying attention,” says State Sen. John Marty, whose failed campaign to win the DFL endorsement for governor last spring marked one of the only efforts to make campaign finance reform an issue in Minnesota. “We’re turning elections into auctions. There’s no way to sugarcoat it. Our government is for sale.”

I certainly hope not, because if that is true here in Minnesota, Alida Messinger will be the highest bidder. But the broader point is obvious: when rich Republicans contribute to conservative candidates and causes, they are sinister “billionaires” who are trying to buy elections for nefarious purposes. When rich Democrats follow the same laws in the same way to support liberal causes and candidates, they are admirable, wise and public-spirited. There is no difference, except that newspaper editors and reporters agree with the liberal donors, and disagree with the conservative donors.

There is, perhaps, one additional difference, which although not legally relevant is nevertheless worth noting. From today’s article about Alida Messinger:

Messinger is a descendent of the Standard Oil fortune. Her brother is Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia.

“My father raised us all to consider our money a trust to us. It was passed on to us; we didn’t earn it,” Messinger said. “I felt a tremendous responsibility.”

“We didn’t earn it”–a candid but, in Messinger’s case, unavoidable admission. While there are exceptions here and there, it is a general rule that rich people who didn’t earn their money, like Alida Messinger and John Kerry, are liberals, while rich people who do earn their money, like Mitt Romney, Charles and David Koch and many others, are conservatives. I think this is because people who actually have to work and succeed in the real world, as opposed to merely cashing trust fund checks, understand the economy and know what policies will lead to economic growth. But in the eyes of liberal journalists, what distinguishes liberal from conservative philanthropists is that the liberal ones share their ill-informed policy preferences. For them, that makes all the difference.

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