Published May 17, 2012
WASHINGTON – The wealthy executive who considered and then dropped a proposal to revive controversy over the relationship between President Barack Obama and his former pastor is a rising conservative maverick with ties to the Chicago Cubs baseball team. He's also linked to a "super" political action committee that bankrolled an upset in Nebraska's recent Republican Senate primary.
J. Joseph Ricketts, 70, a politically conservative Nebraskan known as "Joe," built the TD Ameritrade brokerage firm into a billion-dollar empire that backed the purchase of the Cubs as well as interests in film, media, resorts and bison meat products. As the man reportedly behind a planned $10 million anti-Obama ad blitz — a spokesman on Thursday blamed the proposal on consultants and said it was being shelved — Ricketts is a new force in GOP and conservative politics.
It doesn't run in the family: Ricketts' daughter, Laura, is a prominent lesbian activist who is a volunteer fundraiser for Obama.
Joe Ricketts was identified by a Republican strategist Wednesday as the financier behind plans being drawn up for a $10 million campaign that would have targeted Obama's relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the Chicago pastor with a history of racially incendiary sermons. Wright's relationship with Obama, his former parishioner, was a hot-button issue in the 2008 presidential race.
Obama's 2008 rival, Sen. John McCain, mostly steered clear of the topic and aides to Mitt Romney quickly repudiated the tactic on Thursday, leading Ricketts to torpedo the plan.
The new super PACs allow well-funded business and other interest groups to wade into political issues that are too sensitive for rival campaigns. Ricketts is on the cutting edge of that phenomenon, one of several wealthy conservative financiers who have single-handedly set up super PACs and nonprofit foundations to advance their pet issues.
Ricketts spent nearly $1.2 million in 2010 to create Ending Spending Action Fund, which was reportedly considering the Wright attack ads. The committee has a sister nonprofit, also called Ending Spending, which Ricketts set up for issue advocacy. It was preceded by Taxpayers Against Earmarks, an advocacy group for Ricketts' campaign against the use of congressional provisions to benefit specific projects in legislators' districts.
Calls to Ricketts at Ending Spending were not immediately returned, but the president of the committee, Brian Baker, said in a statement on the group's website that the planned ad campaign "reflects an approach to politics that Mr. Ricketts rejects." Baker called the plans "only a suggestion" and added that Ricketts was "neither the author nor the funder" — despite indications of deeper involvement.
A champion of limited government and free enterprise who once supported Democratic Party candidates, Ricketts joins such well-heeled conservative activists as the Koch brothers, who head the conservative Americans for Prosperity organization, in pumping millions of dollars into campaigns to influence elections and public policy. His Tampa, Fla.-based super PAC spent $600,000 in the Nevada Senate race in 2010 in a failed attempt to unseat Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
But Ricketts has also shown an independent streak, willing to take on rival conservatives as he did in Nebraska's recent GOP Senate primary. Ricketts' super PAC quietly fronted $130,000 for ads supporting Debra Fischer, a state senator who upset a well-funded rival supported by other influential conservatives. Fischer had tea party support but was opposed by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and other top conservatives.
Ricketts' website describes him as an advocate for "responsible government that promotes freedom, fosters free enterprise and encourages individual opportunity." The site also describes Ricketts' ventures since he retired in 2011 from TD Ameritrade, including the American Film Company; DNAinfo.com, a New York hyper-local website; and High Plains Bison, a bison meat product firm.
Ricketts' family in 2009 purchased 95 percent ownership of the Chicago Cubs for a reported $900 million. The main investor was Ricketts' son, Tom, who is the team's chairman, but Ricketts' other three children, Laura, Pete and Todd, also have interests and are on the team's board. Joe Ricketts also has an interest. Despite his limited government philosophy, the ball club is pressing for $200 million in state-backed bonds to renovate Wrigley Field, the Cubs stadium also owned by the family.
On Wednesday, Tom Ricketts directly confronted the reports that his father was behind the anti-Obama ad campaign. "As chairman of the Chicago Cubs, I repudiate any return to racially divisive issues in this year's presidential campaign or in any setting — like my father has," he said.
Laura Ricketts also spoke out. "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," she said.
Laura Ricketts is listed by the Obama campaign as a bundler raising between $200,000 and $500,000 in donations. She introduced Obama last February during a Chicago fundraising event that took in more than $1.4 million.
Associated Press writer Beth Fouhy in New York contributed to this report.