In the world of liberal and progressive politics, there have been perhaps no more effective boogeymen than Charles and David Koch. The billionaire Kansas businessmen have played an outsized role in conservative politics in the new millennium.
After at least a four-year hiatus, the Koch brothers-founded nonprofit Americans for Prosperity is back in New Mexico and prepared to spend during the upcoming election cycle.
"Broadly speaking, we advocate for the framework for a free society," says AFP state director Robert "Burly" Cain. "I have seen time and again how devastating the government can be when it's used in the wrong way."
Cain is a native New Mexican and has recently worked on the presidential campaign of Libertarian and former governor Gary Johnson.
He tells SFR the state has failed to lift up the public education system, hold down heath care costs in check and ease the burden on entrepreneurs. "It's a really challenging environment for people to start businesses here. And it's getting harder," Cain says.
While the Kochs have publicly distanced themselves from AFP in recent years, the nonprofit isn't required to disclose its donors, so the extent of their financial support is unknown. As an IRS-designated 501(c)(4) nonprofit, the group has to spend the majority of its money on "social welfare" issues and education. That can include lobbying and political advertising, as long as AFP doesn't endorse or oppose a specific candidate and doesn't spend the majority of its money on political activities.
Cain started with AFP on May 1 and says he'll open an Albuquerque office soon, with plans to identify locations for satellite offices in the near future. Santa Fe is in the running, he says. AFP plans an advocacy training session, something it calls the Grassroots Leadership Academy, next month, as well as the start of a speakers' series in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces. He hasn't announced the speakers.
Democratic Party of New Mexico Chair Richard Ellenberg isn't likely to attend, calling AFP's positions "extreme" and targeted to benefit millionaires and billionaires.
"Americans for Prosperity forces their ideology without recognizing the culture and the needs of our state. We cannot allow two billionaires to buy political influence in our state," he tells SFR in a statement.
"There are those who want to make some of our donors out to be bad people because they've been successful," Cain says of the opposition he knows is out there. "They're wonderful people. The organization itself has done incredible things around the country.
"I think anyone who wants to take a minute to talk to me will learn that whether it's criminal justice reform, tax reform, good government … I think they'll see there's a lot of work we do that they'll appreciate."
Paul Gessing, of the libertarian-oriented think tank the Rio Grande Foundation, partnered recently with AFP to oppose a gas tax increase in Albuquerque to pay for maintenance and improvement of Duke City roads.
"To the extent that we're in alignment, we'll work with them," Gessing tells SFR over the phone. He points out that the Rio Grande Foundation takes more of a policy approach to its activities than a political approach, but says it's not uncommon for AFP's political stance to line up with the foundation's policy statements.
Equally, if not more, important than having political camaraderie is having money to back it up.
"We welcome them back to a liberal-leaning state," Gessing says. "There's just not a lot of political money here, but it seems to me that it's an unbalanced ledger."
If there's one thing AFP knows how to do, it's spend money.