ST. LOUIS • Technically, Missouri’s political system is headquartered at the state Capitol in Jefferson City. But its real epicenter may be a gray stone mansion on a quiet residential street in St. Louis’ Central West End.
There, 70-year-old multimillionaire Rex Sinquefield pads around in dress socks, shows off his art collection to guests and — to hear U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill tell it — pulls the state’s political strings like a high-priced puppetmaster.
“He is, methodically, through a number of front groups, trying to buy government, buy judges, buy journalists ... buy the Legislature,” warns McCaskill. It’s a view widely echoed by fellow Democrats and even some Republicans.
“In Jefferson City, the first question legislators ask is not, ‘What do my constituents think?’ It’s, ‘What does Rex think?’,” says McCaskill, who has made Sinquefield the poster child in her quest to set campaign contribution limits in Missouri. “They’re not saying it out loud, because they’re afraid of him, but everyone is uncomfortable about what’s going on.”
Sinquefield, sitting in the front parlor of his 8,320-square-foot St. Louis home last week, smiled at the mention of McCaskill’s name. “Why she’d say anything about a sweet old lovable guy like me, I don’t know,” he said.
He dismisses the allegation that he’s trying to “buy” government. “I have never given money to a candidate or an officeholder in the belief that they’re going change their position on something,” he said.
But he doesn’t deny his critics’ other central point: that his unprecedented political spending is largely meant to promote the goal of eliminating Missouri’s income tax and corporate taxes — which mostly hit the rich — while making up some of the difference with higher sales taxes, which hit everyone.
Do that, he says with almost religious certainty, and Missouri’s economic boom will follow.
“Get rid of your personal tax, get rid of your corporate taxes, don’t punish work, don’t punish profits, don’t punish productivity,” he says. “Those taxes punish the things you need the most of ... You end up hurting people at the bottom if you try to overtax the people at the top. You don’t want to punish the investing class.”
It’s classic supply-side economics, a theory that has prompted heated national debate for decades. While some consider it debunked, Sinquefield promotes it fervently in the book he recently co-authored with Reagan-era economic guru Arthur Laffer and others, titled, “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of States.”
Sinquefield’s other major issue involves boosting educational choices, a stance that riles some defenders of public education. And he has battled, so far unsuccessfully, to weaken teacher tenure in the state.
But the controversy surrounding Sinquefield isn’t just about what he’s trying to do in Missouri. It’s also about how he’s trying to do it: by lavishing virtually unlimited money directly on politicians in one of the few states in America where that’s still legal.
Since making his fortune with his California investment firm and returning to his native state in 2005, Sinquefield has donated more than $37 million to Missouri state-level candidates and causes, according to records. He is by far the most prolific political patron in the history of the state, and one of the biggest in the country.
Among the Missouri political spending from Sinquefield and his wife, Jeanne:
• More than $24 million over the years to three key organizations — Let Voters Decide, Grow Missouri and Missouri Club for Growth — which have pushed Sinquefield’s tax-cut agenda through ballot initiatives and legislative lobbying.
• $1 million in December to Bev Randles, a Kansas City lawyer and chairwoman of Missouri Club for Growth who is exploring a 2016 campaign for lieutenant governor. It is apparently the single biggest donation to any candidate by an individual donor in Missouri history.
• $1 million last year to 2016 GOP gubernatorial candidate Catherine Hanaway, including $100,000 from a Sinquefield-backed group. Some of his money came in $10,000-a-week donations through the months of November and December.
• $925,000 to the organization Teachgreat.org, which spearheaded Sinquefield’s failed ballot initiative last year to impose performance-based evaluations on public school teachers and weaken tenure.
In addition to the Missouri contributions, the Sinquefields have given more than $2.3 million in the last decade to 527 committees, which are tax-exempt organizations that can raise unlimited money for general political activities. At least one of those donations has stirred controversy.
It was a $300,000 donation last year to the Republican State Leadership Committee, which subsequently gave its Missouri affiliate $305,050 — most of which went into an unsuccessful attempt to defeat Cole County Circuit Judge Pat Joyce. Joyce had earlier issued a ruling that in effect killed Sinquefield’s proposed tax overhaul in 2012.
Sinquefield’s spokespeople refused to answer questions before the election about his apparent role in trying to oust Joyce, and his donation to the umbrella group didn’t show up until afterward.
In an interview with the Post-Dispatch last week, Sinquefield insisted his donations aren’t meant to push politicians into agreeing with him, but rather to help out politicians who already do.
“I only give it to people who we already support, who we know support our positions,” he said. “And, frankly, the purpose is so their lives become easier. They don’t have to spend all their time raising money.”
The courts have come down on the side of the principle that “money is speech”— meaning people with money can’t be barred from spending it to promote their political views. One of the results has been the elimination of limits on independent expenditures at the federal level.
Still, most states today continue to enforce campaign contribution limits of various types. Missouri is one of the few exceptions. In 2008, the Legislature repealed Missouri’s previous limits. No one has stepped through that opening with more force than Sinquefield.
Sinquefield’s efforts haven’t always panned out. He targeted four Missouri House Republicans who refused to stand with their party on tax-cut legislation in 2013; all four were re-elected. Last year, unable to get legislators to curtail tenure for public school teachers, Sinquefield tried to bypass the Legislature by financing a ballot petition — which also failed.
Also last year, a public relations firm doing business with the Sinquefield PAC Grow Missouri was caught offering working journalists money to write anonymous articles about tax reform and other controversial issues. The PAC ended up cutting ties with the firm.
But there have also been successes. In 2010, Sinquefield spearheaded an initiative that forces periodic public votes on city earnings taxes in St. Louis and Kansas City. In 2014, he pushed through statewide tax-cut legislation, tied to general revenue growth, that could cut the state’s top personal income tax rate to 5.5 percent from 6 percent and provide a new 25 percent deduction for business income reported on individual returns.
More generally, he has had arguably a bigger impact than anyone else in setting the agenda for the GOP-controlled Legislature, where tax cuts and related issues have been a near-obsession for the past several years.
“Rex Sinquefield has sought to reshape Missouri’s laws, legislators and policies in his own ideological mold,” states a lengthy treatise on Sinquefield released last year by the liberal groups Progress Missouri and the Center for Media and Democracy. “He has dumped millions into front groups and lobbying entities to massage politicians, spin the press, and try to soften up public opinion toward his personal wish list for changing Missouri law.”
‘I’M MY OWN MAN’
Sinquefield’s dominance — and the complications it creates for candidates — was demonstrated again on Thursday, the day that Missouri candidates were required to reveal their funding sources for the previous quarter.
Hanaway’s campaign issued a news release trumpeting that she had raised $1.4 million in 2014 from “over 220 donors.” In the statement, Hanaway called it an “outpouring of support” for her gubernatorial run. The announcement doesn’t mention that about 70 percent of that money came from just one donor.
“It’s unfortunate that Missouri Republicans have decided to let one man hand-pick their electoral slate in 2016,” Crystal Brinkley, executive director of the Missouri Democratic Party, said in a statement. “I’m unsure as to whether we’ll be running against the Missouri GOP or Rex Inc. in two years’ time.”
Hanaway and others who have received large donations from Sinquefield insist they are not unduly influenced by their benefactor.
“[S]he has and always will be independent,” Hanaway spokesman Nick Maddux said in a written statement. “Mr. Sinquefield supports her because she supports better schools and lower taxes.”
State Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, kicked off his campaign for state treasurer last summer with a quarter-million-dollar contribution from Sinquefield. Schmitt has sponsored income tax cuts in the Senate, but he said his position long pre-dates his donations from Sinquefield.
“I’m my own man, always have been,” said Schmitt. He said his tax-cut focus has been “consistent throughout time, ever since I was doing College Republican debates.”
“You have an overwhelming Republican majority, so the idea that we’re lowering taxes shouldn’t shock anyone,” Schmitt said.
In response, the other side points to Kansas.
In 2012, Republican Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback began ushering in a concerted tax restructuring of his state, pulled almost line-for-line from Sinquefield’s economic playbook. With the enthusiastic backing of Sinquefield and Laffer, Brownback exempted 191,000 Kansas businesses from income taxes and lowered the top rate for individuals from 6.45 percent to 4.9 percent. Sinquefield at the time declared the move “unbelievably brilliant.”
Now, in what has become one of the major economic stories of the year, Kansas is facing a $710 million budget hole through the next fiscal year. The situation has affected the state’s credit rating and has contributed to a school-funding crisis.
It has even many Republicans in Kansas and elsewhere wavering on the concept of wholesale tax cuts, and Democrats have pounced. Sinquefield is unfazed. “It’s going to work,” he said. “It’s already started to work. But you can’t expect something to work on Day Two.”
“It’s an experiment that has never worked,” countered Missouri state Sen. Paul LeVota, D-Independence, citing a common view among Democrats in Missouri and elsewhere.
LeVota said his problem with Sinquefield isn’t just that he’s pushing what many view as a dangerous economic policy — it’s that Missouri’s no-limit system allows him to pursue that goal with virtually unlimited money.
“When you don’t have campaign finance limits, it allows a small handful of individuals to throw out an extreme amount of money for tax policy that benefits them, that doesn’t benefit the state,” LeVota said
RAGS TO RICHES TO PATRONAGE
The Svengali-like image that Sinquefield’s political critics paint of him is at odds with his image in other arenas. His philanthropic giving in St. Louis “swamps my giving to politics, by many orders of magnitude,” he says. The Sinquefield Charitable Foundation is a major benefactor of St. Louis education and music programs. He has almost single-handedly made St. Louis the center of the chess world.
Sinquefield’s personal story — born to a poor family, raised in part in a St. Louis orphanage, made his fortune by his own pioneering investment ideas — is in sharp contrast to the silver-spoon legacy of the Koch brothers, to whom he is sometimes compared for his political spending.
Sinquefield said his distaste for taxes began while he was living at St. Vincent Orphanage in St. Louis, because his mother couldn’t afford to raise him. He would visit her periodically.
“I can remember being around her in April, and she’s doing her taxes,” he recalled. “And my mom probably made all of $4,000 a year working as a secretary. She says, ‘I can’t afford this damned tax. ... The city takes 1 percent of my income.’ For her, that’s $40. Forty dollars for someone who makes $4,000 is a ton of money. And that’s the first time I became aware of that tax. And I said, ‘Gee, Mom, that’s really unfair.’”
He insists his goals are about issues, not political parties. He talks in glowing terms about St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, a Democrat, and their agreement on charter schools and other issues. “I’ve supported the mayor a lot, and I don’t regret one penny of it,” he said.
An enthusiastic adherent to fiscal conservatism, Sinquefield seems uninterested in social conservatism. He said he’s personally opposed to abortion but doesn’t support outlawing it. “It’s not the job of government to enforce moral imperatives.” He favors New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for president.
He maintains that his tax-cut campaign isn’t about boosting his own bottom line, but that of his state. “I love the state of Missouri, I love the city of St. Louis,” he said. “I’m tired of seeing us be last in everything. I want us to be a growth state, and a growth city.”
Even some of his tougher critics don’t doubt his sincerity on that point. “I think he really believes that protecting the investor class is the right thing to do for the country,” said McCaskill. “But I think most Missourians think you should protect the workers.”
Sinquefield hinted last week he will continue to ramp up his political spending in the coming election cycle, as he promotes his two top goals of tax rollbacks and education changes.
“I’m not going to die until both these goals have been accomplished,” he said. “So if you want to get rid of me, just accomplish these things and then I’ll leave.”
Walker Moskop of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.