WASHINGTON — Billionaire investor Joe Ricketts' ambitions for greater political influence landed him in a national controversy Thursday after the New York Times reported the Nebraska native was involved in a proposed advertising blitz that would attack President Barack Obama by highlighting the president's incendiary former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
The story broke just days after Ricketts' crucial, last-minute support helped Deb Fischer win Nebraska's Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate. The Ricketts camp sought to mitigate national fallout with a statement that the investor never backed the proposed ad campaign and that he rejects such divisive politics.
However, authors of the 54-page proposal refer to Ricketts' “preliminary approval.”
Regardless, the repercussions are being felt at the company he founded, Omaha-based TD Ameritrade.
The company expected to spend Thursday fielding questions about the new Facebook IPO, not a national controversy. Yet calls came in from clients, the public and reporters about the Ricketts story, said Kim Hillyer, TD Ameritrade's director of communications.
“The political activities of Mr. Ricketts and opinions and so forth are very much separate and independent of TD Ameritrade,” Hillyer said, acknowledging that such a message can be a hard sell given Ricketts' role in the company's history.
Ricketts, 70, retired from the company last year.
The patriarch of a wealthy family with diverse political and business interests, Ricketts, a registered independent, had been looking to ramp up his involvement in Republican politics through his Super PAC, the Ending Spending Action Fund.
He scored a big win by throwing his weight behind Fischer at just the right moment. In the closing week of the campaign, he poured about $250,000 into an advertising onslaught that pumped up Fischer and questioned the ethics of one of her opponents, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning.
Fischer's general election opponent, Democrat Bob Kerrey, asked after her primary win what sort of influence Ricketts might have over her.
“When he calls on her, what's he going to get?” Kerrey asked. “Does he want lower taxes? Probably. Does he want less regulation? Probably. And when you put that kind of money up, the question's going to occur.”
The proposal to link Obama to Wright was quickly denounced by leading Republicans, including the party's presumptive presidential nominee, Mitt Romney.
“I hope that isn't the course of this campaign,” Romney told the conservative website Townhall.com. “In regards to that PAC, I repudiate what they're thinking about. ... It's interesting that we're talking about some Republican PAC that wants to go after the president (on Wright). I hope people also are looking at what he (Obama) is doing, and saying, ‘Why is he running an attack campaign?”
Along with the Times' story about the proposed ad campaign, the newspaper posted online a copy of the proposal. It detailed a $10 million advertising campaign that would tie Wright's past comments to Obama.
The plan involved using Wright's “black liberation” rhetoric against the president, who attended Wright's church for years.
At one point, the document describes Obama this way: “The metrosexual black Abe Lincoln has emerged as a hyper-partisan, hyper-liberal, elitist politician with more than a bit of the trimmer in him.”
In a planned response to accusations of race-baiting that the authors anticipated, the proposal suggested the group hire as its campaign spokesman an ABC talk radio host from California described as an “extremely literate, conservative African American.”
Authors of the proposal to Ricketts wrote that “with your preliminary approval at the New York meeting, we have discussed this plan in highly confidential terms with the following proposed team members.”
“All are ready to jump into action upon plan approval,” the proposal said.
The political consulting firm that drafted the proposal, Strategic Perception Inc., said this week that the Ricketts family never approved it, and that nothing had happened since its presentation.
A spokesman for Ending Spending Action Fund said that the group was merely considering the advertising campaign and that Ricketts formally rejected the idea.
“Mr. Ricketts intends to work hard to help elect a president this fall who shares his commitment to economic responsibility, but his efforts are ... focused entirely on questions of fiscal policy, not attacks that seek to divide us socially or culturally,” said Brian Baker, president of Ending Spending Action Fund.
The Ricketts family is no stranger to the business of politics.
Pete Ricketts, Joe's son, lost his 2006 run against Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., in what was Nebraska's costliest race.
Chicago Cubs baseball team Chairman Tom Ricketts, himself a donor to Republican causes, has been pushing a plan to get government help in rebuilding Wrigley Field. He issued a statement distancing himself and the organization from the plan while defending his father:
“As chairman of the Chicago Cubs, I repudiate any return to racially divisive issues in this year's presidential campaign ... like my father has.”
Laura Ricketts, also a Cubs co-owner, is listed by the Obama campaign as a bundler who has raised 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.
She issued a statement defending her family and the president:
“Though we may have diverse political views, above all we love and respect each other. My own personal view is that President Obama has been a great leader in very difficult times. He has been leading us to an economic recovery; served with great honor as commander-in-chief during a time of war; been a strong proponent on issues important to women and just last week he exhibited great courage in endorsing the freedom to marry for gay and lesbian Americans.”
National liberal activist group Americans United for Change announced plans to stage an event Friday afternoon in front of TD Ameritrade's Omaha headquarters and called for a boycott unless the company publicly condemns Joe Ricketts.
Even that group has local ties. Its acting executive director is Tom McMahon, a former Omahan who once served as executive director of the Democratic National Committee.
This report includes material from World-Herald press services.
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