GOP Hopeful Herman Cain: David Koch's Stalking Horse?
For Mark Block, chief of staff for GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, it's been a good couple of weeks. In fact, it's been a good couple of years -- years Block spent at the helm of the Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity, where he helped win election for the likes of Gov. Scott Walker and Sen. Ron Johnson.
When, after those and other successful efforts, Block left AFP in December to run the quixotic presidential campaign of a former fast-food magnate, political wags were scratching their heads. But to those at the top of the Americans for Prosperity heap, Block's charge to run Cain's campaign may just be his most important job yet. For if Cain does well enough in the GOP primaries to win more than a handful of delegates to the Republican National Convention next year, he could hold significant sway over the party platform, forcing the nominated candidate to run on the Koch agenda.
Despite the guffaws that greeted Cain's entry into the presidential arena, Block's candidate is ascendant in the polls, even gleaning a flattering profile this week in the New York Times, a newspaper that people on Block's side of the fence sometimes refer to as Pravda (the defunct state-run paper of the Soviet Union). With his pugilistic sound bites, business background, neo-libertarian pronouncements, and anomalous status as African American amid the ranks of the Tea Partiers, Cain has captured media attention. Most recently, Cain made waves when Think Progress quoted him telling an audience in Iowa, where the religious right holds sway in the Republican presidential caucuses, that he wouldn't hesitate to appoint an openly gay person to his cabinet "because they're not going to try to put sharia law in our laws."
What goes unremarked in such profiles is Cain's connection to the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, the organization founded (with its sibling organization, Americans for Prosperity) by David Koch, and chaired by Koch himself. Until he signed on as Cain's campaign manager last December, Block was state director for the Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity.
Not only is Cain a frequent speaker at AFP Foundation events, he was also, by his own account, tapped by Block to be one of the faces of Prosperity 101, a workplace seminar program, designed for employers to present to their employees at "voluntary" workplace gatherings where they are told that the legislative initiatives typically embraced by Democrats -- health-care reform, energy reform, higher taxes for the wealthiest Americans -- could so hurt their employers as to force layoffs. The program was set in motion during the lead-up to the 2010 elections. (AlterNet, working in collaboration with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, published an exposé on Prosperity 101 last week.)
Not long after Block sold Cain on Prosperity 101, Block was on a roll. At a February 2010 Tea Party rally in Sheboygan (video), Block told the audience that he wouldn't be satisfied until membership in the Wisconsin AFP chapter equaled the membership of the state teachers union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council. Indeed, the membership numbers for his AFP chapter were moving upward, and the 2010 midterm elections were looking competitive for a number of candidates who had earned the favor of Americans for Prosperity: gubernatorial contender Scott Walker, U.S. Senate candidate Ron Johnson, and House of Representatives hopefuls Sean Duffy and Reid Ribble. All of these candidates went on to win their races, with Johnson, despite a notable absence of charisma, defeating long-time Sen. Russell Feingold, and Scott Walker going into the annals of Wisconsin history for having ignited 18 days of protest at the state capitol in Madison when he pushed a virulently anti-union bill through the state legislature in the guise of "budget repair."
Block is, without a doubt, a hard worker, but he's known not to rely solely on the rewards of an honest day's labor. As Walker's gubernatorial campaign unfolded, Block was revealed to be one of the powers behind a scheme to suppress the vote in two Milwaukee congressional districts with the help of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, then chaired by Reince Priebus (who went on to become chairman of the Republican National Committee).
In late 2010, the liberal advocacy group, One Wisconsin Now, caught a Tea Party organizer on tape discussing Block's role in a vote-caging scheme apparently designed to suppress voter turnout in two Milwaukee districts that are heavily populated by college students and African Americans.
Vote-caging is a technique whereby registered voters are sent letters marked "do not forward" so letters that are undeliverable at the residence to which they're addressed bounce back to the sender. The returned letters are then used by the sender to challenge the votes of those individuals at her or his polling place, meaning that person can only vote on a provisional ballot. The letters were sent by Block's Americans for Prosperity chapter, many to dormitory addresses in August -- a time when students would likely be between dorm assignments.
At first, Block denied any involvement in the scheme, until Tim Dake of the Tea Party group, Grandsons of Liberty, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he had personally spoken to Block about it. Block then conceded that AFP had done the mailing, but said they had abandoned the effort when too few letters were returned.
The 2010 vote-caging scheme hardly marks Block's first game of dirty politics. In fact, his first day at Americans for Prosperity marked the expiration of a three
four-year ban on political campaign involvement imposed on him by a Wisconsin court for his illegal activity in a 2001 election.
Then, Block's triumph as campaign manager for Judge Jon Wilcox's successful run for state Supreme Court was tempered by a $15,000 fine for illegally using an outside group, the Wisconsin Citizens for Voter Participation, to conduct campaign activities.
The Wisconsin Prosperity Network
In right-wing circles, one will hear talk, from time to time, of the "Colorado model" -- the means by which liberals and progressives began to turn Colorado from a red state to a blue state in 2004. The model involves wealthy donors who fund "independent expenditure" television ads against the positions of an opposing candidate, and the building of an infrastructure of progressive organizations that facilitates coalition organizing. In 2008, Wisconsin progressives embarked on a similar course, delivering their swing state for Barack Obama.
Not to be outdone, the Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity hatched its own alliance in 2009 called the Wisconsin Prosperity Network, which came to life as a sort of coalition-in-a-box. With an estimated start-up pot of $6.4 million, the initial plan called for the instant creation of 14 new entities that would work together with the Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity.
When a leaked PowerPoint presentation found its way into the hands of the Wisconsin State Journal, Block conceded to reporter Mark Pitsch that he was the network's "main organizer." Among the new entities created for the network is the MacIver Institute, a right-wing think tank, on whose board sits Scott Jensen, a former state assembly speaker now facing trial for using taxpayer funds for personal expenses.
A major proponent of Scott Walker's union-busting bill, the Wisconsin Prosperity Network sponsored, with Americans for Prosperity, a "Stand With Walker" campaign during the days of protests earlier this year -- busing in Tea Partiers to rallies, and launching TV advertisements, Web sites and petitions.
During the protests, MacIver was exposed for misrepresenting one of its allies as a progressive activist, releasing a video in which a purported protester said a labor-allied doctor was writing fraudulent sick-day excuses for protesting workers. That "protester," according to karoli, a blogger at the liberal Web site Crooks and Liars, turned out to be video producer Christian Hartsock, who made his name working with James O'Keefe on the discredited video that was used to fatally smear the community organizing group, ACORN.
The Answer to ACORN
At last year's RightOnline conference, an event sponsored by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, Wisconsin Prosperity Network executive director Linda Hansen unveiled before a roomful of activists at a Las Vegas hotel her latest project, Prosperity 101, the employer-sponsored workplace seminar program that advances the Koch agenda to nervous workers. On hand for the presentation was Herman Cain, along with Wall Street Journal Web columnist John Fund, whose colleague, editorial board member Stephen Moore, is, with Cain, a spokesperson for the program.
"A key component of Prosperity 101 is working with employers to help them encourage voter registration among their employees," Hansen explained to the crowd. "So when Herman [Cain] first heard the concept here, he said, 'You've come up with the answer to ACORN!'"
Cain, during his presentation, piped up, "when [Hansen] first came to me with Mark Block to explain the concept, I said, ‘This is fantastic!'"
When I tried to learn more about the Prosperity 101 program -- which is used by two of the top 50 privately held corporations in the U.S.: Menard Inc. and Reinhart FoodService, a division of Reyes Holdings -- my emails to Hansen went unanswered. When I told a member of the Americans for Prosperity staff that I couldn't get through to Hansen, she suggested I talk to Mark Block, who did not return my call or respond to my email.
As chance would have it, I ran into Block last February in the lobby of the Marriott Wardman Park in Washington, D.C., site of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, at which Cain delivered a well-received speech. When I asked him for a few words about Prosperity 101, Block told me I'd have to talk with the people who were organizing it. When I said I had been directed to him by Americans for Prosperity, he looked down at his BlackBerry and walked away.
A Stalking Horse?
Go to the issues page of the Herman Cain for President Web site, and you'll find an agenda not unlike that of Americans for Prosperity -- in fact, almost exactly like that of Americans for Prosperity (save for military might, and "faith and family," items on which AFP does not appear to take a position). At the centerpiece of Cain's platform, according to the New York Times, is a 23-percent flat consumption tax, which Cain would implement in place of the federal income tax. Here's a page from the Illinois AFP chapter site that opines for just such a flat-tax scheme as advanced by the Wall Street Journal's Stephen Moore, Cain's partner in the AFP-linked Prosperity 101 employee-indoctrination program.
Later this week, Cain is scheduled to speak at an AFP event in New York, where he is expected to inveigh against the carbon-trading scheme known as cap-and-trade that is part of the Obama energy plan and one of AFP's pet peeves. (Koch Industries' core business is in the gas and oil sector.)
When Cain's presidential candidacy was launched, it's likely that his AFP-linked backers never expected he would win the GOP presidential nomination, but that he would make an effective messenger for pushing the party further to the Koch positions. As it looks now, Cain could do even better than that, given the weak GOP presidential field. With each contest in primary season, contenders win delegates to the national convention, where the party platform is laid. Cain will likely do well in New Hampshire -- he could even win the state, as Patrick J. Buchanan did with his populist rhetoric in 1996. And with that win, and strong showings in a few other states, the Buchananites won control of the GOP platform, causing the nominee, Bob Dole, to run on a platform he could hardly stomach.
That may have lost the GOP the election, but it distilled the party into an even more right-wing body by the time it was George W. Bush's turn to bear the party standard. When the history of the 2016 presidential campaign is written, the role of Herman Cain and his consigliare, Mark Block, may prove to have been, to borrow a word from Cain -- "impactful."
CORRECTION: The original version of this story mistakenly attributed the acquisition of the leaked PowerPoint outlining the Wisconsin Prosperity Network plan to One Wisconsin Now. The PowerPoint was actually originally obtained by the Wisconsin State Journal.