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Koch Political Network Takes A Deep Dive Into Community Organizing


Now, here in this country, it is not hard to figure out the intentions of the Koch brothers. Billionaires David and Charles Koch want to elect Republicans, but they're doing things a little differently this time. In 2012, during the presidential election, one surprise was how TV attack ads failed to help elect GOP candidates - well, lesson learned. The Koch brothers' conservative political network, while still doing TV, has taken a deep dive into community organizing. Here's NPR's Peter Overby.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: In Nevada, a group called the Libre Initiative has been running a well-publicized grassroots campaign. Las Vegas TV station KLAS reported on it earlier this year.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: A year since Nevada first started issuing undocumented people driver's licenses, organizers at the Libre Initiative are working to get more people to the DMV and apply for the driver authorization card also known as DAC.

OVERBY: It's one small part of a long-range plan by Koch Network to build a seamless and legal system of local community and national politics. Daniel Garza is executive director of the Libre Initiative. He said his group goes where conservatives have feared to tread - into Latino communities where progressive organizations have operated for years.


DANIEL GARZA: They're embedded. I mean, they run the institutions in the community. They've gained the trust of the Latino community.

OVERBY: Garza was speaking at the Defending the American Dream Summit, an annual conference for the Koch Network's grassroots organizers and activists. Garza said Libre is out to build trust among Latinos. Along the way, it tells them about free market principles, limited government, libertarianism. In a phone interview later, Garza said the basic strategy was developed in 2011, when the Libre Initiative was launched.

GARZA: The strategy has not changed that they want - control the message in media, both the Spanish and English language. The second was working with the communities at the community level. And third was to mobilize an army of advocates and activists and volunteers who could drive our message at the community level.

OVERBY: And that was the whole point of the conference session where Garza gave his talk. Its title could've come straight out of the labor movement or even the Obama campaigns - Community Organizing: Life Past November. NPR got audio of the session from a liberal activist who bought a ticket to the conference.

The activist said the recorder was in plain view as the participants spoke. Libre claims 15,000 supporters in nine states. In Florida, it's paying the costs for people to study and test for their GEDs. And last year, its Florida grassroots helped a Latino Republican oust a Latino Democratic Congressman. But...


PETE HEGSETH: This isn't just about an election cycle.

OVERBY: That's Pete Hegseth also speaking at the community organizing session. He's the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America.


HEGSETH: What makes this network different - AFP, GenOp, Libre, Concerned Vets for America - is that we've been in these communities now for three, four years and we're going to be in them in 2017 and 2018 and 2019.

OVERBY: Those names that Hegseth rattled off - Concerned Veterans, the Libre Initiative, Generation Opportunity and Americans for Prosperity - those are the grassroots core of the Koch Network, targeting different slices of the electorate in swing states. With Concerned Vets, Hegseth took the basic message of less government and regulation, more unfettered free enterprise and he gave it a military perspective.


HEGSETH: It's fighting for the freedom and prosperity here at home that we fought for overseas or in uniform. It's when you raise your right hand to defend the Constitution. There's no reason why when you come home that service should stop.

OVERBY: Concerned Veterans is focused right now on a bill making it easier to fire employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs. As Concerned Vets volunteers talk about the legislation with veterans and military families...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Then they also pick up an iPad and knock on some doors and make some phone calls and remind veterans to vote.

OVERBY: The irony here - none of this is new. Back in the 1880s and early 1900s, political parties were often involved in local communities, but more recently...

THEDA SKOCPOL: Parties have mainly been about raising money and running election campaigns.

OVERBY: Theda Skocpol is a sociologist and political scientist at Harvard. She also leads a group of progressive academics - Scholars Strategy Network. And she's been studying the Koch Network for several years. She said Koch strategists are emulating what political parties and labor unions used to do. Does the left have anything like this anymore?

SKOCPOL: No (laughter) not even close.

OVERBY: She said the progressive infrastructure is fragmented with hundreds of groups targeting their own specific issues.

SKOCPOL: That's not what you see on the right. You see much more of an effort to create an overall strategy.

OVERBY: A strategy meant to last for many elections to come. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.

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