Indian Wells, Calif. — So far, 2019 in Washington looks like another year of hyper-partisanship; a record-breaking government shutdown, with the threat of a second; angry brinkmanship; and deadlocked stalemates. And the whole harsh and divided mess appears likely to continue for the foreseeable future. But there was one glaring exception to the trend just last month.
In December, right before the government shutdown began, a surprisingly broad bipartisan coalition united behind long-discussed legislation on criminal-justice reform. The First Step Act won more than 350 votes in the House of Representatives and 87 votes in the Senate, and it was the rare time that the ACLU, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the NAACP, and Kim Kardashian all applauded legislation signed by President Trump — while scholars at the Heritage Foundation hailed it as “a conservative victory.”
One year ago, attendees at the Koch Seminar Network’s winter meeting talked up the criminal-justice reform and prison anti-recidivism programs relentlessly, when they were considered second-tier issues by most of Washington. At this year’s winter meeting, the network of activist groups and nonprofits headed by Charles Koch have pointed to the push for criminal-justice reform as evidence that their playbook can work in an era of intensely divided government.
Addressing attendees Saturday night, the 83-year-old Charles Koch called on the network’s members to “unite with people across the whole spectrum of viewpoints, of different ideas, including those who have been adversaries.” He paused for a surprisingly long moment. “This attitude of holding against others who have different beliefs is tearing our country apart. What we’re planning to do, and what we’re doing, is bringing people together.”
“Uniting broad coalitions is much more effective than partisan politics,” said Brian Hooks, chairman of the Koch Seminar Network. In the coming year, the network will “really focus on uniting broad-based policy coalitions,” Hooks said. “The next step forward is to go with what’s working” as demonstrated in the passage of the First Step Act.
“Our efforts in criminal-justice reform are really a blueprint for going forward focusing on uniting the two sides,” James Davis, a senior adviser to several of the network’s member groups, told me. This means making more alliances with individuals and organizations that might have fought with the Koch networks in the past. Mark Holden, the Koch general counsel who spearheaded the groups’ push for criminal-justice reform, noted that one of his closest allies on the issue, CNN commentator and former Obama-administration official Van Jones, once attended a protest against Americans for Prosperity and the Koch Brothers back in 2011. Last year, Holden and Jones were doing joint interviews, crediting each other for their efforts.
Seminar leaders are quick to emphasize that pushing legislation at the federal level is only one aspect of their mission. In keeping with their libertarian ethos, they’ve looked to the private sector, charities, and community groups as the primary partners for tackling society’s problems.
They’ve funded and assisted all sort of endeavors: the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and 350 college and university programs, Chrysalis job training and placement for the homeless in Los Angeles, the Getting Out and Staying Out program for released felons in New York City, Interfaith Family Services in Dallas, Harvest of Hope program for foster children in New Jersey. The membership of the Koch Seminar Network overlaps significantly with America’s entrepreneurial class; Hooks boasted that the business leaders within the network employ 2 million people.
But the fact that the group has so many connections with apolitical or nonpolitical groups means that it can reach out to a lot of potential allies. “We’ve found we have the opportunity to bring together people who, in a lot of cases, weren’t even talking before,” Hooks says.
One of the speakers at the three-day winter meeting was Alice Johnson, the African-American grandmother who was sentenced to 21 years to life for a first-time nonviolent drug offense in 1996; President Trump commuted her sentence this past June. The network is likely to follow her advice that “people don’t remember statistics, but they will remember a face.”
“My belief is we were able to get comprehensive sentencing reform because of Alice Johnson,” Holden said. “Certain people in the White House didn’t quite understand who gets sentenced for what and how long. She was a game-changer.”
Johnson told the conference that she will continue to be an activist for giving felons second chances, speaking for those “who are left behind, who don’t have a voice, whose faces you may never see.”
But by hearing my story, you are hearing their stories. I am not unique. There are so many others waiting for a second chance. . . . I believe that I’m the living proof that second chances can work, because I was given a second chance.
It’s still fair to question whether the First Step Act was a one-off, and whether assembling broad bipartisan coalitions on other issues might prove much more difficult. Passage of the bill was aided by dropping crime rates, successful state versions of the law, and a rare alignment of libertarians, fiscal conservatives growing wary of the cost of incarceration, and liberals who had always had complaints about “tough on crime” policies.
Right now, it seems that immigration reform will dominate the coming weeks and months, and people in the Koch Network have clear ideas about what reform to prioritize, most notably a permanent solution for the 700,000 individuals covered by the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Hooks said it was notable that certain figures in the administration and congressional leadership were at least discussing putting permanent legal status for “Dreamers” on the negotiating table. “If I had told you that we would be seeing them doing that a year ago, or even three months ago, you would have thought we were crazy,” he said. President Trump has not formally suggested legalizing Dreamers, but last week he did offer to restore Temporary Protected Status protection for 300,000 people and said he would allow 700,000 Dreamers to keep their protections for three more years in exchange for $5.7 billion for a border barrier. Democrats rejected the offer.
Evan Feinberg, the executive director of Stand Together (the Koch Network’s organization focused on building social capital), noted that a number of the nonprofit groups they support work with immigrant populations, both legal and illegal. He mentioned the Path Project, which runs mentoring and education programs for people living in trailer homes in Georgia and Tennessee.
If Alice Johnson was as important to the passage of criminal-justice reform as Holden says, then it’s easy to picture some other sympathetic figure emerging as the human face of the Dreamers, designed to break through the dry statistics.
But there’s little doubt that the Koch Network sees polarization and tribalism as significant challenges to their vision. Sarah Ruger of the Charles Koch Institute said that her organization is sponsoring research studying what drives people toward polarization and tribalism. They are, she says, “very much in pursuit of a cure, in pursuit of a solution, where people are more open to new experiences and more open to each other.” Those broad bipartisan coalitions will take sustained effort to build, reassure, expand, and strengthen. Otherwise, they would exist already.