David Koch, the right-wing businessman and billionaire whose massive fortune ranked him among the richest people in the world, has died at 79. Koch, along with his older brother Charles, was known for being one of America’s most powerful and influential contributors to conservative and libertarian causes—including opposition to the Affordable Care Act and global warming regulation—in addition to more conventional philanthropy.
Journalist Jane Mayer, whose book Dark Money largely centered around the Koch Brothers, tweeted the news Friday morning, and Charles Koch subsequently confirmed it with a statement on the passing of his brother. “While we mourn the loss of our hero, we remember his iconic laughter, insatiable curiosity, and gentle heart,” the elder Koch wrote in the statement, which also praised his brother’s “philanthropic dedication to education, the arts and cancer research.” No cause of death was formally announced, though Koch had battled prostate cancer in the past and was reportedly in declining health in recent months.
Koch’s wealth (estimated to be around $50 billion) primarily stemmed from his involvement in the multinational Koch Industries, one of the nation’s largest privately held companies, with interests and employees in 60 countries, which was founded by his father, Frederick C. Koch, in 1940—the same year the younger Koch was born. David and his older brother Charles became majority owners in the company in the early 1980s, after they bought shares from their eldest brother Frederick R. and William (David's twin).
David Koch was also the Libertarian Party’s vice presidential candidate in the 1980 election.
Both brothers have had an enormous impact in reshaping politics and empowering Republican-allied causes, becoming widely loathed by liberals for their alarmingly outsized influence (Senator Harry Reid once accused them of “trying to buy America”). As the Wall Street Journal’s obituary notes, “Mr. Koch [along with Charles] created a network composed of like-minded wealthy donors brought together to back conservative causes. They were credited with helping finance the limited-government Tea Party movement that helped Republicans win control of the House in 2010 during President Obama’s first term.”
The brothers’ advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity, has notably opposed global warming regulations and Medicaid expansion and is widely recognized as one of the nation’s most influential conservative organizations. While David Koch did not formally endorse Donald Trump, the New York Times’ obit notes that he attended the president’s election victory party and has backed Mike Pence’s previous gubernatorial campaigns.
Though born in Kansas, Koch lived in New York and was among the city’s more prominent philanthropists. He donated eye-popping sums of money to hospitals ($150 million to Memorial Sloan Kettering), cultural institutions (particularly the New York City Ballet, which renamed its Lincoln Center theater the David H. Koch Theater); the American Museum of Natural History, which notably named its dinosaur wing after Koch following a $35 million donation; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which named its entrance plaza after Koch when his $65 million donation aided in a renovation.
In the just-published book, Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America, Christopher Leonard examined the breadth of the brothers' reach. In particular, Kochland “shows the extraordinary behind-the-scenes influence that Charles and David Koch have exerted to cripple government action on climate change,” Jane Mayer wrote last week in a New Yorker piece, noting previously unknown details of their quiet lobbying against regulations. The book provides evidence that the Kochs helped to prevent climate-related action as early as 1991, when they were allegedly involved in one of the first organized climate-change denial conferences.
According to Greenpeace.org, “Koch Family Foundations have spent $127,006,756 directly financing 92 groups that have attacked climate change science and policy solutions.”
The large influence David Koch commanded over Republican politicians was memorably demonstrated by an infamous 2011 prank call, in which Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker took a call from a mischievous blogger pretending to be Koch. Walker remained polite and deferential on the phone, even when fake-Koch griped about his “goddamn maid” and suggested Walker use a baseball bat on his political opponents.
The response to Koch’s death has been fairly polarized along ideological lines, with conservatives praising his philanthropy and liberals and leftists largely condemning his use of vast wealth to exert such outsized influence on politics. Here are some of the notable reactions:
David Koch has died. In lieu of flowers please construct a shadow network of tax deductible shell companies to donate to the further perpetuation of environmental destruction and income inequality.
— Josh Gondelman (@joshgondelman) August 23, 2019
David Koch had a dream, which was to make things easier for himself and a few friends while also making things significantly worse for everyone else on the planet. He is gone, but now that work falls to all of us. Today, whenever you get the chance, harm someone vulnerable.
— David Roth (@david_j_roth) August 23, 2019
Seeing lots of headlines about David Koch's death referring to "billionaire", "industrialist" or "libertarian" Koch.
Haven't seen any refer to him as "climate denier" Koch. But that'll be his long-term legacy: funding the effort to downplay an existential threat to all of us.
— Mehdi Hasan (@mehdirhasan) August 23, 2019
David Koch lived long enough to see his dreams come true. Massive tax cuts for the rich, rampant environmental deregulation, America out of Paris accords. He got what he paid for
— Bill McKibben (@billmckibben) August 23, 2019
No person should be able to use his billions to influence politics. So many of our problems stem from huge sums of money being funneled to campaigns. Let us take the passing of one of the Koch brothers as a moment to reflect on the terrible impact such money has on our nation.
— George Takei (@GeorgeTakei) August 23, 2019
The glee over the death of David Koch - a serious philanthropist with libertarian political views - is a perfect example of how poisonous our politics have become.
— Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro) August 23, 2019
David Koch was an odd person to demonize. The Koch company employs more than 100,000 people. David was unstinting in his support of free markets, which are indispensable to prosperity, individual and collective. He gave lavishly to the arts, especially ballet. Well done, David K.
— Jay Nordlinger (@jaynordlinger) August 23, 2019
Koch is survived with his wife, Julia, and three children, David Jr., Mary Julia, and John Mark.