In April 2011, Hollywood stars and D.C. VIPs gathered at Ford’s Theatre in Washington for a movie premiere, the first film screening at the theater in 20 years. Kevin Kline, Evan Rachel Wood, Robin Wright, and Tom Wilkinson were there. So were Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Attorney General Eric Holder, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The film was “The Conspirator,” the story of the only woman charged in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. It had been directed by Robert Redford. And it had been bankrolled by Joe Ricketts.
On Thursday, Ricketts was hit by a different kind of limelight, after The New York Times published a report suggesting he might pay for a $10 million ad campaign focused on President Obama’s relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Ricketts’ super PAC, Ending Spending Action Fund, released a statement later in the day repudiating the proposal, saying it “reflects an approach to politics that Mr. Ricketts rejects.” But even if Ricketts won’t spend his money on Jeremiah Wright ads, he clearly has an interest in spending it — he recently dropped $200,000 on the Nebraska Republican Senate primary.
So who is the man who cuts a check for liberal darling Robert Redford one day, then comes close to lighting the fuse of Republican dynamite the next? Meet Joe Ricketts, a man with a thumb in many pies, a man who loves his family, his iPhone, and his motorcycle, and yet another super-rich political donor taking advantage of the post-Citizens United environment to let his money do the talking.
“I’m an entrepreneur, and it’s been my observation that we tend not to become involved in public policy,” Ricketts says in a video on his website. “But, the reason I became involved is because I’ve been able to see and understand the benefits that happen when our free enterprise flourishes… Everybody flourishes, everybody does well.”
Ricketts, 70, did well. He made a fortune after founding the company that become TD Ameritrade. A Nebraska native, Ricketts graduated from Creighton University with a degree in economics in 1968. Over the next several years, he spent time working at Dean Witter and Dun & Bradstreet. In 1975, Ricketts borrowed $12,000 to co-found First Omaha Securities, a retail securities brokerage firm in Omaha. In 1988, as Ameritrade Clearing, the company became the first brokerage firm to offer touch-tone trading. In 1995, it acquired K. Aufhauser & Co., Inc., the first firm to offer Internet trading. Today, the company says it places more trades online than any other brokerage. Ricketts, who stepped down from the company’s board last fall, served as CEO of Ameritrade Holding Corp. from 1982 to 2001 and Chairman from 1982 to 2008. According to Forbes, Ricketts still owns 9.5 percent of the company, while his wife holds 2.5 percent. Two of their sons sit on the company’s board of directors. In February, TD Ameritrade “devoted much of the annual meeting to a tribute to founder Joe Ricketts,” according the Associated Press.
Ricketts is being widely described in news reports as a billionaire, and his family’s net worth — which now includes the Chicago Cubs — easily surpasses the billion dollar mark. But Forbes reports that because the Cubs are technically owned by a Ricketts family trust, “[Ricketts] just missed the billionaire cut” in the Fall of 2011 “as TD Ameritrade’s stock was down.” Still, Ricketts is loaded. In 2009, Forbes ranked Ricketts as the 371st richest person in America, and in 2008 he was pegged as the 962nd richest person in the world.
A Political Activist
A registered independent, Ricketts personally gave $2,500 to both Mitt Romney and Ron Paul in December. In 2000, he was elected to the board of the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI). In the video on his website, Ricketts says that he is an independent “because I don’t really care which party is going to be in favor or which party is going to be in control, but I do care about what they do in order to make our country prosper.”
“If we want the next generation to have the same type of opportunity I had, if we’re
going to have them have the same type of opportunities we’ve had, that previous generations have had, we need to become involved,” he says. “And that’s why I’m becoming involved right now.”
In 2010, Ricketts founded Taxpayers Against Earmarks, which pushed for an earmark ban that lawmakers in Washington eventually adopted. Encouraged by that success, the organization changed its name to Ending Spending and “expanded its focus to the broader fiscal challenges facing the country.” Ricketts then also founded the Ending Spending Action Fund. Brian Baker, a lawyer who has worked for Republican Senators Bob Dole and Richard Shelby, serves as president and general counsel for both groups. In early 2010, in an article about the then-recent Citizens United decision, The Wall Street Journal noted that Ricketts was already forming an organization to play by the new rules. In an interview, Baker praised the Supreme Court’s decision.
“The right to speak in association with other people was affirmed today by the court, and that will be incredibly important for us in the coming year,” Baker told the paper. “We can advertise around election time, when it matters most.”
Politics runs in the Ricketts family. Pete Ricketts, a son, was the Republican nominee for Senate in Nebraska in 2006. He lost to Democrat Ben Nelson, but not before pouring $12 million of his own money into the race, according to the Associated Press (via Nexis). Pete Ricketts is now on TD Ameritrade’s board, while also serving on various other boards including those of the Chicago Cubs, the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, and AEI.
Meanwhile, Laura Ricketts, a daughter, is a major fundraiser for Obama. Earlier this week, Open Secrets included her on a list of 27 prominent LGBT Obama bundlers, and reported that she had raised at least $500,000 for the president’s reelection. In the wake of the attention on her father Thursday, Laura Ricketts released a statement saying that her family’s “love of country was instilled in us by my father.”
“Though we may have diverse political views, above all we love and respect each other,” Ricketts said. “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.”
A Rich Jack Of All Trades
In recent years, as his role at TD Ameritrade wound down, Ricketts has used his astounding wealth to get involved in all manner of projects and businesses. His family bought the Chicago Cubs. He’s also gotten involved in bison raising, film financing, hyper-local journalism, and third-world education. He even owns a little “luxury-casual” lodge in Bondurant, Wyoming.
Let’s start with the Cubs. In October 2009, a trust that Joe and Marlene Ricketts established on behalf of their family acquired a 95-percent controlling interest in the Cubs and the team’s home park, Wrigley Field. Tom Ricketts, a son, is team chairman, and Pete Ricketts, Laura Ricketts, and Todd Ricketts (another son) all serve on the board. Dad’s place in the headlines this week actually comes at a bad time for the Cubs: the team is trying to work out a deal with the city “that would involve using $150 million in city amusement taxes for a $300 million renovation of Wrigley Field,” The Chicago Tribune reports. An aide to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel told The Washington Post that the former White House Chief of Staff was “livid” over the Times story.
“The Ricketts have tried to contact the mayor, but he’s said that he does not want to talk with them today, tomorrow or anytime soon,” the aide said.
Now, about the bison. In 2003, Ricketts founded High Plains Bison, which is now the world’s largest online retail bison provider. The official lean meat of the Chicago Cubs, the company says its herds are “humanely raised on the high plains of North America.” On its website, the company touts standards even a lefty could love: “no hormones, fillers, antibiotics or artificial ingredients.” In a video, Ricketts touts the relative health benefits of bison meat. (Ricketts website features videos of him explaining his many ventures.)
In 2005, Ricketts founded Opportunity Education, which calls itself “the largest non-government, secular organization providing elementary-school education in developing countries.”
Eric Lach is a reporter for TPM. From 2010 to 2011, he was a news writer in charge of the website’s front page. He has previously written for The Daily, NewYorker.com, GlobalPost and other publications. He can be reached at ericl(at)talkingpointsmemo.com