WASHINGTON -- Perhaps it wasn't how he hoped to make a splash, but TD Ameritrade founder J. Joe Ricketts hit the political big time this week when The New York Times reported that the Wyoming-based billionaire had commissioned a plan for a super PAC ad campaign attacking President Barack Obama over his past association with the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Although Ricketts has now renounced the effort -- one document states his preliminary approval to draft it -- and Fred Davis, the advertising maven who wrote up the plan, said it was just one of many not adopted, the proposed $10 million campaign has caused a furor.
Ricketts clearly has designs on joining that group of billionaires -- like Sheldon Adelson, Charles and David Koch, and Harold Simmons -- who are sweeping through the 2012 election as forces of their own nature.
He has already contributed more than a half-million dollars to super PACs in the 2012 cycle. The Campaign for Primary Accountability, which backs primary challengers to congressional incumbents, reported a $500,000 contribution, and Ricketts' own super PAC, the Ending Spending Fund, spent $250,000 to support Senate candidate Deb Fischer in her victory in Tuesday's Nebraska GOP primary.
Like many a staunch fiscal conservative, Ricketts is a self-made man. Born in Nebraska City, Neb., in 1941, he put himself through college, taking nine years to graduate from Creighton University while working to pay the bills.
In the 1970s, he co-founded the firm that would eventually become Ameritrade (later to merge with TD Waterhouse). The company was a pioneer in providing individual investors with the tools to trade, first through touch-tone phone services and later through the Internet with its well-known $8-a-trade offer.
As for Ricketts' politics, he had shifted away from the Democratic Party he supported in his youth.
"I started my political life as a Kennedy Democrat, and Johnson pushed me out because he spent too much money," Ricketts explained in a video announcing the launch of his Taxpayers Against Earmarks, the precursor group to the Ending Spending Fund.
Ricketts continued, "Reagan pulled me into the Republican Party, and [George W.] Bush pushed me out because he spent too much money."
A staunch opponent of both partisanship and wasteful spending is how Ricketts portrays himself and his political activism. But theory doesn't always conform to reality. Ricketts' monomania about spending drives very one-sided giving.
Ricketts' political contributions and his super PAC's actions are those of a person strongly based in the Republican Party. Since 1989, he has contributed more than $2.25 million to candidates and political action committees at the federal and state level. Only $11,600 has gone to Democrats, the biggest recipient being Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) with $5,100.
The Ending Spending Fund judges lawmakers based on whether they support capping federal spending, a singular interest that puts it squarely in line with the Republican majority in the House of Representatives. The super PAC's website characterizes lawmakers as "sheriffs" and "bandits." Only five House Democrats and two Senate Democrats make the "sheriffs" list and only two House Republicans appear on the "bandits" side.
The group's spending is even more telling. In 2010, the super PAC spent more than 90 percent of its funds attacking Democrats. Only $29,000 of the total $1.15 million went to ads trying unsuccessfully to save ousted Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho), who had voted against practically every bill endorsed by the Democratic majority.
In the past, Ricketts' anti-spending mantra had zeroed in on congressional earmarks and wasteful spending. "I think it's a crime for our elected officials to borrow money today, to spend money today, and push the repayment of that loan out into the future on people who are not even born yet," he said in the video announcing Taxpayers Against Earmarks.
The Ending Funding Fund defines earmarks as provisions "inserted in the text of a Congressional bill or report that allocates money or a tax benefit for a specific project, program, or organization, circumventing a merit-based or competitive allocation process."
But Ricketts' intense dislike of wasting taxpayer dollars, especially those not procured through a "merit-based or competitive allocation process," didn't exactly extend to his own business.
In 2009, the Ricketts family won a bidding war to purchase the Chicago Cubs baseball team from the Chicago Tribune Co. for nearly $1 billion. Within 12 months, the family was pushing the state of Illinois to borrow $300 million to revamp the famed Wrigley Field where the Cubs play. But the proposal has yet to be approved, and now Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, former chief of staff to President Obama and a master of political hardball, has made it clear he's incensed about the Rev. Wright ad proposal and what an aide called the Ricketts' "blatant hypocrisy."
Down in Arizona, the Ricketts were successful in obtaining taxpayer money to build a new Cubs spring training facility. The voters of Mesa approved a ballot initiative to provide $99 million in taxpayer funds in 2010.
Publicly funded stadium expansions are just the type of wasteful spending that an article in the magazine of the conservative American Enterprise Institute argued against in 2008. Ricketts sat on AEI's board of trustees from 1999 to 2007.
Another area where Ricketts' political activism may come up against his personal interests is in his newly burgeoning media business. DNAInfo.com is a hyper-local journalism project founded by Ricketts as an alternative to both the mainstream press and partisan outlets. Even if DNAInfo.com maintains its objective stance, its founder and CEO's newfound political infamy has raised eyebrows.