Barbara Shelly

Rex Sinquefield, patron saint of lost causes?

Rex Sinquefield
Rex Sinquefield Star file photo

Please accept my apologies for being out of pocket. I’ve been busy studying my “Reporters’ Guide to Rex Sinquefield and the Show-Me Institute.”

It dropped into my email box this week, courtesy of the Center for Media and Democracy, which keeps tabs on the Koch brothers, the American Legislative Exchange Council and other monied conservative influences that are making their marks in Washington and state capitols.

The email arrived at a timely moment. I’ve been thinking about Sinquefield — or Rex, as we refer to him in these parts. Specifically, I’ve been thinking that, for a brilliant businessman, Rex’s return on investment in Missouri politics is pretty lousy.

As the report summarizes, Sinquefield has disclosed spending almost $32 million on Missouri campaigns since 2006, which is shortly after he retired from his wildly successful money management firm in Santa Monica and moved with his wife, Jeanne, to St. Louis.

Sinquefield grew up in the area and spent part of his childhood at the St. Vincent orphanage in Normandy.

As a philanthropist, his contributions to schools and universities, arts and other causes are magnanimous. He has singlehandedly turned St. Louis into a chess mecca. But those contributions are overshadowed by his frank attempts to reshape Missouri into a free-marketeer’s fantasy.

Over a long and prosperous life, Rex acquired some firm ideas. Unions are bad. Public schools are inferior. (He once likened them to a Ku Klux Klan plot, apologizing after his words set off an uproar.) Certain taxes should be eliminated.

Sinquefield set to work creating a think tank, the Show-Me Institute; a lobbying group, Pelopidas; and other entities to support his causes. Before long he was funneling eye-popping amounts of cash to candidates and causes in Missouri.

He bankrolled a successful initiative to place the St. Louis Police Department under local control. After spending $11.2 million, he triumphed in a 2010 effort to force Kansas City and St. Louis to hold elections every five years to retain their earnings taxes.

But Sinquefield has spent millions on so-far unsuccessful attempts to either eliminate or lower the state’s income tax, including $2.35 million in just one week last summer on an ad campaign to convince legislators to override Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of a tax cut bill. They didn’t.

As of now, Missouri has not become a right-to-work or a school voucher state.

Sinquefield’s record in high-profile statewide races is also poor.

He donated $385,000 to Sen. Brad Lager, only to see his candidate lose the 2012 Republican primary. That same year he gave $400,000 to secretary of state candidate Shane Schoeller, who lost to Democrat Jason Kander.

More recently, a Sinquefield-funded group, Missouri Club for Growth, spent $54,000 trying to sink a bond issue sought by the Nixa School District in southern Missouri. It passed with 70 percent of the vote.

Looking strictly at results, Sinquefield might qualify as the patron saint of lost causes.

But there’s no doubt his deep pockets motivate legislators to work on his favorite issues year after year.

Also, his profligate political spending has created its own mini jobs problem in Missouri. He sustains a network of well-paid lobbyists, consultants and lawyers, as well as a market for less well-paid foot soldiers who gather signatures for his endless petition drives. Those folks are too heavily invested in Sinquefield’s money to ever let him abandon his quests.

As Sinquefield himself told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “...We’re playing offense and the other side is constantly and chronically playing defense. And I think we move the ball down the field every year a bit more.”

That was in 2010, and he’s not in the end zone yet. But his forward motion has changed Missouri politics in a corrosive and permanent way.