Before 2013 begins, catch up on the best of 2012. From now until the New Year, we will be re-posting some of The New Republic’s most thought-provoking pieces of the year. Enjoy.
In early 2010, Karl Rove convened a group of businessmen for lunch at a private club in Dallas. The guests included some of the richest and most influential people in Texas. T. Boone Pickens, the corporate raider from Amarillo, was there, as was Harlan Crow, the prodigal son of Trammell Crow, the most prominent real estate developer in the country in his day. Some of the men had contributed to Rove’s campaigns for a quarter of a century.
Rove had come to them with a new proposition. He and his partner, former George W. Bush White House counselor Ed Gillespie, were traversing the country to drum up financial support for an organization called American Crossroads. Taking advantage of the Supreme Court’s recent obliteration of limits on corporate campaign contributions in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, Rove and Gillespie were building an independent campaign operation with the aim of taking Congress back from the Democrats that November and, two years later, pulling the plug on Barack Obama’s presidency. “All of us,” Rove told the group, according to an account of the meeting in The Wall Street Journal, “are responsible for the kind of country we have.”
After Rove finished, one of the men spoke up. “I’m in,” Harold Simmons said.
Simmons, the billionaire owner of a Dallas-based constellation of companies in industries ranging from sugar-refining to nuclear waste disposal, had been financing Rove’s campaigns since 1986. He had donated $90,000 to Bush’s gubernatorial campaigns and $2.5 million to Bush-allied political organizations during his presidential runs. Gale Norton, Bush’s interior secretary, had previously been a Washington lobbyist for one of Simmons’s companies. When Bush held his first white-tie dinner at the White House in 2007, in honor of Queen Elizabeth, Simmons and his third wife, Annette, were among the guests eating spring lamb off the Lenox china.
Still, nobody knew just how “in” Simmons intended to be until this February, when Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings revealed him to be the single largest contributor in American politics. In late March, the Dallas billionaire told the Journal that, along with his wife and his holding company, Contran, he had donated $18.7 million to Republican political organizations—not just Crossroads ($14.5 million) but also independent expenditure groups aligned with Mitt Romney ($800,000), Rick Santorum ($1.2 million), Newt Gingrich ($1.1 million), and Rick Perry ($1.1 million)—and that he planned to give nearly twice that much by November.
Simmons’s appearance at the top of the donors list marked the second reordering of the conventional wisdom regarding what the post–Citizens United frontier of campaign finance would look like. At first, doomsayers predicted that groups like Crossroads—the independent-but-not-really organizations known as super PACs—would become de facto fronts for behemoths like Exxon Mobil and Walmart. Then came the South Carolina primary and Gingrich’s unlikely resurrection thanks to a $5 million contribution to the Gingrich-aligned Winning Our Future super PAC from the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Suddenly, it appeared that American politics had been hijacked not by corporations, but by a handful of mildly eccentric plutocrats driven by personal hobbyhorses: Adelson’s Israel hawkishness or the Santorum-backing multimillionaire Foster Friess’s fear of Al Qaeda training camps in Latin America.
And then there was Simmons, a reclusive 80-year-old former corporate raider, who seemed to belong to a different category of donor altogether. In pictures, he appears the very archetype of the shadowy billionaire, his green eyes gone rheumy around the rims, his rangy farm-boy physique buried inside boxy suit coats. Simmons almost never speaks to the press; his interview with the Journal was the first he had granted to a national newspaper in more than a decade, and, in it, he offered only a couple of off-the-rack complaints about “that socialist, Obama” to explain his generosity. For reporters who had been looking forward to a season of cable-friendly oddballs, it was all a little deflating.
Nor was Simmons terribly ideological—a departure from activist billionaires like Charles and David Koch or George Soros. Espousing a bland Chamber of Commerce–style business-friendly conservatism, Simmons described himself as pro-choice, and his philanthropic foundation—administered by a daughter who until recently had an Obama bumper sticker on her car—occasionally funded borderline-liberal social causes, such as legal services for immigrants. Even longtime observers of Texas professed bafflement at Simmons’s newfound prominence. “I have no ready explanation,” Bill Miller, an Austin lobbyist and an old hand in Texas Republican politics, told me. “I’m plugged in, we’re all plugged in—but this guy, he’s below the radar.”
Simmons declined to be interviewed for this story, and even many of his one-time adversaries were reticent—his legendary litigiousness had left them bound by the settlement terms of past lawsuits or wary of provoking new ones. One former top executive of a major company who tangled with Simmons more than two decades ago spoke with me at length about the episode, but then quickly called back and begged me not to use his name. “I’m serious,” he told me. “I have some money, but nothing compared to what he has.”
If Simmons is a sphinx, however, he’s not an entirely unreadable one. The record of his nearly three decades of political activism—contained in campaign disclosure filings and thousands of pages of court documents in government sub-basements in Dallas and Austin—offers some clues as to why he has decided to spend so lavishly in the political arena. Ultimately Simmons, not his wackier fellow super PAC benefactors, may be the truest bellwether of how the new rules of campaign finance will shape this year’s election and those of years to come. What, exactly, does Harold Simmons expect to get for his money? The best way to answer that question is to look at what he’s gotten for it already.
HAROLD SIMMONS grew up in Golden, an unincorporated East Texas farming town an hour and a half’s drive from Dallas, whose residents, today as in Simmons’s youth, number in the low hundreds. Simmons is far and away the town’s most famous native son and most generous benefactor—a fact that is difficult to forget when you visit, as a plurality of Golden’s public spaces are named after him.
The son of schoolteachers, Simmons left Golden to attend the University of Texas in Austin, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and earned a master’s degree in economics. For several desultory years, Simmons worked as a bank examiner for the federal government and then as a banker, during which time he began to venture into business. According to Golden Boy: The Harold Simmons Story, John J. Nance’s authorized 2003 biography, he made his first deal of any significance in 1956, when he met the owner of a local bank in La Vernia, a small town near San Antonio. The man was looking to retire, and Simmons convinced him to give him the option to purchase the bank with no money down. Simmons proceeded to place a notice in a trade publication offering the property for sale, for $7,000 more than the owner’s asking price. When he found a buyer, Simmons paid the owner and pocketed the difference. With barely a cent to his name, Simmons had sold a bank he didn’t own while clearing enough money on the transaction to buy his first house.
The deal hinted at the mix of innovation and audacity that would make Simmons one of the most talented corporate raiders in the country. Simmons spotted opportunities that others did not—or created them himself, punching at the periphery of what was considered proper in the still staid world of American business. At times, the punching seemed to be the point.
It was an aspect of Simmons that kept his lawyers busy. By the mid-’70s, Simmons had built and sold a chain of drugstores and had begun assembling a small empire that would soon encompass insurance companies, farm land, and industrial manufacturers. He had also been indicted by a U.S. attorney in Illinois for mail and securities fraud relating to complex transactions he had made on behalf of an insurance firm he owned. A judge found him not guilty of the criminal charges, and he settled a related civil suit out of court.
Then, in 1983, Simmons used $15 million from the pension fund of a Dallas-based hardware company he owned to take over a sleepy agricultural enterprise called Amalgamated Sugar. The U.S. Labor Department cried foul—the move was deemed unduly risky—and Simmons found himself in federal court again. He protested that the deal was a prudent investment, but a judge ruled against him, and Simmons was ordered to sell the shares. He bought them back with his own money, and under his management, Amalgamated’s value grew nearly ten times over the next six years, to $330 million.
The stock buyback helped turned Simmons into a billionaire. It was also a political awakening. Simmons, after all, had been acting in the best interests of the pension fund, even if he was coloring outside the lines. “That’s when I started contributing to politicians with free-market and antiregulation agendas,” he later told the Journal. “If the Labor Department hadn’t sued, that pension would be as rich as me.”
But the incident also prodded Simmons into a less high-minded sort of political activism. Amalgamated processed domestically grown sugar beets, and the company’s fortunes rested on the willingness of Congress to maintain high tariffs on imported sugar. “We have a very hard battle every year in Congress and the Senate over that issue,” Simmons explained in a 1997 trial deposition, “because our main opponents are Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Hershey Foods, General Foods—massive corporations who make more profit in one day than we make all year. ... We have to really protect ourselves and work hard at it.” Simmons was pro–free market, except when being pro–Harold Simmons required him to be otherwise.
THE SMOKED-GLASS canyons of downtown Dallas were a heady place in the years of Simmons’s ascent, so awash in oil money following the 1973 embargo that a popular local bumper sticker of the era read, SECEDE AND JOIN OPEC. This was the Dallas of Dallas, a milieu of hand-tooled alligator boots and Blackglama furs in which old money imitated new money with abandon. “Nowhere else,” a local boutique owner told the journalist Sandy Sheehy in Texas Big Rich, her chronicle of the era, “would you put on pink shorts, a lynx coat, a seventeen-carat diamond, and get into a white Rolls-Royce to go to the Safeway.”
Texas billionaires were expected to be folk heroes for a state that had always cherished its larger-than-life tycoons. By that standard, Simmons, who ventured onto Dallas’s social circuit only reluctantly, was a letdown. Occasionally, he offered the public a glimpse of his sly wit; when Forbes accidentally left him off its billionaires list in 1988, he wrote to the editor reporting, “I have been embarrassingly besieged by calls from friends wanting to know what financial catastrophe has befallen me,” and providing a detailed accounting of the personal holdings that pushed his worth to ten figures.
In interviews with the press, however, Simmons gave away little, and reporters tried in vain to locate something interesting about a man who insisted his favorite song was “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” “Unlike Donald Trump, whose deals are his art form, Simmons offers no motivation beyond greed,” Frederick “Shad” Rowe, a prominent Dallas investor and acquaintance of Simmons, wrote in Texas Monthly in 1989. “In a way, Simmons is like the guy in college whose objective is to sleep with every woman he can find. Where is the romance? Where is the feeling?”
The most interesting thing about Simmons, it seemed, was the ever-higher stakes of his gambles. In 1990, he attempted to take over Lockheed Corporation, one of the nation’s largest defense contractors. The company successfully fought him off, and the defeat, combined with the ongoing recession, cut Simmons’s net worth nearly in half.
Soon, Simmons was facing off against an even tougher opponent: his own family. Simmons’s eldest daughter from his first marriage, Scheryle Patigian, had struggled with drug abuse, and, by her forties, she was unemployed, supporting herself and her children on the checks Simmons wrote her from one of a pair of family trusts. By the early ’90s, Patigian was demanding that Simmons increase the payments, and the clashes escalated to the point that Patigian began recording their phone conversations.
“You can’t stand to not control things,” Patigian told Simmons in one of the calls.
“Well, maybe I can’t,” he replied, “but that’s the way I am.”
“Someday,” Patigian said, “somebody might get a gun and put it right to your head.”
The trusts included not just the vast majority of Simmons’s personal wealth but also the majority of the stock of his publicly traded business holdings—an unorthodox arrangement that eventually caught the eye of the IRS, which began pursuing Simmons for millions of dollars in back taxes. After paying a $600,000 fine, Simmons moved to dissolve one of the trusts in 1996 to avoid more substantial penalties. Patigian and her similarly estranged half-sister, Andrea Swanson, became convinced that Simmons was trying to freeze them out of their inheritances and sued for his removal as trustee.
Simmons was not an unsympathetic figure during the proceedings: At one point, his daughters requested that he pay for the lawyers they had hired to sue him. And his other two daughters—both of whom were employed and had received far less from the trust than Patigian and Swanson—sided with their father. But what was most stunning to observers was that Simmons had let the case go to trial at all.
By his own reckoning, Simmons’s removal as trustee would have been a “Doomsday scenario,” potentially cutting him off from much of his vast fortune and throwing the future of his business empire—then valued at $2.3 billion—into doubt. “If he got removed, it would’ve been Earth-shatteringly devastating for him,” one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys told me. And yet, according to Simmons’s account in court documents, when his daughters’ attorneys offered him complete control of the trust in exchange for $25 million apiece for Patigian and Swanson—a relative pittance for a billionaire—he refused. “He’s a ballsy guy,” the attorney says. After eight weeks, the affair ended in a mistrial and an out-of-court settlement.
The saga also unexpectedly brought to light the full scope of Simmons’s political activities. His personal contributions were well-known: Several years earlier, the FEC had fined him for donating more than twice the legal limit in the 1988 election cycle to the campaigns of George H.W. Bush and congressional candidates in positions to influence looming legislation concerning the business tactics favored by corporate raiders. In court filings, however, Patigian alleged that Simmons had contributed far more, “[giving] away millions of dollars of trust assets to right-wing political causes, politicians, and criminal defense funds, some of which contributions were illegal and many of which were designed to avoid federal election laws.” (The FEC did not take action on these allegations.)
The trust controlled three political action committees (PACs) and supplied most of the funding for a fourth. Though corporations were barred from donating to political candidates, Simmons had transferred money regularly between his companies and the trust, while also drawing money out of the trust for contributions to individual politicians. When he had hit his own legal limits, Simmons had donated money in his daughters’ names; in court, he admitted to forging their signatures to authorize some of the contributions.
In court filings, Simmons wrote that he believed the candidate donations were “essential to further the best interests of the companies controlled by the trust.” When Simmons attempted to take over Lockheed—a bid that required courting the Washington defense establishment—his lobbyists fanned out across the Hill, holding meetings with a dozen congressmen on key committees. Simmons met personally with Sam Nunn, then the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in Austin. Senator Phil Gramm, one of Simmons’s earliest beneficiaries, is described by one of Simmons’s lobbyists in a 1990 memo as a “good friend of Harold Simmons and important ally.” Simmons was on sufficiently familiar terms with Gramm that he once personally wrote him to complain about the federal government’s efforts to get Hooters restaurant franchises—some of which Simmons owned—to hire men.
Simmons’s early investments in Washington, however, proved hit or miss. In 1997, two congressmen whose campaigns Simmons had supported tried to establish an obscure tax loophole for a specific type of agricultural cooperative transaction that Simmons happened to be making and that a congressional committee estimated could have netted him $60 million. (Simmons disputed the claim.) Bill Clinton promptly struck it down in his first-ever use of the presidential line-item veto. Even in Washington, certain things were beyond the pale. But there was one state where they weren’t—and Simmons happened to live there.
FROM THE EARLIEST years of the state’s settlement by Southern plantation gentry, Texas politics has been the province of oligarchs. And, with the ascent of the Texas oil dynasties in the late ’20s, Texas money came to play a major role in national politics, too. The oilfield contractor Brown & Root—the firm that eventually became Halliburton—bankrolled Lyndon B. Johnson’s early congressional campaigns; Johnson returned the favor by securing federal funding for the company’s construction projects in Texas.
Texas had been overwhelmingly Democratic since Reconstruction, but the state’s white conservative majority began to sour on the party after the Civil Rights Act and the rise of Johnson’s Great Society. In 1978, the Republican Bill Clements wrested the governor’s mansion away from the Democrats for the first time in more than a century. Clements was booted from office four years later but staged a comeback in 1986. His reelection marked Texas’s definitive break with its Democratic past.
One of the key architects of Clements’s victory was Karl Rove, who worked for his campaign as a direct-mail fundraising consultant. Rove’s signature accomplishment was cementing the allegiance of the Texan elite. “Rove took these guys who were giving to centrist, conservative Democrats and made them Republicans,” says Craig McDonald, the executive director of Texans for Public Justice, a watchdog group that tracks campaign finance.
The Clements donors formed the core of what the veteran Texas political journalists James Moore and Wayne Slater describe in Bush’s Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential as “the gold standard of political lists,” which Rove divided into several categories: “Texas Oilmen and Fat Cats,” “Cream Republican Donors,” and “Texans Opposed to Labor Unions.” Simmons was among them, and he held Rove’s political advice in high regard. Many of Simmons’s largest donations in subsequent years were in service of candidates or operatives linked to Rove.
In the summer of 2004, the Houston lawyer and Vietnam veteran John O’Neill approached Simmons about financing his anti–John Kerry group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The two men didn’t know each other, O’Neill told me, but, after a brief meeting, Simmons gave the group $2 million. I asked O’Neill why he thought Simmons had been so generous. “I honestly don’t know,” he told me. “I only met Harold once.” The group’s impact on the election encouraged Simmons, and even larger contributions soon followed. “I think the perceived success of the Swift Boat campaign just naturally led to it,” says J. Landis Martin, who worked as an attorney and corporate executive for Simmons for several decades. In 2008, the Virginia Republican strategist Chris LaCivita, a Swift Boat alumnus and Rove acolyte, launched the American Issues Project, which aired TV ads trumpeting Obama’s past association with the former Weather Underground member William Ayers. The group’s entire $2.9 million ad budget came from Simmons.
But the Clements donors’ money proved most decisive back in Texas. Unique among the biggest-spending states, Texas has no limits on contributions from individuals, which has given rise to an unusual concentration of campaign funding. According to Texans for Public Justice, more than one-third of the money spent in Texas’s 2010 election cycle came from just 205 donors—and nearly two-thirds of the total money goes to Republicans. The mega-donors’ influence is felt most keenly in the state legislature. “In the governor’s office, a five hundred thousand dollar contribution was a big deal,” Bill Ratliff, Rick Perry’s first-term lieutenant governor and previously a Republican state senator, recalls. “In the Texas Senate, a five hundred dollar contribution was a pretty big deal.”
The donors also funded an emerging class of aggressive PACs devoted to their core causes: limited regulation, low taxes, and tort reform. Donors would spend money directly to elect lawmakers they supported while simultaneously funding PACs that would depose them if they strayed. “I don’t think there was anywhere near as many votes bought as the public perceived,” Ratliff recalls of his time in the state Senate. “I think the influence had to do with members being afraid that there was money that would be used in the next race to beat them. Maybe that’s the same thing. [But] there’s not the quid pro quo—it’s more a matter of, ‘If you don’t help us, we’ll beat you next time.’ That’s the way the game is played.”
IN 1995, Kent Hance, a former congressman, lobbyist, and all-purpose power broker in Austin, approached Simmons with a business proposition. At the time, one of Hance’s lobbying clients was a company called Waste Control Specialists (WCS). The company’s president, Ken Bigham, was building a toxic waste dump near the town of Andrews in West Texas, close to the New Mexico border. But Bigham was running out of money, and Hance wanted to know if Simmons would be interested in investing. Simmons was, and, over the following years, he acquired shares of WCS until he owned nearly all of the company.
When Simmons entered the picture, WCS was poised to make hundreds of millions of dollars storing hazardous waste at its Andrews County site. Just out of the company’s reach, however, was a much bigger plum: the radioactive waste disposal market. The United States had just three privately operated low-level nuclear waste dumps; if WCS could find a way into the market, the company stood to make billions.
If you were in the business of finding somewhere to bury the worst stuff on Earth, Andrews had plenty to recommend it. A town of 11,000 scratched into a desert plateau of biblical severity, Andrews was only settled by Anglos after the rest of Texas was spoken for. The area—an unwelcoming tract of red dust, shin oak, and mesquite—had little to offer its new residents, and the town scraped by mostly through its own obstinacy until 1929, when oil was struck in the county.
Nearly a century later, Andrews has the unmistakable feel of an aging boomtown, its downtown streets a conglomeration of bail bondsmen offices and burrito joints, the faint smell of sulfur hanging in the air. Visitors driving into Andrews are greeted by an immense sign that reads, ANDREWS LOVES GOD, COUNTRY AND SUPPORTS FREE ENTERPRISE. But its residents have always been pragmatic about what that free enterprise might entail. “Nobody’s going to build a Toyota plant in west Andrews County,” Lloyd Eisenrich, the president of the Andrews Industrial Foundation, a local business advocacy organization, told me when I visited him recently. Among the plausible alternatives, storing radioactive waste seemed like a uniquely good fit. “You’ve got a county with over ten thousand holes poked in the ground and H2S”—hydrogen sulfide—“gas out there that could wipe out this whole community with one leak and the wind blowing in the right direction,” says Eisenrich. “They understand hazard.”
Texas state law, however, barred private companies from running nuclear waste dumps—a law that WCS, under Bigham’s leadership, had tried and failed to change. There were also numerous federal and state regulatory barriers to be overcome, not to mention licenses that had to be obtained to store various types of nuclear waste. So Simmons went to work. Between 1997 and 2000, Simmons and his companies’ executives and political action committees contributed nearly $650,000 to state candidates and PACs, according to Texans for Public Justice (as well as about $1 million to federal candidates, PACs, and Republican Party committees). WCS spent between $950,000 and $2 million on lobbying efforts over the same period and, by 2000, had 15 Texas lobbyists on its payroll.
Bigham, who was fired as the company’s CEO in 1999 and later unsuccessfully sued Simmons and Hance, claimed in court documents that Simmons and Hance both touted Simmons’s “connections with several state politicians, including then Governor George W. Bush and current Governor Rick Perry, as well as several federal politicians, including Kay Bailey Hutchison, Phil Gramm, and Orin [sic] Hatch.” At one point, company executives drew up a memo detailing plans to “stir up federal politicians” to WCS’s benefit. According to Bigham, a copy found its way to an Energy Department official, who angrily faxed it back to a WCS consultant with a note reading, “You can’t expect us to be very supportive of [the company’s waste storage plans] with this kind of stuff going on.”
At first, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (now the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ) opposed the idea of a private company storing out-of-state nuclear waste in Texas. But, shortly after a lobbyist for then–Governor Bush—who had received $90,000 in campaign contributions from Simmons—visited the commission’s director, the commission reversed its position. (The following year, Simmons hired several of Bush’s aides as lobbyists.) When an incoming general counsel in Bill Clinton’s Energy Department balked at the little-known company’s application for storing federal waste, Senators Gramm, Hutchison, and Richard Shelby—all beneficiaries of Simmons’s campaign spending—held up the appointee’s nomination. “It’s highly unusual for a company to inject itself into the confirmation process of a nominee like that,” L.G. Holstein, the department’s chief of staff at the time, told Mother Jones in 2001.
To get the bill legalizing private nuclear waste dumps through the state legislature, WCS leaned heavily on recipients of Simmons’s largesse. Taking the lead were State Senators M. Teel Bivins and J.E. “Buster” Brown, who had collectively garnered at least $30,000 in contributions from Simmons. Their first two attempts to change the law failed; the night the second effort died in the state House in spring 2001, Simmons reportedly called House Speaker Pete Laney to demand an explanation. In his 2003 lawsuit, Bigham took aim at Simmons’s and Hance’s “misguided lobbying practices.” Efforts “to conduct back door meetings and attempt to strong-arm Texas politicians,” Bigham argued, had “significantly hampered any effort to legitimately seek a change in the law.”
That year, however, WCS renewed its push in the legislature and finally succeeded. In an interview with the Dallas Business Journal in 2006, Simmons all but claimed to have written the law himself. “It took us six years to get legislation on this passed in Austin, but now we’ve got it all passed,” Simmons told the Journal. “We first had to change the law to where a private company can own a license [to handle radioactive waste], and we did that. Then we got another law passed that said they can only issue one license. Of course, we were the only ones that applied.”
Now all Simmons needed was the license itself. To secure it, WCS had to prove that its West Texas site was a safe place to permanently dispose of materials that could stay radioactive for thousands of years—bits of disassembled nuclear power plants, weapons manufacturing detritus, byproducts of nuclear medicine. Its application ultimately hinged on one question: whether the ground beneath Andrews County was dry. Local geologists believed that it was, but, according to the state Water Development Board’s maps, the site came worryingly close to several groundwater deposits, including the Ogallala Aquifer—the largest underground water system in North America and, possibly, the world.
The TCEQ assigned eight staffers to review the application. The technical writer on the project was Glenn Lewis, a former newspaper reporter who had spent twelve years in Texas government. “It was not more than a week before I first heard from one of my colleagues, ‘Do you know who owns WCS? You know they’re going to get their license, no matter what,’” Lewis told me. “I had no idea who Harold Simmons was. And I was informed that Harold Simmons was a main campaign contributor to the governor—the current governor, Perry—and had been a main contributor to Bush. It was just the assumption from the beginning: This will be approved.”
As the TCEQ team examined the results from the test wells the company’s geologists had drilled around the site, they grew alarmed. In an August 2007 memo to an agency manager, four experts— two geologists and two engineers—noted that, based on the company’s own data, “Groundwater is likely to intrude into the proposed disposal units and contact the waste” from two different water tables in the area. One of the two sources of groundwater, the team suggested, “may be closer than 14 feet” away from the facility. The team recommended unequivocally that the agency deny WCS the license.
By September, two TCEQ experts had quit after other concerns about the WCS site were ignored by agency officials. According to a review of TCEQ records by The Texas Observer, WCS’s top executives, investors, and lobbyists made at least ten visits to the offices of the commission’s top two officials between July 2007 and January 2008. In late 2007, agency head Glenn Shankle overruled his own experts and recommended that the commission issue the license to store waste. Lewis retired early in protest. A year later, WCS hired Shankle as the company’s lobbyist in Austin. “Even the Mafia was more circumspect,” Lewis told the Observer.
When I recited the litany of TCEQ staff grievances to Chuck McDonald, WCS’s spokesman, he sighed. “I’ve told reporters many times,” he said, “if you can find a more geologically analyzed plot of land on planet Earth, I’d like you to bring it to me.” The problem with the complaints, he told me, was that they were no longer relevant. “There’s been six hundred wells drilled out there now,” he said. “We’ve got core samples and test wells at every conceivable level out there. And they were able to determine unequivocally that the site is dry and doesn’t impact any underground water sources.” What was less than reassuring, however, was the fact that the license had been drafted long before much of this work was done—and over the advice of the only people in a position to judge the available data dispassionately.
After the license went through, WCS lobbied hard to expand its market, which the state restricted to waste from the federal government, Texas, and Vermont. Last year, the legislature passed a bill that would allow 36 states to dump low-level waste in Texas. A review of state disclosure documents by Texans for Public Justice found that Simmons had contributed to nearly three-quarters of the legislature’s members, and that 83 percent of those lawmakers had voted for the bill. The group also found that Simmons had contributed half a million dollars to state politicians outside of Texas since 2000—nearly all of them in states with nuclear power plants but without nuclear waste disposal facilities.
For years, even Simmons’s allies considered his commitment to the dump project—into which he has sunk $500 million to date, according to Chuck McDonald—a bit quixotic. “[The project] never would have happened if somebody like Harold Simmons hadn’t gotten involved, who had the pockets to fight the legal battles and the long-term legislative process, the permitting process, and all that,” Eisenrich says. “Anybody else would’ve folded at the table and walked away.” But a December 2011 Securities and Exchange Commission filing by Valhi, WCS’s parent company, suggests that Simmons has, once again, been proved right. According to the report, Valhi’s stock jumped a stunning 62 percent in value over 2011, the year the Texas government opened Simmons’s dump to all but 14 U.S. states. According to Forbes, Simmons—whose family owns 96 percent of Valhi’s stock—saw his own net worth leap from $5 billion to $9.6 billion in a single year.
THE SHEER SCOPE of Simmons’s accomplishment is difficult to grasp until you catch a glimpse of it in person. One afternoon in March, I drove west from Andrews, past drought-thinned herds of Herefords and a handful of drilling rigs, until I reached the WCS facility. The site was closed to visitors in anticipation of the first shipments of waste scheduled to arrive this spring, but, from the highway, I could see the immense berm of excavated red earth, perched on the horizon like an unfinished pyramid.
The section of the dump slated for commercial waste is permitted to hold 26 Olympic-size swimming pools’ worth of the stuff. The adjoining federal waste repository, ten times that size, is due to be completed this year—at which point Simmons and his company will have to figure out how to fill it. In 2006, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) began to consider allowing private low-level nuclear waste dumps to accept depleted uranium from nuclear power plants and weapons sites, a higher grade of waste and, for WCS, a multibillion-dollar opportunity. Though Simmons’s companies do lobby the Obama administration—spending $885,000 from 2009 to 2011, according to Bloomberg—Chuck McDonald says that WCS hasn’t lobbied in connection with the NRC deliberations. “There is no lobbying of the NRC,” he told me. While company executives have been consulted by an agency working group on the policy shift, McDonald says, “anyone who is in the business of dealing with radioactive waste is engaged in the NRC’s ongoing process.”
In a March 2010 meeting of a blueribbon commission tasked with finding an alternative to the sidelined Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, a WCS executive invited the commission members to visit Andrews County. “While our geology is ideal,” he told them, “our success is really rooted in the tremendous support of our local and regional community.” If WCS were ever to secure such a prize, Simmons’s political investments would look like a steal.
Perhaps the nuclear waste business is all that’s driving Simmons’s interest in the 2012 election. Or perhaps it’s a belief that a federal government run by a now-vehemently anti-regulation GOP will look forgivingly upon his other heavy industrial properties, which could one day find themselves liable for other toxic leftovers. It may be a token of his loyalty to Karl Rove or a sentimental gift from an elderly and extraordinarily wealthy man to a Republican Party that has been very, very good to him.
Whatever it is, Simmons’s ambitions happen to be spreading beyond Texas at a time when the national campaign finance landscape has become strikingly Texas-like—and in some respects even more permissive. (Not even the Lone Star State allows unlimited contributions from corporations.) “If you’re nurtured on a system of no limitations, then playing by these rules is no big change for you,” Miller told me. “It’s like, ‘Welcome home.’”
In Texas, the system has worked—for the state’s oligarchs, if nobody else. Texas has no corporate or personal income taxes, and an increasingly loophole-ridden tax code has caused the share of revenue collected from the state’s oil and gas industry to steadily erode since the mid-’80s, even as oil and gas prices have bounced back from that decade’s lows. Today, state coffers are mostly filled by federal government outlays and a regressive sales tax.
The resulting trickle of revenue has left public services in Texas chronically underfunded—not to mention perilously exposed to the recession, which drove down consumer spending enough to produce a $27 billion budget shortfall last year. (The state legislature balanced it with a combination of $4 billion in public education cuts and disingenuous changes to the way the state forecasts its future obligations.) These problems will get worse before they get better. Texas’s population is growing at twice the national average, with much of the growth concentrated in low-income populations that disproportionately rely on public services.
Simmons and the other Texas billionaires are often defended on the grounds of their philanthropy—and it’s true that there are few hospitals in the Dallas area without a wing named after Simmons. But there is a Gilded Age paternalism to these projects in a state that is otherwise mired in policy dilemmas wrought by the politicians whom the philanthropists have financed—a sense that the only new public goods that Texans are allowed to have are the ones the billionaires see fit to give them.
In June 2003, the Texas legislature, facing a budget shortfall of $10 billion, cut $1 billion from the state’s education spending and restricted Medicaid eligibility to a degree that, according to Austin’s liberal Center for Public Policy Priorities, 350,000 Texans were pushed off the rolls. A week and a half after the budget went into effect, the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts Foundation unveiled plans for what would become a $354 million multi-venue arts space, larger than Lincoln Center, designed by the firms of celebrity architects Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaas, and Joshua Prince-Ramus. Ninety-five percent of the funding for the project came from private donations, with some local businessmen writing checks for as much as $42 million apiece.
The center opened three years ago, and the names that grace the performance halls, parks, and plazas of its ten-acre campus are a veritable who’s who of the Texas elite—including the country’s most prolific political donor: The grid of solar-coated glass panels that wraps around the front of the center’s opera house is officially known as the Harold and Annette Simmons Signature Glass Façade. “The Simmons Façade,” a brochure from the center explains, “creates transparency.”
Charles Homans is a special correspondent for The New Republic. This article appeared in the May 10, 2012 issue of the magazine.