Rex Sinquefield: certainly rich, theoretically influential, definitely a dumbass

Rex Sinquefield enjoys the reputation of political kingmaker in Missouri. In any given election season, he is talked about as a savvy puppetmaster who inspires fear in opponents and awe in libertarians, a prodigious donor who gets his way.

Most of that isn’t really true.

Yes, he has plenty of money. Sinquefield built his wealth developing some of the nation’s first index funds, through a firm called Dimensional Fund Advisors. It still exists today, though Sinquefield retired from it in 2005, the better to focus on influencing politics. He does this through donations as well as through his presidency of the Show-Me Institute, a think tank that researches Missouri fiscal policies and tries to get its analyses placed in local newspapers. Politicians and special interest groups aren’t shy about their trips to his front doorstep in Westphalia, eager for a handout from his sky-high stack of money or a nod from Show-Me.

But for all of that Sinquefield grease, his pet figures and issues tend not to achieve traction. That St. Louis and Kansas City residents have to vote to reapprove their respective 1 percent earnings taxes every five years is probably his biggest political success. It gives him new opportunities to court resounding and expensive defeat.

The man has poured so much money into so many lost causes, it’s actually kind of hilarious.

And when Kansas City voters renew the earnings tax in April — defying Sinquefield’s latest, loudest labors — the would-be kingmaker will achieve a significant milestone. He’ll be the most overrated figure in contemporary Missouri politics.

Which is a polite way of calling him what his record proves he is: a dumbass.

Records on file with the Missouri Ethics Commission show that Sinquefield has written three separate six-figure checks to the Vote No On the E-Tax campaign committee, which spearheads the latest anti–earnings tax campaign. His $395,857 contribution last Monday brings the man’s total bounty against his bete noire up to $1,466,967.

The Vote No for the E-Tax campaign is a lonely club. So far, Sinquefield is its only funder. That says a lot about the gumption of all the locals who complain about the 1 percent earnings tax on wages and business profits in Kansas City, yet don’t want to be seen campaigning against the things funded by that tax.

As usual, Sinquefield is sending imperfect lieutenants into battle. He’s been a sugar daddy for Columbia Sen. Kurt Schaefer, who is running for attorney general but, according to many sources, isn’t particularly well-liked within his own party. After picking up $750,000 from Sinquefield for his AG campaign, the Republican wrote up a bill that would kill the earnings tax immediately in 2017 — retribution against Kansas City and St. Louis for their separate attempts to raise the minimum wage in their respective communities.

It should be obvious that any candidate on a statewide ballot in an upcoming election is going to need support in Missouri’s two biggest cities, both of which in 2011 overwhelmingly renewed their earnings taxes.

It was not obvious to Schaefer.

So lately, he has changed his tune, making it sound like he’s doing both cities a favor by heading off some federal judge who’s bound to rule that the tax is unconstitutional. To help make his case, he refers to the earnings tax as a “double tax.” This betrays Schaefer’s ignorance of what double taxation actually is.

Another Sinquefield warrior in the
earnings-tax campaign is longtime conservative strategist Woody Cozad, who appeared in Jefferson City to support Schaefer’s bill before it withered into legislative carrion after Kansas City got cut out of it. He’s been pressed into service in part because he was once the Kansas City Police Department’s lobbyist. The anti–earnings tax crowd, remember, likes to suggest that city leaders are bluffing when they warn that the loss of the earnings tax would lead to cuts in public safety personnel — police, firefighters — and, therefore, to diminished public safety.

But the cops called Cozad’s bluff way back in 2011, when its board of commissioners disapproved of his violation of earnings-tax party line and cut ties with him.

Did Sinquefield forget?

Speaking of forgotten: Other Sinquefield-supported candidates who have lost their election bids include Brad Lager and Shane Schoeller.

Then there was the $2.3 million Sinquefield spent in 2014 on an education-reform group called Teach Great. Its idea was to improve education in Missouri by amending the state constitution to permanently do away with teacher tenure. Because nothing attracts the best and the brightest to teach Missouri’s youth like the promise of zero job security.

After sponging up that sweet, sweet Sinquefield cash, Teach Great’s leadership got a look at the disastrous polling numbers for its cause. The group suspended its effort in September 2014 and hasn’t been heard from since.

The same year, Sinquefield spent $2.5 million on an advocacy group called Grow Missouri. Its goal was to cut income taxes in Missouri. Because that strategy had obviously made Kansas the envy of every state. Other than flying some blimps over Missourians in 2014, though, Grow Missouri hasn’t been heard from.

Sometimes, Sinquefield narrows his sights. He involved himself in a Nixa Public School District bond issue in 2014. For someone who once had to walk back his comparison of public schools to the Ku Klux Klan, this seemed odd. Anyway, he used the Missouri Club for Growth to finance opposition to the bond issuance, because he didn’t want to see a public school system accessing debt to finance its needs.

It was a big win — for public education in Nixa, where voters approved the bond measure by a nearly 3-to-1 margin.

This year, Sinquefield is supporting Catherine Hanaway for Missouri governor. She seemed like a formidable candidate at the race’s outset, but the Curse of Rex seems to be in effect: Her campaign self-immolated after it was linked to harsh advertisements directed at fellow gubernatorial candidate Tom Schweich. Those ads, thought up by Jeff Roe’s Axiom Strategies, are believed by people close to Schweich to have pushed the troubled former Missouri auditor toward his suicide last year.

Sinquefield earned his wealth as a finance guru, and he didn’t become a billionaire by making poor choices. But past financial success is no guarantee of future political gain, and anyone who has been paying attention to Sinquefield’s Election Day portfolio probably knows by now to back whomever or whatever he’s not.

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