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Political parties are always attracted to rich families which sometimes supply money and other times supply candidates. Occasionally, a family does both, like the family of billionaire Joe Ricketts. He launched an independent political organization that is among the top 10 spenders this election cycle - 3 of his 4 children are politically active, including one who is running for governor of Nebraska. NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The gubernatorial hopeful is Pete Ricketts. He spoke earlier this month at a forum of Nebraska Chamber of Commerce. It was in the Strategic Air and Space Museum near Omaha - literally in the museum. Chamber members were seated in front of a 1940s B-29 bomber named Lucky Lady as Ricketts, a Republican, gave them a businessman's campaign pitch.
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PETE RICKETTS: Unite Nebraska, East and West, urban and rural, to put together that plan. And that's why I'm here running for governor. And that's why I'm asking for your vote.
OVERBY: Omaha is where Joe and Marlene Ricketts raised Pete, his sister and two brothers. It's also where Joe founded one of the first discount stock brokerage firms, now known as TD Ameritrade. Joe Ricketts became a billionaire and a Republican. He started putting money into politics and along the way he concluded that Republicans and Democrats all spent too much.
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JOE RICKETTS: So I am now a registered independent, and I probably will be that way for the rest of my life.
OVERBY: That's from a video Ricketts made for his Political Action Committee - then called Taxpayers Against Earmarks. It morphed into Ending Spending, a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization and a super PAC called the Ending Spending Action Fund.
Joe's independent voter registration aside, Ending Spending has always backed Republicans. The super PACs biggest donors are Joe and Marlene Ricketts. The 501(c)(4) isn't required to disclose its donors. Joe Ricketts declined to comment for this story. So did the president of Ending Spending. Todd Ricketts, Pete's brother, who's CEO of Ending Spending didn't respond to interview requests, neither did their sister, Laura Ricketts, who's taken her own path in politics.
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LAURA RICKETTS: We all have different perspectives on the world. I'm a woman. I live in Chicago. I'm gay.
OVERBY: That's from CBS's "60 Minute Sports," a segment earlier this year about the Ricketts's ownership of the Chicago Cubs. A fourth sibling, Tom, has run the ball club since the family bought it in 2009. Laura Ricketts raised money for President Obama's reelection. She's on the board of the liberal group Emily's List. And she chairs LPAC, a political committee focused on issues important to lesbians. Here are Laura and Pete Ricketts in that "60 Minute" segment.
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L. RICKETTS: We've had some very candid conversations and quite honestly, for me, at times painful.
P. RICKETTS: We disagree on the issues, but we're still family. We love each other.
OVERBY: Laura has given Pete's campaign $5,000 - generous. But Tom and Todd have given $27,000 each. Back at the Chamber of Congress forum, Pete Ricketts had an explanation for the siblings's political activism.
P. RICKETTS: Part of it comes back to how our parents raised us - that we're all supposed to get back to our communities.
OVERBY: He reached back for a small example.
P. RICKETTS: Helping out a gentlemen down the street who is going to be elderly and had a lot of pine needles dropping on his driveway- so sweeping off the driveway without taking any pay for it and that sort of thing.
OVERBY: Even with so many well-heeled political players these days, the Ricketts family is unusual. The father and three children, one liberal and three conservatives, one candidate and three activists heading up super PACs.
ROBERT MUTCH: This is new.
OVERBY: Historian Robert Mutch says that even in the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, there weren't independent operators the way there are in today's deregulated politics.
MUTCH: The party provided the candidates. The party made the expenditures. The people who had the money might give; they might raise money. But that's really all they did.
OVERBY: Mutch is the author of a new book about political money, "Buying The Vote."
MUTCH: Look at the Ricketts. In some ways, they're following in the tradition of rich families in the past. What's different is that they're not only raising money, but they're spending it.
OVERBY: LPAC is just getting off the ground this cycle with less than a million dollars raised as of June 30; $315,000 came from Laura Ricketts. Ending Spending has reported spending about five-and-a-half million dollars; at least 1.6 million came from Joe, Marlene and Todd Ricketts. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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