Health mogul wants to fix democracy, starting with Colorado

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In the final weeks leading up to the November 3 election, supporters of a down-in-the-weeds effort to overturn a tax law in Colorado received a cascade of large checks, totaling more than $ 2 million.

All came from Kent Thiry, the former CEO of DaVita, a die the biggest kidney care companies nationwide. It was not the first time he had made a large donation to a voting initiative aimed at fine-tuning the details of how Colorado works. It won’t be the last either.

Thiry has given at least $ 5.9 million for Colorado voting metrics since 2011 – and all have won, according to a KHN review of Colorado campaign finance data. According to data from National Institute on Money in Politics, Thiry’s donations to voting measures in this state are only those of billionaire Pat Stryker. Campaign fundraising records show that prior to that he donated to voting committees in California, where he lived, dating to at least 2007.

It’s the same playbook that his former company used successfully in California. As KHN has it reported, in 2018, DaVita was among several companies to break an industry record for campaign spending for a party voting measure in California. This year, the industry almost broke that record to defeat a measurement this would have further regulated the dialysis clinics and which DaVita said would have limited access to care.

Voting initiatives, which are allowed in about half of the states, allow individuals and groups to bypass legislatures and ask voters to decide on a law. And in many states the campaigns for and against them are funded by the rich: either companies struggling to preserve their profits or multimillionaires with a political shopping list.

“Wealthy individuals have been investing money in voting measures, even seemingly unrelated to their industry, for over a century,” wrote Daniel Smith, a political scientist studying direct democracy at the University of Florida, in an email to KHN.

Since health care is $3.6 trillion industry, its senior leaders are among those who can have a huge impact on the politics of poll measurement. This year, Kent Thiry and Mike Fernandez, president and CEO of private equity firm MBF Healthcare Partners, were among 19 people or couples who spent $ 1 million or more on election campaigns this year, according to Bloomberg. In previous elections, Loren Parks, owner of a medical device company, also donated a lot of money to voting initiatives.

Overall, healthcare industry players[{1|gro=s”>spent more on ballot measures in Colorado than in any other state except Missouri and California, according to data from the National Institute on Money in Politics, and that’s largely due to Thiry.

“He really has become the 800-pound gorilla of the ballot initiative process in Colorado,” said Josh Penry, a Republican campaign strategist in Denver who has worked with Thiry, including on a ballot measure campaign Thiry helped fund. “He wields more power in an informal way than virtually all the elected officials, if you look at the impact he’s had.”

Even though Thiry and his wife, Denise O’Leary, a former venture capitalist on the board of directors of medical device company Medtronic, have made hefty earnings from health care, Thiry’s ballot initiative donations as an individual have nothing to do with the industry.

“I prefer things that have systemic impact,” said Thiry. Measures he has bankrolled have eliminated the caucus system for presidential primaries, brought unaffiliated voters into the primaries and created a system intended to eliminate gerrymandering.

“Democracy is not a spectator sport,” he said.

Thiry previously donated to ballot measure committees in California, to prevent changes to term limits and to create a system for redistricting led jointly by Democrats, Republicans and citizens unaffiliated with a political party.

After moving his company’s headquarters from Los Angeles to Denver in 2010, he began backing ballot measures in his new state, too, with equal success and bigger sums, jumping from the tens of thousands to the millions. He spent more than $2 million backing a pair of measures to allow unaffiliated voters to participate in primaries.

In 2018, while his company was helping break an election spending record to defeat a California measure that would have capped the industry’s profits, Thiry was putting more than $1.2 million toward redistricting efforts in Colorado very similar to the one he backed in his previous home state to help reduce gerrymandering.

His latest donations went to a measure that successfully overturned a tax law from the 1980s that may have helped Colorado homeowners, but which critics said left public services like education and fire districts underfunded in some rural areas.

Thiry doesn’t just shell out cash. As the online newspaper The Colorado Independent has pointed out, Thiry’s offices played a large role in bringing two warring groups with different ideas about redistricting to the same table. His efforts tend to revolve around raising the power of unaffiliated voters, who make up about 40% of Colorado’s active voters, according to state data.

Fernandez, the private equity billionaire, said he has similar motivations. He donated $7.3 million to a Florida initiative to change how primaries work in that state and bring unaffiliated voters like himself into the fold.

“I’ve never spent so much money [on] something that I have no business reason to participate in, ”he said.

The effort was, he said, almost “a one-man show” in terms of funding. But it always failed, to harvest 57% of the votes when it took 60% to pass. Fernandez has said he will try again in 2022.

“I come from a country where you see that control of a government by one party is deadly,” said Fernandez, who was born in Cuba. “Florida has been controlled by the Republican Party for three decades. And when I was a Republican, it was great.

But, he said, it quickly became clear that bringing the issue to lawmakers was a dead end. It is expected, according to John Matsusaka, executive director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California. Voting initiatives are a natural way to change the electoral mechanism, he said, as lawmakers have a conflict of interest on issues such as gerrymandering and term limits.

In fact, Matsusaka believes that the United States could use national voting initiatives, which other democracies have, as a means of restoring confidence in the federal government.

“I don’t see the proposed votes as a way to drive a progressive or conservative agenda or any sort of agenda,” he said. “I see this as a way to give people control. And they can go wherever they want. “

Even if that means eroding their own power a bit. One of the first initiatives Thiry donated in Colorado is something Matsusaka considers “anti-democracy” – an effort called Raise the Bar, a Voting Initiative on Voting Initiatives. he mandatory petitioners to get signatures from all over the state to put an initiative on the ballot. Some see this as problematic.

“You must now collect signatures in every senatorial district in Colorado,” said Corrine Rivera Fowler, director of policy and legal advocacy with the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a national organization that supports progressive voting initiatives. “It’s a great business for grassroots communities.”

Thiry, meanwhile, intends to take what he learned in Colorado and apply it elsewhere. He said he was getting more involved with several national democracy reform groups, including Unite America, a effort to break what has been called the “deadly loop” of partisanship. Thiry said he hoped to help create “a tsunami of political momentum.”

“One of my goals is to shift this democratic reform energy in places like Colorado – or elsewhere – from an ad hoc collection of activist projects to a real movement,” he said. “Kind of like the civil rights movement, kind of like the gay marriage movement, and like the #MeToo or Black Lives Matter movement.”

He no longer works for DaVita, having stepped down as executive chairman earlier this year.

“I no longer have a title. Just “citizen”. It’s a title that I wear with great pride and energy, ”he said.

As for the next measure Thiry will support, he is open to recommendations.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a non-profit news service covering health issues. This is an independent editorial program of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation) which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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