Mitt Loves N.Y.: Bruce Kovner


Since the Citizens United decision, realpolitik has accepted the harsh reality in which a corporation has the same pedestal in our democratic elections as an ordinary Joe Schmoe. And, as a financial hub in America and abroad, New York has transformed into a politically charged Gotham; its corporate barons and hedge schemers run rampant under the new rules and regulations (or lack thereof).

With Mitt Romney as its de facto go-to candidate, the roster of Restore Our Future, Romney’s designated Super PAC slush fund, reads like a laundry list of New York City’s wealthiest denizens. And, according to the Center for Responsive Politics and contrary to popular belief, Super PAC’s are receiving a huge majority of their donations from these individuals rather then enormous corporations.
So, here at the Voice, we’re going to tell you a little bit about our neighbors, one donor at a time:
In 2005, Phillip Weiss at New York Magazine wrote that Bruce Kovner was “the most powerful New Yorker you’ve never heard of.” Seven years later, that statement still rings true.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Kovner dropped out of Harvard and joined the ranks of Dropouts That Made It Big along with Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Robert Frost. Soon after, in 1983, he started the early hedge-fund Caxton Associates and, within a few years, he was returning a spectacular average of 21 percent profit to his investors.

This year, with a net worth of $4.5 billion, Kovner maxed out on Forbes’s Billionaires List as the 232nd richest man in the world and 73rd in all of the United States. In January, he donated $500,000 to Restore Our Future, adding to his recent history of bankrolling strictly Republican candidacies.

But he’s been a powerful force behind conservative culture in New York and elsewhere for years.

Caxton’s rapid wealth growth was due in part to where the organization’s assets were run out of: like a whole slew of other companies that formed during the rambunctious days of the New Wall Street in the late 80s and early 1990s, Caxton placed its headquarters on 1209 North Orange Street in Wilmington, Delaware – a location that now attracts over 6,500 companies due to the state’s known reputation for leniency on the corporate night watch.

Those numbers accumulated over time: when Kovner announced that he was stepping down from his CEO position at Caxton last September (the position is now held by Andrew Law), the man behind the secretive global macroeconomic powerhouse had pulled in a whopping $12 billion and the hedge fund still had $8 billion in assets. Who needs a Harvard Ph.D. when you can bankroll the entire University and then some?

And to the winner goes the spoils. Kovner has used his earnings to create a hybrid empire of outstanding philanthropy and ideological spear-heading, placing his name on the boards of New York’s most well-to-do institutions. Hence the line from New York Magazine before – with these positions, Kovner wields enormous influence over the ins and outs of this metropolis from behind closed doors.
(And away from the press as well – Kovner has made it his reputation to rarely grant interviews and information about his personal life usually comes from third parties. The Voice tried to reach out to Caxton for any contact information about its former head honcho but to no avail.)

First, the philanthropy. As chairman at the Juilliard School and a harpsichordist himself, Kovner has donated original works by Bach and Beethoven as well as other large sums of money. Just this past January, he gave $20 million to the school in order to revamp a fledgling master’s level program. Down the block at Lincoln Center, Kovner wants to use his vice-chairmanship to turn West 65th Street “inside out” with a redevelopment plan for the neighborhood that exceeds the cost of $650 million.

Across town, he dropped over $27 million to buy and renovate the International Center for Photography mansion on Fifth Avenue and 94th Street. Now, the historical site has a bidet and a room fitted to protect him from dirty bombs.

Next, the ideology. In February of 2003, a month before fighter jets would be flying over Baghdad, President George W. Bush called the American Enterprise Institute “some of the finest minds of our nation” and bragged about how his administration included a few rank-and-files from the neoconservative think tank.

Why is this important? Because the AEI basically wrote the Bush Doctrine – the calling for an American economic iron fist in the Middle East fit in perfectly with the organization’s slogan “Freedom. Opportunity. Enterprise.” Now, its website reads like a Romney campaign sticker – “No Need for More Rules,” in regards to Wall Street, smothers the homepage. And Kovner was its President and remains as a chairman.

He filled a vacuum at the AEI left behind by ex-VP Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne. Since then, the two have reportedly become BFFs, which, in regards to fortune and fanaticism, makes complete sense.

He has also given thousands to the Manhattan Institute to Policy Research, another think tank that flaunts its emphasis on American aggression abroad, as a former member on its Board of Trustees. It is run by major Romney supporter and fellow hedge fund billionaire Paul E. Singer. Friends stick together.

Last but not least, let us give an example of Kovner trying to directly mix philanthropy and ideology with a little “527” organization called All Children Matter.

As a brainchild of Walmart heir John Walton (who contributed $4.1 million to its cause) and Amway founder Richard DeVos, the program was set up to provide kids with school vouchers because kids matter to us so much that they should not be receiving public education. Along with tons of other One Percenters, Kovner donated half a million to its cause.

Except that’s not all it was doing: in 2008, the Ohio Elections Commission fined ACM $5.2 million when it was discovered that the organization had been funneling millions into the ballot system to get candidates in favor of education privatization elected. Now defunct, it turns ACM wasn’t a “527” organization for the children; it was a PAC that wanted to turn a profit from the children.

And that’s a huge difference.

Tune in next week for another installment of “Mitt Loves N.Y.” Also, check out last’s week profile of John A. Griffin. Another week, another donor. Democracy can really hurt sometimes.

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