The question had to be asked, and Van Jones was there to ask it: How would the Koch brothers get rich from prison reform? How would bipartisan criminal justice reform – the cause that had brought Jones together with dozens of organizers for an all-day Washington summit – add to the bottom line?
“Are they gonna make a billion dollars off of this?” asked Jones of Mark Holden, the general counsel of Koch Industries.
“Or are they going to invest a billion dollars?” asked Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress.
“Aren’t you just throwing the Democratic Party down the stairs?”
Holden was not being ambushed. This was a conversation between people who’d been working together for months, designed to allay the fears of Jones's and Tanden's allies on the left. The news that Charles Koch would invest in criminal justice reform was broken by his hometown paper and explained in a Politico column. The news that the Kochs would collaborate with CAP in the new Coalition for Public Safety was reported on the front page of the New York Times. And plenty of people in the audience were still nervous about the Kochs’ political influence.
Holden decided to be wry.
“There are four Koch brothers,” said Holden. “I work for two of them. I can’t speak for the others.”
The audience, a mixture of political activists, reformed ex-cons, authors and academics, laughed and applauded. Later, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich shared the stage with Jones as former prisoners talked about how they’d re-made their lives with education and second chances. Jones even apologized on behalf of the Republicans who had sent video messages in lieu of personal appearances: “Because the Democrats don’t run this town, they had the time to come.”
Coverage of the bipartisan reform movement has followed the same narrative for months, of “sworn enemies” singing around the campfire. Organizers have played that up, booking right/left allies together to promote the project, and making sure that the media meets the Republicans who are un-doing decades of harsh penalties that their voters asked for in the first place. It wouldn’t be news if Democrats did this. It’s news when the other party does.
In the last few months, that narrative has shifted. The Republicans who control Congress and most of the states are taking a larger role in the reform push. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who has co-sponsored a series of reform bills, is giving talks to black audiences that draw scores of reporters.