Stealth donor gives millions to GOP candidates, causes

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Minn. Capitol
The Minnesota State Capitol. Big donors, including GOP contributor Robert Cummins, will provide tens of thousands of dollars or more this election season as control of the Legislature is decided in the November election.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

As lawmakers, candidates and political action committees release required reports this week on their 2011 campaign fundraising and spending, a person most Minnesotans have never heard of will likely show up as a major Republican donor.

Robert Cummins and his family have given millions to conservative Minnesota candidates over the past 15 years. And to Republican insiders they are very well known.

Cummins, president of Plymouth-based Primera Technology, prefers to influence politics quietly and from behind the scenes. His family's contributions to conservative causes total $3.3 million since 1997, making him among the state's most generous Republican donors.

Cummins isn't the only Minnesotan who gives large sums to conservative candidates and organizations, and Democrats have their own go-to donors, including Alida Messinger, who has given millions to DFL candidates over the years.

This year, when every state House and Senate seat will be up for grabs, at least one constitutional amendment will be on the ballot, and President Barack Obama will be defending the White House, dollars from wealthy donors like Cummins will be more important than ever to candidates and the organizations that support them.

What sets Cummins apart from his deep-pocketed peers is his preference for a low profile and his focused attempts at influencing public policy.

Rep. Gil Gutknecht
Former Republican U.S. Rep. Gil Gutknecht represented Minnesota's 1st Congressional District. He received financial contributions for his congressional campaigns from GOP donor Robert Cummins.
MPR file photo

While he's given hundreds of thousands of dollars to organizations advancing a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, he's also launched political careers. And the Freedom Club -- a group he founded that gives exclusively to conservative candidates -- is credited with helping fund Republican victories in 2010.

The Freedom Club, whose director also runs a Cummins-owned political consultancy, recently waded into the debate over Gov. Mark Dayton's budget proposal and the elimination of some union rules.

Through his company's spokeswoman, Cummins declined to be interviewed by MPR News. But interviews with colleagues, friends, fellow donors and party activists describe a man who is kind, understated, deeply committed to fiscal conservatism, Catholic to the core, highly intelligent, and extremely private.

An engineer by training, Cummins is always tinkering with the status quo, say those who know him best. He opened a private school because he felt his children weren't getting a good education. He started Civis Communications two years ago to improve voter identification. And he founded the Freedom Club because he didn't always agree with how the Republican Party was spending donations.

There are few people who can talk with insight about Cummins to a reporter. But those who did all have a similar story to tell: He is deeply involved in any project he takes on, but he rarely wants credit for his successes.

"He has had not one, but two extremely successful companies," said former U.S. Rep. Gil Gutknecht, a Republican who represented Minnesota's 1st Congressional District. Gutknecht received more than $25,000 from Cummins and his wife between 1997 and 2006, when Gutknecht was defeated by DFL Rep. Tim Walz.

"In spite of that he is one of the most humble, Christian men I've ever met," Gutknecht said.

Bill Cooper
Bill Cooper, chairman of the board at TCF Financial, shown in a file photo from 2007. Cooper is a former chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party, and a longtime colleague of GOP contributor Robert Cummins.
MPR File Photo/Marissa Helms

One of the companies Cummins started is Fargo Electronics, which manufactures photo identification printers. Cummins founded it in 1974 when he was in his early 20s, and eventually sold it. In 1998, he started Primera Technology, which develops and manufactures machines that print and duplicate DVDs, Blu-ray discs and labels, among other things.

He lives in Deephaven with his wife, Joan, and their nine children.

But while Cummins originally got involved in politics because of his businesses, those who know him insist his main interest in politics and policy comes from his personal beliefs and values.

THE FREEDOM CLUB

By the mid-1990s, Cummins had grown "terribly frustrated" with Minnesota's Republican Party, said long-time fundraiser Midge Dean. He didn't think the establishment was supporting the right candidates or getting enough conservatives elected.

Out of that frustration grew the Freedom Club, a state and federal political action committee (PAC) that financially supports fiscally conservative candidates and causes.

"He wanted to get business executives together to give financial support to good candidates," said Dean, who organized the group in 1995 and served as its executive director until 2011.

Michele Bachmann
Michele Bachmann shown in February 2005 announcing her intention to run for Congress in the 6th District. Her political career was launched in part due to donations from the Freedom Club, which was founded by Robert Cummins.
MPR file photo/Laura McCallum

"In the beginning, it was because of Bob's interest and his large contributions that started the whole thing off," she said. "It took somebody like that to make other people feel like they should give."

At first, the Freedom Club's PAC included only a handful of local business owners, each giving between $500 and $5,000 a year.

Now, the Freedom Club includes some of the most well-known names in Minnesota's business community, including Starkey Hearing Foundation President Bill Austin, who donated $110,000 to the Freedom Club's state account in 2010, and Polaris CEO Scott Wine, who gave $10,000 the same year.

The group tends to back candidates who support low taxes, minimal regulation and frugal government spending.

The Freedom Club has launched political careers, said Bill Cooper, CEO of TCF Financial Corp., former chair of the state GOP, and long-time member of the Freedom Club.

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, who spoke to the group when she decided to run for the state Senate, is among them.

"Everybody really liked what she had to say and the way she said it and so forth, that the Freedom Club made a contribution to her and helped her along," Cooper said. "And that was really the first start for her."

Friends describe Cummins as kind, understated, deeply committed to fiscal conservatism, Catholic to the core, highly intelligent, and extremely private.

In 2010, the Freedom Club focused its efforts on the state House, spending roughly $294,000 on contributions to 29 new House candidates or on advertising against their opponents. Nineteen of the candidates the Freedom Club supported won their races, helping Republicans win the majority it needed to take control of the chamber.

House District 53A, which includes parts of Ramsey and Anoka counties, was one of the key battlegrounds for control of the Minnesota House and featured outside spending from both sides.

DFLer Paul Gardner represented the area until 2010, when he lost his race to Republican Linda Runbeck. Though Gardner said he doesn't think outside spending was the sole factor in his loss, advertising sponsored by groups Cummins supported played a role.

While it's hard to pinpoint how much of Cummins' money was directed to Gardner's race, it's clear that his large checks helped Republicans win control of the Legislature.

Of the $1.249 million Cummins and his wife gave in the 2009-2010 election cycle, most went to state House candidates or organizations working to elect those candidates. That included $215,000 to the House Republican Campaign Committee, $450,000 to the Republican Party of Minnesota's state account, and $295,000 to the Freedom Club state PAC.

Gardner said Cummins' wealth gives him outsize influence on the electoral process.

"The frustrating thing is that people can say that they're principled, but when you read the stuff that they're paying for, I don't think they would say that to somebody's face," Gardner said.

Cummins' contributions mirror those of the Freedom Club, and winning his support frequently means access to the group and its donors.

But Bill Cooper rejects the idea that the organization is a monolith. In addition to supporting fiscally conservative candidates, Cummins also gives money to officials who run on socially conservative values, such as limiting abortion and banning same-sex marriage.

"In many cases, the club supports people who aren't socially conservative as well," Cooper said. "It's kind of a marriage between economic conservatives and social conservatives and, like I said, some are both and some aren't."

GOP Party's Sutton
Tony Sutton resigned in December 2011 as chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota. Under his leadership the party established close ties with the Freedom Club and Civis Communications, both of which were founded by Robert Cummins.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

With the Minnesota Republican Party $2 million in debt, looser contribution laws stand to give donors like Cummins and organizations like the Freedom Club more influence.

"Since 2010, we've really seen these outside groups really overshadow traditional actors in politics, mainly candidates and political parties, where these groups really are the major players," said Mike Dean, director of government watchdog group Common Cause Minnesota. "And that's where you really see all the money flowing to right now."

Cooper argues that the Freedom Club has long operated outside the state's traditional party structure because it's in the business of endorsing specific candidates that meld with the group's platform, rather than supporting candidates who happen to be Republicans.

For his part, Cooper is more frustrated now with the state party than ever before.

"I have not been happy with the way that they have spent the money," Cooper said.

Gil Gutknecht said groups like the Freedom Club are far more helpful than the Republican Party of Minnesota because they have access to large sums of money that can be spent easily. During his campaigns the Freedom Club gave Gutknecht cash, but they also put up billboards and ran ads while the state GOP Party was asking the candidates for dollars, he said.

"It's a real simple word: they were much more helpful," Gutknecht said. "Whether they know it or not, they provided enormous intellectual firepower, ok? These are smart guys."

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE

Cummins doesn't limit his giving to candidates. He also gives to causes, including groups instrumental in advancing the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage that will be on the ballot this fall.

For instance, between 2004 and 2007, Cummins gave $280,000 to the Minnesota Citizens in Defense of Marriage federal fund. In 2006, the group -- which is now known as Minnesota Majority -- spent $45,664 on radio, television and print ads which was the group's largest expenditure that year, to defeat then-DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson.

Sen. Dean Johnson
DFL Senate leader Dean Johnson lost his bid for re-election in 2006 due in part to a campaign led by Minnesota Citizens in Defense of Marriage, which received tens of thousands of dollars in contributions from Robert Cummins.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

The ads went after Johnson for supporting a "radical homosexual agenda," and for blocking efforts to bring a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage to the chamber floor.

Between 2005 and 2006, Cummins also gave $128,130 to Minnesota for Marriage, a separate coalition in favor of the amendment.

Meanwhile, the Freedom Club has started conducting its own polling. In the 2010 elections, it conducted surveys for both the House Republicans' campaign committee and the Minnesota GOP Party.

In 2011, the group spent $130,000 on an ad criticizing Gov. Mark Dayton's budget. In the same year, the Freedom Club conducted two surveys that show voters would support Minnesota becoming a "right-to-work" state, meaning employees who don't want to be in a union would not be required to join or to pay fees to cover the cost of representation.

This session, both House and Senate lawmakers are pushing a constitutional amendment that would prohibit union membership or payment of dues as a condition of employment.

But Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, who sponsored legislation to put a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage on the ballot this fall, downplayed Cummins' influence on legislation.

"Out of five million people in the state of Minnesota, one person -- regardless of what they can offer as far as donations or support of some sort -- he's limited by the same amount of cash limits as any other citizen in the state of Minnesota" to an individual candidate, he said.

CIVIS COMMUNICATIONS

Cummins' latest business venture, political consulting firm Civis Communications, overlaps with his political interests and political allies.

Former state Republican Party Chairman Tony Sutton says Cummins introduced him to Civis' Executive Director Mike Scholl in a meeting with Cummins in 2009. The same year, the party hired Civis to improve voter identification, a painstaking process that's usually done by going door to door with a pen and paper and entering voter information into a database by hand, Sutton said.

The GOP paid Civis nearly $40,000 to rent Blackberry cellphones that could upload voter information automatically to a central database. Under Sutton's tenure, Civis earned an additional $42,500 for general political consulting.

Civis has ties to the Freedom Club as well. Since 2011, Scholl has served as the club's executive director. Between 2008 and 2010, the Freedom Club state PAC paid Civis $158,318 for voter identification efforts, polling and computer services, according to state campaign finance reports.

CATHOLIC SCHOOL

One of Cummins' largest financial gifts has nothing to do with politics. In 2001, he donated most of the $20 million needed to found Providence Academy in Plymouth, Minn. He remains chairman of the school's board.

The K-12 Catholic school's educational mission and architectural plan were largely Cummins' ideas, said headmaster Dr. Todd Flanders. He even designed the child-sized desks that dot one of the institution's tidy kindergarten classrooms.

"I think he was looking for a traditional look and feel, an ergonomically beneficial slope and hinges that don't crush little kids' pinkies," he said.

Flanders said the move is classic Cummins. "When I say the man is entrepreneurial and hands-on and kind of a genius, I mean it," Flanders said.

Opening Providence represents the culmination of Cummins' educational and religious beliefs, said Flanders. Students are immersed in all aspects of learning -- the school even has a small art and artifact gallery that includes an Egyptian mummy -- within the context of faith.

Flanders believes it's Cummins' Catholicism that inspires his generosity.

"I believe that he thinks that from those to whom much has been given, much will be expected," Flanders said. "I think he's very moved by the teachings of Jesus, that he needs to give and give back."

Cummins approaches political donations similarly. He gives cash to candidates and causes because he believes his dollars can make the world better, said Bill Cooper.

"He has both a social and political philosophy that he has really spent a lot of time and his fortune on, and has never asked for anything back," said Cooper, who was also one of the founding members of Providence Academy. "He's not asking for tax breaks for his business or any crony capitalism or any of this kind of business."

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