David H. Koch, who amassed a multibillion-dollar fortune with his brother Charles from the corporate behemoth they ran and then joined him in pouring their riches into a powerful right-wing libertarian movement that helped reshape American politics, has died. He was 79.
Charles G. Koch announced the death in a statement, which provided no other details but noted that David Koch had been treated for prostate cancer in the past. “Twenty-seven years ago,” the statement said, “David was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer and given a grim prognosis of a few years to live. David liked to say that a combination of brilliant doctors, state of the art medications, and his own stubbornness kept the cancer at bay.”
Hitching his star to the soaring ambitions of Charles, his older brother, David Koch (pronounced coke) became one of the world’s richest people, with assets of $42.2 billion in 2019 and a 42 percent stake in the global family enterprise, Koch Industries. He also became a nationally known philanthropist and the early public face of the Koch political ascendancy, as the Libertarian Party’s candidate for vice president in 1980.
Three decades after David Koch’s public steps into politics, analysts say, the Koch brothers’ money-fueled brand of libertarianism helped give rise to the tea party movement and strengthened the far-right wing of a resurgent Republican Party.
He was a familiar figure at society galas, a 6-foot-5 former college basketball star who long held the single-game scoring record — 41 points — for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology team, the Engineers.
He had both bad experiences and good luck. He survived a 1991 plane crash that killed 34 people at Los Angeles International Airport. He broke down in tears on a witness stand in Kansas during a civil trial that nearly tore his family apart over money. And for years, he and Charles faced, and denied, accusations of having exploited libertarian principles for self-serving purposes.
They insisted that they adhered to a traditional belief in the liberty of the individual, and in free trade, free markets and freedom from what they called government “intrusions,” including taxes, military drafts, compulsory education, business regulations, welfare programs, and laws that criminalized homosexuality, prostitution, and drug use.
Since the 1970s, the Kochs have spent at least $100 million — some estimates put it at much more — to transform a fringe movement into a formidable political force aimed at moving America to the far right by influencing the outcome of elections, undoing limits on campaign contributions, and promoting conservative candidacies, think tanks, and policies.
By early 2017, Charles and David Koch, with a combined net worth of more than $100 billion, had become the leaders of a libertarian juggernaut loosely allied with the Republican Party, which, after eight years in the wings, again controlled the White House, both houses of Congress, and many state legislatures.
Under the administration of Donald Trump, the Koch brothers’ prospects in Washington seemed improved, at least superficially. But beneath the surface lay substantive political and personal differences between the Kochs and Trump.
As the 2018 congressional elections approached, the Kochs’ frustrations with Trump broke into an ugly and open exchange between Charles Koch and the president. Charles denounced Trump’s restrictive trade and immigration policies as divisive, and threatened to withhold the family’s support for Republican candidates who opposed the free-trade, government-shrinking policies at the heart of the Koch political philosophy.
Critics accused the Kochs of buying influence and using their political machine to manipulate elections and government policies under a guise of patriotism and freedom. Those efforts, critics said, cloaked an agenda to cut taxes and federal regulations governing business, the environment and other interests, primarily to benefit the Koch family and its enterprises.
Koch money also funded initiatives to undercut climate science and to counter efforts to address climate change.
Although the brothers portrayed themselves as equal partners promoting libertarian ideas, Charles was the major decision-maker, just as he was the dominant voice in Koch enterprises, according to Daniel Schulman’s 2014 biography, “Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty.”
David Hamilton Koch was born in Wichita on May 3, 1940, the third of four sons of Fred Chase Koch, an oil engineer and entrepreneur, and the former Mary Clementine Robinson, a Wellesley College graduate and the daughter of a Kansas City physician.
David and his brothers — Frederick, seven years older; Charles, five years older; and David’s twin, William — grew up in Wichita under the discipline of an emotionally distant father, who taught them to fight and compete with one another.
David graduated from the exclusive Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and studied chemical engineering at MIT, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1962 and a master’s in 1963. He worked for engineering firms in Cambridge, Mass., and New York City before joining the family company in 1970 as a technical services manager. But he did not settle in Wichita, as Charles had.
Instead, he founded a Koch Industries office in New York City, where he had already put down roots. He was known as a playboy whose penthouse parties were attended by models. In 1979, he was named president of his own division, Koch Engineering, which later morphed into Koch Chemical Technology Group. He became executive vice president of the parent company in 1981.
He learned he had prostate cancer in 1992. He had surgery and radiation and hormone treatments that kept the disease in check for decades. All his brothers had prostate cancer and were said to have been cured.
Mr. Koch stepped away from his political and business interests in June 2018. In a letter to employees of Koch Industries announcing his brother’s retirement, Charles Koch said that David’s deteriorating health had made it impossible for him to continue working. The letter did not disclose the nature of his illness.
A bachelor until he was 56, Mr. Koch married Julia Flesher, a former Adolfo fashion assistant, in 1996. They had three children: David Jr., Mary Julia and John Mark. He leaves all of them.