The Businesspeople Who Have Helped Enable Steve King’s Rise

As the congressman hobnobbed with white nationalists and Europe's far right, the founders and key members of companies and organizations including Blue Bunny, Casey's General Store, Brownells, Wild Rose Casino & Resort, and the Iowa State University Foundation funded his re-election bids.

Clockwise from top left: Tim Vrtiska/Flickr, Brownells, Inc./YouTube, Iowa State University Foundation/YouTube, iScreamTeam/YouTube; center: King for Congress/Facebook

Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a series on Steve King’s top individual donors. Read Part 2 here. This article has been revised to correct some of the contribution totals after we discovered duplicate records listed in our database of the congressman’s PAC contributions.

In December 2017, we profiled prominent members of the Ames Chamber of Commerce who, collectively, had contributed more than $25,000 to Steve King’s congressional re-election campaigns. The article became one of our most-read of 2018.

But it wasn’t until about that fall, following King’s endorsement of white nationalist Faith Goldy for Toronto mayor and his interview with a far-right Austrian publication associated with neo-Nazi sympathizers during a Holocaust memorial trip, when his donors began drawing attention nationwide.

Related article: Ames Chamber Members Have Given Over $25,000 to Steve King

A social media campaign targeting King’s corporate donors was aggressively backed by progressive journalist Judd Legum, who helped to keep a running tally of those who dropped their support for the congressman as a result (AT&T, Black Hills Energy, The Internet & Television Association, Intel, Land O’Lakes, Purina, Smithfield Foods) and those that didn’t (the American Bankers Association, the American Crystal Sugar Co., the National Beer Wholesalers Association, Koch Industries, Tyson Foods). A spokesperson for Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway issued a statement saying the company “has not made any donations to Rep. King since 2017 and any future donations will be carefully evaluated in light of current events.”

Still, most of King’s biggest individual donors — including deep-pocketed businesspeople in Iowa and across the country who contributed to his campaign dozens of times in 2018 alone — went unnoticed throughout the election. Here’s a look at the most generous among them and what they gave to his campaign committee and Conservative Principles leadership PAC, according to an Informer analysis of campaign finance records from the Federal Election Commission and Center for Responsive Politics.

Michael and Margie Bennett of Jefferson, South Dakota
Total since Sept. 26, 2002: $51,350
Last donated: Sept. 20, 2018

Michael Bennett. Photo via Forbes

The Bennetts used to live in Sioux City, where Mike was CEO of local fertilizer company Terra Industries Inc. from 2001 until its $4.7 billion acquisition by Illinois-based CF Industries in 2010. In 2003, he joined Alliant Energy’s board of directors, a position he stepped down from in March shortly before he was named chairman of Oklahoma-based SandRidge Energy Inc., a natural gas exploration company. Bennett also sits on the boards of Dutch fertilizer company OCI NV and Sioux City’s Morningside College, where he graduated from in 1975.

Bruce and Barbara Baumgarn of Grimes
Total since Oct. 4, 2002: $49,700
Last donated: Jan. 31, 2018

Bruce Baumgarn. Photo via Platinum Group

Bruce Baumgarn is a management consultant with the Minnetonka, Minnesota-based Platinum Management LLC, which assists with corporate turnarounds. He previously owned the Des Moines-based mail distribution company Mail Services LLC and was a senior vice president at MABSCO Capital Inc., an investment management firm in West Des Moines. The couple’s other political donations include $8,050 to Donald Trump, whom they supported in the 2016 presidential primary, and $3,000 to King ally and former Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann in 2010.

Frank Brownell of Montezuma
Total since April 8, 2007: $40,100
Last donated: Oct. 29, 2018

Frank Brownell. Photo via Brownells

Frank R. Brownell III is a member of the Montezuma City Council and chairman of the board of Grinnell gun parts manufacturer Brownells Inc., where he previously served as CEO. He started working for the family business as a copywriter in its catalog department after receiving a degree in advertising from the University of Iowa’s journalism school in 1961. On the board, he orchestrated the rise of his son, Pete Brownell, to president and later CEO of Brownells.

Pete, who abruptly stepped down as president of the National Rifle Association in May amid an FBI probe into the organization’s ties to Russia, has given King another $22,100, most recently in March 2016. Other King donors with gun industry ties include Lance Olson, a retired police detective from Marengo who’s on the NRA’s board of directors and has given the congressman $7,900; and Kayne Robinson, a former Des Moines deputy police chief who served as NRA president from 2003 to 2005 and has given $7,400.

Mike and Cheryl Wells of Le Mars
Total since Oct. 1, 2002: $39,150
Last donated: March 31, 2016

Michael Wells. Photo via Wells Enterprises

Mike Wells is the president and CEO of Wells Enterprises Inc., best known for producing Blue Bunny ice cream. Other members of the Wells family, who also live in Le Mars, have given King an additional $8,800 for a total of $47,950 between them all. Blue Bunny’s support for King is relatively well-known and has led to boycott campaigns including one from the League of United Latin American Citizens in early 2017. In October, after Vermont ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s announced its new Joltin’ Scholten’s Grand Slam Homer ice cream in support of King’s opponent J.D. Scholten, a former pro baseball player, the congressman tweeted: “No way does Ben & Jerry’s ice cream beat Wells Blue Bunny, (maybe in Bernie Sanders’ Vermont) but NEVER in OUR Iowa. Sweet Freedom makes Bunny Tracks all over JD’s B&J’s.”

The Metz Family of Sioux City and Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Total since Oct. 8, 2010: $38,400
Last donated: June 22, 2018

Eleanore Metz. Obituary photo

The campaign finance records on the Metzes, heirs to the Metz Baking Co. founded in Sioux City, are not particularly clear. A William C. Metz — the name of the company’s former president and CEO, who took it over from his father and died in 2001 — has given King $18,200 from Oct. 2010 to June 2018 (it is possible for dead people to donate to federal candidates, although Metz’s occupation is listed as “retired” rather than “deceased”). The address listed on the donations matches a property owned by a trust of William H. Metz, William C.’s son, who lives with his wife Nancy in Dakota Dunes, South Dakota. Nancy has given King $17,700 from both addresses, most recently in November. William C.’s wife Eleanore, who died in 2013, gave King a single donation of $2,500 the year prior. Her occupation was listed as president of the Metz Charitable Foundation.

William C. Metz began working for his father’s baking company at 12 and went on to become a leading member of several Sioux City business organizations. He was also appointed by Gov. Terry Branstad to the state’s economic development board in 1991. Metz Baking Co. was eventually acquired by Netherlands-based Beledia NV, which turned around and sold it as part of a $1.1 billion deal to Specialty Foods Corp. of Dallas in 1993. Six years later, St. Louis-based Earthgrains bought the company for $625 million.

Ron and Arlene Holden of Williamsburg
Total since Oct. 30, 2006: $37,300
Last donated: May 21, 2014

Arlene and Ron Holden. Photo via University of Iowa Center for Advancement

Ron Holden took over the family business, the independent corn seed producer Holden’s Foundation Seeds Inc., from his father in 1971 and ran it until it was sold to Monsanto in 1997 as part of a $1.02 billion deal. Throughout much of Holden’s time there, the company was engaged in a trade secrets dispute over hybrid seeds dating back to the ‘70s that resulted in a $46.7 million judgement for rival Pioneer in 1992. The Holdens are philanthropists who funded part of a $25 million gift for the University of Iowa to establish the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center in 2000 and the next year financed Williamsburg’s $3.6 million aquatic center.

Gary and Joan Kirke of West Des Moines
Total since July 31, 2003: $33,900
Last donated: June 25, 2017

Gary Kirke. Photo via Wild Rose Casino & Resort

Gary Kirke is the chairman of Wild Rose Entertainment LLC, which owns casinos in Clinton, Emmetsburg, and Jefferson and made news in June after the Associated Press reported that Kirke gave Kim Reynolds a tour of the state on his private airplane just two days after she became governor and while the company was seeking a state license for a casino in Cedar Rapids. Kirke co-founded Wild Rose in 2004 with now-Iowa Board of Regents President Michael Richards, who has given King $8,800. The two men also manage Kirke Financial Services LLC, a West Des Moines investment company.

In the ‘70s, Kirke co-founded a West Des Moines-based insurance administration company with Bill Van Orsdel called Kirke-Van Orsdel Inc., which they sold to Marsh & McLennan Cos. and Automated Data Processing Inc. for an undisclosed amount in 1998. Five years later, the two became majority stakeholders in West Des Moines’ once troubled West Glen Town Center.

Gary’s wife Joan was fond of purchasing antiques on the couple’s travels. She died in 2009 and her collection was put up for sale by the family in 2016.

Richard and Joan Stark of Fort Dodge
Total since Sept. 30, 2011: $31,800
Last donated: Dec. 29, 2017

Richard and Joan Stark. Photo via Iowa State University Foundation

The Starks are members of the Iowa State University Foundation who served as vice co-chairs for a $500 million fundraising drive called Campaign Destiny: To Become the Best under the tenure of Martin Jischke, who was ISU’s president from 1991 to 2000. Richard also serves on the foundation’s governing investment committee. He runs Iowa Commodities Ltd., an investment company he founded in 1979, and has served as chairman of First American Bank since 1986, both in Fort Dodge. (The Starks also own a $6.7 million home in Boca Raton, Florida.) He credits as an inspiration having met the late George Stigler, a leader of the free market-focused Chicago School of Economics who taught at Iowa State College in the 1930s.

As the Informer previously reported, Roger Underwood, an Ames agribusiness magnate on the ISU Foundation’s board of directors, and his wife Connie have also given King a total of $21,700 from 2006 to 2014.

(Update: The subhead of this article initially referred to the “heads and founders of companies and organizations” including the ISU Foundation, a reference to Underwood’s role on the board of directors. Karen Simon, a spokesperson for the foundation, requested a correction, calling the statement “absolutely false” because the organization “supports the work of Iowa State” and “does not fund political campaigns” — something we never claimed — and referring to the Starks and Underwood as “a couple of donors.” After a back-and-forth, we agreed to change the language. Simon argued that calling Underwood a head “implies that he is the leader. He is one of 17 volunteer board members. Not chair of the board, as this implies.” Regardless, Underwood is far from just another donor. He chaired the foundation’s $867 million “Campaign Iowa State: With Pride and Purpose” fundraising campaign, co-chaired the presidential search committee that recruited Steven Leath — who later purchased a $2.9 million airplane through the foundation in an apparent effort to skirt transparency and approval requirements from the state Board of Regents — and along with his wife gave ISU $1.6 million to found the Koch-funded Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative in 2005. The Informer stands by our reporting.)

Jon and Nanette Winkel of Sergeant Bluff
Total since June 3, 2008: $31,400
Last donated: August 22, 2016

Dirk Jon Winkel is the former vice chairman and CEO of Long Lines LLC, a Siouxland telecommunications company that he retired from in 2013. That same year, Winkel launched a successful write-in bid to become mayor of Sergeant Bluff, an office he continues to hold. Long Lines sold its wireless division to AT&T in 2013 and the rest of the company was acquired by Schurz Communications Inc., an Indiana-based newspaper and broadband company, in 2015.

Jon Winkel, mayor of Sergent Bluff, taking the oath of office. Photo via City of Sergent Bluff

Denny and Candy Elwell of Ankeny
Total since Nov. 27, 2007: $25,700
Last donated: Aug. 24, 2012

Denny Elwell. Photo via Denny Elwell Co.

Denny Elwell is an Ankeny real estate magnate who was an early backer of then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s ill-fated 2016 presidential campaign. He started out as a butcher at his family’s grocery store, then launched six retail automotive stores in Ames and Des Moines before later focusing on just one, now called Dee Zee Inc., which he sold in 1987 to the Ohio-based holding company Lancaster Colony Corp.

Elwell then founded the commercial real estate company Denny Elwell Co., where he lists among his accomplishments helping Casey’s General Store establish its corporate headquarters in Ankeny.

One of the most recognizable businesses in Iowa, Casey’s is famous for its breakfast pizza thanks in part to Mila Kunis, an actress (and Democrat) married to Iowa native Ashton Kutcher, who called it “delicious” during a 2015 Q and A on the internet forum Reddit. Casey’s founder Don Lamberti, along with his wife Charlene, has given King $26,300, including two $2,700 donations in January and August 2018. The couple’s son, former state Sen. Jeff Lamberti, gave King $3,500 from 2007 to 2014.

Although the Elwells haven’t donated to King since 2012, they have remained supporters of the congressman since then. In 2014, after Denny Elwell Co. purchased the former Dahl’s Foods building in north Ames that was later demolished for a new Walmart, a large King for Congress sign was displayed on the property.

Stay tuned…

Related article: Louis Klemp, Kansas Official Who Resigned After “Master Race” Remark, Is a Steve King Donor

The names listed above are among King’s largest individual donors but just a sampling of the many businesspeople who have supported Iowa’s notorious far-right congressman over the years. In the months ahead, the Informer will profile more of them.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.