Know Your Right Wingers
The Dark Side of Coors Light
SOURCE: August Pollak
Coors Light may be the official beer sponsor of the National Football League at this year’s Super Bowl, but for years it has been the unofficial sponsor of right-wing causes across America. The company has a shady past, from the owners offering grants to rightwing organizations to policies of screening potential employees for communist sympathies. Lately Coors has been trying to make up for its checkered past, but it’s time for a trip down memory lane.
The Coors Brewing Company was founded in 1873 in Colorado and produces American favorites like Coors, Coors Light, Blue Moon, Killian’s Irish Red, and several refined Keystone varieties. Coors merged with Canadian brewer Molson in 2005, in hopes that both companies could boost their sales in the United States and Canada. In 2007, Molson Coors merged again, this time with beer behemoth SABMiller’s operations in the United States and Puerto Rico. Today, Coors Brewing Company is the third largest brewer in America.
Coors’ works hard to maintain a pearly, progressive sheen to hide its deep, conservative pockets. It was one of the first corporations in America to offer same-sex partner benefits, and it makes corporate donations to a variety of African American, Asian American and Hispanic organizations. This makeover, however, does not obscure Coors’s union-busting, minority-hating past. In addition to unleashing Zima on the world, the company grappled with a crippling boycott of its products after the union at the company’s flagship facility in Colorado went on strike and was subsequently broken by the company. As then-president of Adolph Coors Co. Jeff Coors said in a Los Angeles Times article agreeing to union demands is like “inviting the Russians in to take over America.” Until 1986, prospective Coors employees were sometimes required to take lie detector tests, answering questions about their sexual orientation, communist leanings, and how often they changed their underwear. (Yeah, really.) Hardly best business practices.
While the corporation itself doesn’t directly fund the massive right-wing infrastructure, Coors family members make donations with their beer-fed fortunes. The Adolph Coors Foundation, named for the brewery’s founding patriarch, was established in 1975 to help divvy up the family riches. Since some assets in that family trust can only be used within Colorado, Adolph Coors Foundation board members set up a new organization in 1994 that could spend unrestricted assets across the country. Through the Castle Rock Foundation, otherwise unspecified Coors family funds are used to finance national conservative organizations like Independent Women’s Forum and Young America’s Foundation.
The Coors family tree reads like a who’s who of conservative philanthropy—nearly all the men in the family work for the company, and nearly all share the same right-wing ideology. Adolph Coors, the founder of Coors Brewing Company, passed it down to his grandsons, brothers Joseph and William Coors. Joseph’s five sons—Joe Jr., Pete, Jeff, Grover, and John—all work in the Coors empire, and all of them are self-described born-again Christian fundamentalists. William’s son Scott also works for the family business.
In both the extremity of his conservatism and high levels of funding for conservative organizations, Joseph Coors set a precedent for the family. William affectionately called him “a little bit right of Attila the Hun.” Joseph was an active member on Reagan’s kitchen cabinet, funding the Gipper’s campaigns and providing him with unofficial counsel. Joseph gave right-wing godfather Paul Weyrich the founding grant for the Heritage Foundation, paving the way for decades of research, spin, and messaging by the country’s preeminent conservative think tank. And because one conservative think tank is never enough, Joe also gave a founding grant to Weyrich’s Free Congress Foundation, which on its Web site asks the eternal question of our generation: “Will America return to the culture that made it great, our traditional, Judeo-Christian, Western culture?” If not, the organization asserts, the United States will become “no less than a third world country.”
Joseph Coors also funded the Council for National Policy, a secretive enclave in which influential conservatives discuss the future of conservatism in the United States. Several members of the Coors family regularly attend CNP’s meetings, rubbing elbows with the likes of Jerry Falwell and Phyllis Schlafly. He donated an airplane worth $65,000 to the Nicaraguan Contras. In fact, it’s hard to avoid Coors money in the conservative movement: The foundation funds the John Birch Society, the Landmark Legal Foundation (aka the Ronald Reagan Legal Center), and Pat Robertson’s Regent University, among many others. Despite his legacy of supporting socially conservative causes, Joseph had a fairly public mistress throughout the late 1980s—an indiscretion that eventually led him and his wife to separate, according to his son Jeff Coors. So much for family values.
Though it didn’t bring familial bliss, Joseph’s conservative political advocacy inspired his son Pete Coors to join the fight. In 2004, Pete ran for an open U.S. Senate seat in Colorado against state attorney general Ken Salazar, whose popularity and progressive politics contrasted sharply with Coors family history. During the campaign, he battled the Coors’ family’s ultra-conservative legacy almost as much as his Democratic opponent, and tried to slap the same friendly face on his candidacy that the brewing company used to repair its image decades before. While his family and its various foundations continued to pour money into, for instance, litigation against environmental regulation, Pete tried to sell himself as a conservationist, leveraging his former presidency of Ducks Unlimited. Ultimately, Colorado voters didn’t buy Pete’s Coors Light image, and he lost the race. After election Salazar refused to support Bush’s proposed federal ban on gay marriage, and even became the target of one of Dr. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family ads that asked, “Why doesn’t Senator Salazar believe every child needs a mother and a father?”
But Joseph and Pete aren’t the only family members getting in on the game. Joseph’s brother William infamously told a group of minority business leaders that the best thing slave traders did was “to drag your ancestors here in chains,” as recorded in a 1985 New York Times article. Not incendiary enough? He went on to note that Africans “lack the intellectual capacity to succeed.” He went on to sue the Rocky Mountain News for publishing his remarks, claiming they were taken out of context. In a later interview, though, he clarified his position, remarking that slaves came out on top by being brought to America—after all, he said in a 1988 Los Angeles Times article, “you don’t see Jesse Jackson, or any of these other blacks, making any mass exodus back to Africa, do you?” The company donated upwards of $750 million to African American and Latino groups after William’s tirade—so it’s no wonder he got shunted from the company to the Castle Rock Foundation shortly thereafter.
William’s son Scott is in on the act, too. He did a stint as Coors Brewing Company’s ambassador to gay consumers, traveling across the country shaking hands and donating to GLBTQ nonprofits. Does Scott see any conflict between him family’s socially conservative legacy and the equal rights organizations he visits? Apparently not: His father told him that if any of the organizations Coors’ foundations support “are blatantly contrary to the rights of gay and lesbian people, I want to know about it, I will investigate it and put a stop to it.” Such an effort would probably require shutting down major portions of the Heritage Foundation—not to mention the rest of the right-wing organizations sponsored by Coors—but it doesn’t seem that William’s made much progress in that area.
So when cracking open a cold one, remember to toast the things that make the Coors family great: union-busting, lie-detecting, Heritage-funding, double-talking and, of course, its beer.
Annika Carlson is Special Assistant to the Director of Campus Progress.