Diane Hendricks is not one of America’s better-known billionaires. But she is, according to Forbes, the richest self-made woman in the country, with a fortune estimated at around $7.2 billion. Her wealth swamps that of better-known billionaires like eBay veteran Meg Whitman, Oprah Winfrey, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Kylie Jenner.
Hendricks founded and grew the ABC Supply wholesaling company (which sells roofing, siding, windows, and gutters) with her husband, Ken, who died in 2007. In recent years, though, she’s focused on philanthropy, particularly on causes in her adopted hometown of Beloit, Wisconsin, a small postindustrial city near the border with Illinois.
She funded an international film festival for the town; a performing arts center where the library used to be; modern apartments near high-end burger and sushi restaurants; and a start-up hub in the industrial foundry that used to employ much of the town. As Alexandra Stevenson, a New York Times reporter who profiled Hendricks, puts it, it can seem at times like she’s “playing SimCity.”
It’s a contribution that, on the service, appears to be making a tremendous difference for the people of Beloit. But as we explain on the latest episode of Future Perfect, season two, Hendricks has another favorite recipient of donations: the Republican Party.
She has been one of Scott Walker’s most enthusiastic backers and funders, both in his gubernatorial campaigns and his ill-fated presidential run. A documentarian caught her on tape encouraging Walker to crack down on labor unions in the state, a few weeks before he would do just that.
Obviously, whether you think keeping Walker in office was a good thing or not will depend on your politics. But it certainly weakened labor unions in the state. In 2011, 50.3 percent of Wisconsin public sector workers were in a union. By 2018, only 24.4 percent were — a direct consequence of the myriad anti-union bills that Walker pushed through. Given evidence that public sector unions reduce wage inequality by compressing the wage sale and pushing low-paid workers up, that could have major economic consequences for Wisconsin.
Walker also fought efforts to expand Medicaid in the state after the Affordable Care Act’s passage; about 82,000 more people would have coverage in the state if that measure had taken effect.
We talk to Stevenson and to Mary Bottari, a muckraker at the Center for Media and Democracy who has investigated Hendricks’s political donations, about how Hendricks has changed the state of Wisconsin, and whether the good she’s done for Beloit can ever make up for the harm (especially from the perspective of labor unions and their supporters) her political giving has done to the state’s workers.
- Brad Lichtenstein spends a fair amount of time with Diane Hendricks in his documentary As Goes Janesville
- Alexandra Stevenson’s profile of Diane Hendricks
- Hendricks’s donations in the 2018 elections
- Mary Bottari on the Bradley Foundation and public sector unions
- The announcement that Hendricks joined Trump’s economic advisory council
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