David Koch, Billionaire Industrialist and Conservative Activist, Dies at 79

Koch oversaw the family’s Kansas-based, multinational corporation Koch Industries with older brother, Charles

David Koch at the groundbreaking for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's David H. Koch Plaza
Astrid Stawiarz / Getty Images

David H. Koch, the billionaire industrialist and philanthropist whose family empire has wielded significant political influence in conservative circles, has died after a long battle with prostate cancer. He was 79.

“It is with a heavy heart that I announce the passing of my brother David,” his older brother, Charles Koch, said in a statement on Friday. “Anyone who worked with David surely experienced his giant personality and passion for life. Twenty-seven years ago, 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. We can all be grateful that it did, because he was able to touch so many more lives as a result.”

David Koch accumulated much of his wealth through the fossil-fuel industry. Along with his older brother, David oversaw the family’s Kansas-based, multinational corporation Koch Industries, which is primarily made up of subsidiaries that manufacture oil, petroleum, natural gas, and other fossil fuels. It is the second-largest privately owned company in the U.S., just behind Minnesota’s agricultural company Cargill.

David joined Koch Industries in 1970 and, in 1979, became president of the Koch Engineering subsidiary. During that time, he and Charles — commonly referred to as the “Koch brothers” — became the co-owners of Koch Industries in 1983. David served as the executive vice president up until last year, when he retired from the company and all other Koch-related businesses due to health issues.

The Koch brothers have been the subject of many critical biographies and reporting for their conservative political influence. Most recently, a new book by the reporter Christopher Leonard, “Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America,” delves into how the brothers helped to block government action on climate-change policies that would impact profits for their corporation’s fossil-fuel manufacturing.

The industrialist’s political inclinations were made clear in 1980, when David had an unsuccessful bid for the vice presidency as a Libertarian, running alongside the presidential candidate Ed Clark. (Though conservative on most issues, he took a more libertarian stance on social issues, supporting abortion rights and same-sex marriage.) Four years later, after the Libertarian party proposed eliminating all taxes, Koch became a Republican and would go on to financially support numerous conservative and libertarian campaigns and causes — actions that were often seen as antagonistic to the Obama administration, according to the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer.

“The brothers have funded opposition campaigns against so many Obama Administration policies — from health-care reform to the economic-stimulus program — that, in political circles, their ideological network is known as the Kochtopus,” Mayer wrote in 2010.

The brothers’ political action committee, KochPAC, has been key in funding numerous Republican campaigns. As of 2010, the PAC donated more than $8 million — the largest contribution from an energy company at that time — to political campaigns, 80 percent of which went to Republicans. And while the brothers publicly opposed Donald Trump’s candidacy during the 2016 presidential race, extensive reporting has shown just how well the Kochs — and their conservative advocacy groups — have been able to again influence governmental policies under the Trump administration, including the repeal of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan and the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement.

David’s influence also extended into the media world, where he served as a trustee to the broadcast stations WNET and WGBH. Around 2013, the two brothers considered purchasing daily newspapers under the Tribune Media Company — which would include the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune — according to a report by Mayer. That same year, a documentary entitled “Citizen Koch,” which analyzed how billionaires like the Kochs could influence elections and public policy following a seminal Supreme Court ruling, lost its funding from a PBS distributor over fear about how the brothers would respond, Mayer also reported. (The documentary ultimately was completed following a Kickstarter fundraiser and went on to nab a best documentary nomination at the Oscars.)

Outside of politics, David leveraged his tremendous wealth as a philanthropist. He launched the David H. Koch Charitable Foundation in the 1980s. Gifts include a $100 million grant to renovate Lincoln Center’s New York State Theater (now named the David H. Koch Theater), $20 million to New York City’s Natural History Museum for the David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing, $20 million to Johns Hopkins University for a cancer research building, and $150 million to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

David is survived by his wife, Julia, and their three children.

Lindsey Ellefson contributed to this report.