Barre Seid is the former owner and president of Tripp Lite, an Illinois-based manufacturer of surge protectors and computing equipment. Since the 1980s, Seid has used his personal wealth to fund a number of conservative and libertarian causes, including right-wing think tanks, school choice groups, and neoliberal economic institutes. Major beneficiaries of Seid’s largesse have included:
Although a secretive personality for much of his life, Seid’s prominence among right-wing donors came to light in August 2022 when The New York Times reported that he had donated his company Tripp Lite to Marble Freedom Trust, a Utah-based organization founded by the conservative activist Leonard Leo. Through a series of complex transactions, the contribution and eventual sale of Tripp Lite resulted in a $1.6 billion-dollar windfall for Leo and his network of right-wing dark money groups, helping Seid avoid as much as $400 million in capital gains taxes. According to the Times, Seid’s contribution was “among the largest — if not the largest — single contributions ever made to a politically focused nonprofit.”
Born in 1932 in Chicago to Russian Jewish immigrants, Barre Seid grew up among the working class population on the city’s industrial South Side. A precocious child, Seid entered the University of Chicago in 1946 as part of a special bachelor’s degree program that admitted students following their sophomore year of high school. That same year, the neoclassical economist Milton Friedman accepted a job at the university to teach economic theory, a move that would eventually give rise to the Chicago school of economics and the conservative economic theories that Seid would espouse for the rest of his life.
Following the completion of this two-year program, Seid joined the Army, according to testimony he gave in a court case years later. He would later pursue additional post-secondary studies at the University of Colorado and the Wharton School of Business.
In 1959, as he neared thirty, Seid obtained a job as an assistant to the investor and businessman, Graham Trippe, whose company Trippe Manufacturing produced headlights and revolving safety warning lights. Seid quickly rose through the ranks, becoming a general manager and then president of the company by the mid-1960s. Seid also became the sole owner of Tripp Manufacturing, which was later renamed Tripp Lite.
From the sixties onward, the company grew as a result of computing’s increasing popularity and began manufacturing electronics and other electrical equipment. By the mid-1990s, Seid was raking in around $30 million a year, according to the investigative news organization ProPublica.
In the mid-1970s, Seid also became the president of Yates Manufacturing Co., a Chicago-based, closely-held company that produced “specialty wax blends for the foundry industry.” In 1985, Seid sold the company to Britain-based Burmah Oil PLC for $6.9 million.
Barre Seid has personally donated more than a quarter million dollars to Republican or GOP-aligned federal political action committees since the creation of the Federal Elections Commission in 1974. Famously a secretive man, Seid did not publicly enter the political fray until the late 1980s when he underwrote two right-wing campaigns within Illinois politics and beyond.
In 1988, the Illinois-based United Republican Fund, a conservative group led by the libertarian activist Steven Baer, launched a campaign to target state legislative races in the hope of influencing constitutionally mandated congressional redistricting in 1991. Called the Republican Conquest ‘88, the effort was underwritten by Barre Seid and aimed to contribute $260,500 tor get-out-the-vote initiatives in 68 races in 11 states, including California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Seid and Baer’s campaign was “reviled” by GOP leaders for its willingness to challenge moderate Republican candidates.
By August 1989, Seid had contributed nearly half a million dollars to the organization, which Baer told the Tribune was mostly spent on campaigns outside of Illinois.
In 1994, the United Republican Fund was the subject of an FEC audit after the group “failed to meet…requirements for substantial compliance” with campaign-reporting laws in 1991 and 1992. The commission was particularly concerned with “inconsistent campaign statements and little-known bank accounts” that Baer had used before leaving the organization in the early 1990s.
The FEC published its final audit report in May 1996. Within it, the commission identified a number of misstatements and impermissible payments made by the United Republican Fund during 1991 and 1992. The FEC also found that the group had improperly reported some debts and obligations and lacked the required supporting documentation for thousands of dollars in contributions. In spite of this impropriety, the commission noted in its report that the fund (then under new leadership) had taken the appropriate steps to rectify the identified issues and was now in compliance with the law.
In 1994, the same year the FEC initiated its audit of the United Republican Fund, Steven Baer founded a new political party committee called the Term Limits & Tax Limits Party in Illinois. As with the fund, Seid became a major contributor to Baer’s third party. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that Seid had contributed $715,997 to the new political party. His donation represented more than 63 percent of the party’s $1.1 million war chest, making Seid the group’s largest benefactor.
In filings with the Illinois State Board of Elections, the Term Limits & Tax Limits Party pledged to reject increases in Illinois taxes, borrowing, and spending and to support term limits for state and federal lawmakers. In practice, however, the party found its base among social conservatives, including the anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ group Illinois Pro-Family Voters. In the summer of 1994, Illinois Pro-Family Voters aired a radio ad supporting Baer’s party and criticizing the Republican governor Jim Edgar as holding “the same liberal positions on gays, gambling, and abortion” as his Democratic challenger.
That year, the Term Limits & Tax Limits Party fielded a candidate for Illinois Secretary of State named William H. Regnery. The heir to a right-wing publishing dynasty, Regnery became disenchanted with the Republican party at the end of the Cold War, when the mainstream GOP was increasingly embracing globalization.
Regnery continued to be a fixture in the far right until his death in 2021. In 2001, he founded the Charles Martel Society, a white nationalist organization that publishes The Occidental Quarterly. Four years later, Regnery seeded $380,000 to create the National Policy Institute, a think tank designed to inject white supremacist ideas into mainstream politics.
At the time of his death in July 2021, The New York Times credited Regnery for bankrolling “some of the leading organizations and figures behind the rise of the alt-right,” including the white supremacist Richard Spencer.
Originally founded as the Barre Seid Foundation in Illinois in 1984, the Barbara and Barre Seid Foundation has contributed to a number of right-wing causes as well as cultural, educational, and religious institutions across the United States over nearly four decades.
Between 2001 and 2021, the foundation distributed more than $56.2 million dollars in grants financed mostly by Barre Seid’s personal contributions, as well as dividends and interest on the group’s investments. While the majority of this money went to cultural organizations, educational institutions, and religious groups, the foundation also funneled more than $5 million to organizations championing conservative and libertarian causes. Major beneficiaries of these contributions have included the Heartland Institute, the State Policy Network, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and school choice groups, among other organizations.
Based on publicly available information, the majority of the foundation’s charitable giving to right-wing groups occurred prior to the mid-2000s. In November 2005, the foundation changed its name to the Barbara and Barre Seid Foundation, and its grantmaking largely shifted to apolitical causes. In the span of a year, the foundation’s charitable contributions to conservative groups fell from more than $1.9 million in 2005 to roughly $207,000 in 2006, a decline of more than 89 percent. The foundation’s politically-oriented donations never returned to their pre-2006 levels.
Since then, Seid has continued to seed conservative organizations with financial support through other avenues, including the libertarian, donor-advised fund DonorsTrust and Leonard Leo’s “dark money” network.
In addition to his charitable giving through his foundation, Barre Seid has also funneled his wealth to both partisan and nonpolitical causes through personal donations.
In 1981, Barre Seid co-founded the Chamber Opera of Chicago, a small opera company “with a six-piece orchestra and libretto in English.” In 1986, the newspaper Crain’s Chicago Business identified Seid as “Chamber Opera’s producer and chief supporter.” He has maintained this status since then. Between 2004 and 2020, Seid contributed at least $5.7 million to the theater via his private foundation.
In 2022, Steven Baer, a former director of the foundation and a longtime friend of Barre Seid, told ProPublica that Seid was “the major patron” of the Illinois-based Heartland Institute. Since 1984, the Heartland Institute has advanced purported “free-market solutions to social and economic problems.” In practice, the think tank has engaged in attacks against climate science and has sought to undermine government action on climate change through specious research and their online publication The Heartland Daily News.
Leaked documents obtained by the climate-focused investigative blog DeSmog showed that between 2007 and 2011 an anonymous donor contributed more than $13.3 million to Heartland. DeSmog reporter and data scientist John Mashey argued that this donor was Seid. “The combination of IRS Form 990s, [the leaked] February documents, and other information proves his identity, as the numbers simply do not work otherwise,” Mashey wrote.
Barre Seid appears to be the anonymous donor who, in 2008, poured millions of dollars into the Clarion Fund, a Delaware-based nonprofit corporation with ties to the Orthodox Jewish educational organization Aish HaTorah.
At the time, the Clarion Fund’s stated mission was “to educate Americans about issues of national security to influence voters.” In the fall of 2008, just weeks before the presidential election, the group sent copies of a documentary on Islamic extremism to more than 28 million households and religious institutions in key swing states. Titled “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West,” the 60-minute documentary was widely panned by Muslim groups as Islamophobic. The Council for American-Islamic Relations accused the group of “seeking to whip up anti-Muslim hysteria as a way to influence the outcome of our presidential election.” CAIR called on the Federal Election Commission and the IRS to investigate the Clarion Fund for engaging in political activity in violation of its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status.
Behind the mass mailing campaign was an influx of financing that the Clarion Fund received from Donors Capital Fund, a donor-advised fund that channels anonymous donors’ money toward conservative and libertarian causes. Tax filings revealed that Donors Capital Fund contributed more than $17.7 million to the Clarion Fund in 2008. This single grant represented 97 percent of the Clarion Fund’s total revenue that year.
The ultimate source of the financial support remained publicly unknown until 2010 when a reporter at Salon identified Barre Seid as a Clarion Fund donor. According to tax records, Barre Seid contributed more than $16.7 million to the Clarion Fund in 2008, which would have covered most, if not all, of the costs associated with the “Obsession” mass mailing campaign.
In early 2021, Seid contributed $1.6 billion to Marble Freedom Trust, a newly formed entity in Leonard Leo’s network of right-wing dark money groups, by transferring 100 percent of the shares in his company, Tripp Lite, to the nonprofit. According to the investigative news organization ProPublica, the “structure of the donation allowed Seid to avoid as much as $400 million in taxes.”
In January 2021, the publicly-traded Irish conglomerate Eaton (NYSE:ETN) announced that it would pay $1.65 billion to acquire Tripp Lite. As ProPublica reports, the next month Tripp Lite filed its Illinois state annual reports with Barre Seid’s name crossed out and replaced with Leonard Leo’s. A Tripp Lite subsidiary in Canada “similarly removed Seid as a director and added Leo as a director in March 2021, according to disclosure filings.”
The deal closed in March 2021. Eaton did not mention Marble Freedom Trust in any announcement. Marble Freedom Trust’s 990 for that financial year indicated that its $1.6 billion revenue came from the “sale of gifted company and subsidiaries,” but withheld identifying information “to protect donor confidentiality.”
The New York Times broke news of the transfer and sale of Tripp Lite in August 2022. The Times wrote that the transaction at that time was “among the largest — if not the largest — single contributions ever made to a politically focused nonprofit.”