Howard Buffett, son of multibillionaire Warren Buffett, has long dominated the social and political life of the central Illinois town of Decatur. It’s a case study in how extreme wealth hollows out democracy.

Howard Buffett, founder of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, speaking in London on June 22, 2023. (Chris J. Ratcliffe / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

It’s a sizzling July afternoon in Decatur, an endearingly plain city surrounded by endless rows of neat crops in the heart of Illinois farm country, and I am, as instructed, waiting at the public library. At our exact appointed time, Marc Girdler stomps in wearing a black New World Order shirt, tinted ’70s sunglasses, and a baseball cap dotted with pineapples on top of a bounty of flowing red hair.

Girdler is a Decatur activist who heads a self-described mutual-aid-group-slash-cult called Carnalia, and he’s going to tell me how he got in a scrap with a local billionaire. First, without any greeting, he asks a conspiratorial question: “Can we take a ride?”

So I’m spirited away into the passenger seat of a battered, sauna-esque SUV. Girdler’s accomplice Gav (just Gav) drives. Girdler sits in the back with Rico and Meeko, two tiny, yelpy dogs. He hands me a thick stack of paper: “We have a dossier.” It’s years of results from public record requests relating to Howard Buffett’s dealings with the Decatur City Council.

Buffett, sixty-eight, is the second child of Warren Buffett, one of the richest men in the world. Raised in Omaha, Nebraska, the younger Buffett came to Decatur in the early ’90s to work as an executive for Archer Daniel Midlands, the agricultural products giant.

Since then, using his father’s money, Buffett has pushed Decatur toward his preferred version of reality. According to local media reporting, over the last few decades the Howard G. Buffett Foundation has spent over $200 million in a shrinking city of seventy thousand people.

To one degree or another, we all live under constraints created by the whims and desires of billionaires. For the most part, that billionaire decision-making process is kept self-servingly and purposefully opaque. But in Decatur, the process is crystal clear: everyone here knows what Howard Buffett does. I wanted to know what it’s like to live under long exposure to extreme wealth. So I came to Decatur.

Much of Buffett’s spending has served his obsession with law enforcement. He’s paid to upgrade the local jail and gifted the facility a full-body scanner. He’s bought police cars, firearms, and ballistic vests. Through his foundation’s grants, he’s created positions both for a special prosecutor for opioid cases and for a police officer solely assigned to drug and alcohol abuses.

In 2012, Buffett became a volunteer “auxiliary sheriff” in Macon County, which encompasses Decatur. A Phoenix New Times exposé on Buffett’s work on the Southern border revealed that in 2016, Buffett was photographed in southeast Arizona, alongside an officer from the Macon County Sheriff’s Office, performing armed vigilante border control against supposed drug smugglers.

Then, from 2017 to 2018, Buffett served as local top cop: Macon County sheriff. He didn’t have to win an election to do so but, rather, walked into the role when the acting sheriff, Thomas Schneider, retired and named Buffett as his successor. Schneider went on to work at Buffett’s Macon County Law Enforcement Training Center, a hub of policing facilities in Decatur that includes a building named after Schneider himself.

Buffett’s foundation donated $15 million to build the hub, which is officially a facility of the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, a government body that oversees police certification. Earlier this year, that connection between Buffett and the board became particularly noteworthy.

In February, the former executive director of the standards board, Brent Fischer, was charged with multiple felony counts. A government watchdog discovered that Fischer faked the board chairman’s signature in the course of fabricating a certification allowing Buffett to serve as a sworn officer despite not having the requisite training hours.

The state watchdog also found that Fischer agreed to provide the certificate hours after receiving a $10,000 check from the Buffett Foundation to buy equipment for police dogs. A judge later dropped the charges on the grounds they were filed in the wrong jurisdiction, but Fischer had long since lost his job.

Back in the SUV, Gav whips us hard left into a Steak ’n Shake drive-through. Large Coke for her, large vanilla Sprite with extra vanilla for Girdler. A few years ago, Girdler ran for Decatur City Council. During his campaign, he listed his nickname as “Guillotine Guy,” his hobbies as “smelling scented candles” and “a luxurious bath time skincare ritual,” and his campaign slogan as “Weed, Pussy, Pancakes.” He did not win.

But for about a year starting in the summer of 2019, Girdler was instrumental to the most cohesive grassroots pushback to Buffett’s influence that Decatur has ever seen — and one that exposed the cracks running through Buffett’s imagined rural idyll.

“‘This is a time in my life that I’m gonna put my foot down and stand up,’” Girdler remembers thinking. “And then I inadvertently became the poster boy for this weird Decatur revolution.”

In the mid-’90s, the Department of Justice found that Archer Daniel Midlands had conspired to fix the price of lysine, a growth-spurring feed additive for pigs and chickens. The story eventually became The Informant!, a 2009 Steven Soderbergh film full of zany corporate malfeasance. Don’t look for Buffett on screen, though: while he was a high-ranking executive at the company during the price fixing, he wasn’t directly implicated. After the scandal broke, Buffett left.

Since then, Buffett has pursued an impressively wide-ranging suite of projects. He’s built roads in Colombia. He’s boosted local Congolese organizations with Ben Affleck. He helped try and chase down Joseph Kony.

As part of a personal obsession with agricultural innovation, he owns and oversees thousands of acres of farmland around Decatur and elsewhere throughout the country. In 2016, the Atlantic published a gushing profile headlined “How Warren Buffett’s Son Would Feed the World.”

At one point, Buffett was the stated successor to the seat of his father’s empire, the insurance and investment giant Berkshire Hathaway. But the younger Buffett seems less interested in corporate succession and more interested in using his father’s billions to follow his omnivorous passions.

His bibliography is tellingly broad. Buffett-bylined titles include Our 50-State Border Crisis: How the Mexican Border Fuels the Drug Epidemic Across AmericaForty Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World, and Fragile: The Human Condition. He’s also an avid wildlife photographer. He’s often photographed either in sober business suits or dusty safari shirts.

Decatur is one of the fastest-shrinking cities in the country, but it doesn’t fit the traditional profile of decimated Rust Belt America. Its fields of loam are still historically rich, and they are still full of corn and soybeans. Archer Daniel Midlands’ factories are still here, turning that raw material into thousands of industrial products like xanthan gum and sorbitol and then into money.

While the loss of manufacturing work through closures of factories like the Bridgestone/Firestone tire plant in 2001 have been harmful, Will Wetzel — an elected member of the Decatur School Board — believes Decatur has “enough jobs to support this economy and keep us at an eighty thousand” population number. But “nobody wants to live here,” he said.

Wetzel, who spoke to me in his capacity as an activist, believes Decatur has stumbled in the management and the funding of its public institutions. Over the last half-century, Wetzel says, Decatur has shut around twenty schools.

In June 2019, something happened that offered an alternative vision for Decatur’s economy beyond Archer Daniel Midlands and Howard Buffett: the state of Illinois passed House Bill 1438 and legalized cannabis for the new year. In turn, individual Illinois municipalities began the process of granting licenses to dispensaries.

Girdler and other activists began agitating for approval in Decatur. Locally, the dispensary question became so heated that a few months before legalization went into effect statewide, the city council organized a special town forum on the issue. There, Girdler gave an impassioned speech built around a reference to a famous event in World Wrestling Entertainment history: that time Undertaker threw Mankind off the Hell in a Cell in 1998. Within the surrounding region’s leftist circle, Girdler went viral. “I became, you know, a quasi-local celebrity,” he says.

As the Intercept’s Rachel M. Cohen reported at the time, the immediate battle was lost: in September of 2019, the city council voted against the dispensary, 6-1. But Girdler and other local activists felt like there was a longer war strategy to pursue. With support from the Democratic Socialists of America’s Central Illinois chapter, Girdler became part of a motley network. They called themselves the Decatur Cannabis Coalition and they campaigned steadily for support for the dispensary from the larger population in hopes of convincing the city council to overturn their decision.

By then, Gav and Girdler had already formed Decatur Public Library Watchdogs, a government oversight group. Gav had learned how to request documents via the Freedom of Information Act from an online course for government employees. She began incessantly peppering requests for city council members’ discussions over the dispensary. (Girdler jokes that in the action movie version of the events, Gav would be the tech wiz in the van with the earpiece shouting out instructions.)

What they found was both remarkable and predictable: correspondence, directly from Buffett, pushing back against the dispensary.

Direct input from constituents is the bedrock of local politics. But emails from Howard Buffett would come to feel to the activists like a direct inversion of democratic norms.

It’s in the dossier Girdler handed me. In email after email, Buffett directly contacts Decatur government officials with links and studies attesting to the dangers of legalized marijuana. There is page after page of research arguing that marijuana legalization can lead to a host of undesired outcomes from expanded cryptocurrency usage to an uptick in burn victims.

Direct input from constituents is the bedrock of local politics. But, in time, these emails would come to feel to the activists like a direct inversion of democratic norms: instead of listening to their constituents en masse, the majority of the city council heeded the word of Buffett above all. Buffett seemed to be dictating policy directly to the city government.

Additionally, they learned that way back in the spring of 2019, Buffett called a bevy of local Decatur powerbrokers together for a meeting at his foundation’s office “to discuss the legislation to legalize adult cannabis in Illinois.” The invite list included Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe, Tony “Chubby” Brown, then the Macon County sheriff, and Jim Getz, then the Decatur police chief. (Like Schneider, Getz, too, went on to work at the Macon County Law Enforcement Training Center after retiring from his government job.)

Girdler and Gav also found out that Buffett’s email account at his foundation doesn’t feature his name but, rather, a nickname: “El Jefe.”

Driving through Decatur, a stasis is apparent. Some of it manifests in endearing ways, like the continued survival of a place called LaGondola Spaghetti House, where you can get the titular item by the half gallon. Most of it feels quietly depressing, like the grass growing untended through parking lot pavement cracks. In a diner downtown, I overhear a group of white-haired men fretting about the decline of the American empire. “What have we lost now? Three wars in a row?”

Traditionally a Republican stronghold, Macon County went blue for Barack Obama in 2008. Other than The Informant!, some might know the place from Ferris Bueller: on the iconic day off, Cameron is available for truancy because his mom is in Decatur.

Buffett’s presence is threaded throughout Decatur, but there’s a particular zone, right around Lake Decatur, where it really sings. On the lake’s north bank is a manicured summer music venue for ignoble 90s acts like Lit and family entertainment like “Puppy Pals: A Comedic Stunt Dog Show.” Officially, it’s named the Devon G. Buffett Lakeshore Amphitheater, but everyone calls it the Devon. Devon is Howard’s wife.

Directly across the lake is the Buffett-funded Scovill Sculpture Park, a hilly garden with art depicting leaping deer and abstract melting teepees. At the base of the garden is a massive flagpole, carrying a flapping Star-Spangled Banner, dedicated to Buffett: “His investment in our community will have a long lasting impact on current and future generations.” Nearby, a small sign reads, “Thank you Howard G. Buffett Foundation.”

A few minutes’ walk away, just past the front gates of the Scovill Zoo, there is an unlikely sight: an ode to the mountain gorillas of Congo’s Virunga National Park. It’s a Buffett-funded sculpture depicting, in life-size dimensions, one of said gorillas alongside two Virunga park rangers, both armed with rifles and staring stoically into the abyss. In front of them is another rifle, upright, and a pair of lonely ranger boots.

In an echo of Washington DC’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a corresponding plaque reads, “The ultimate sacrifice,” and lists the names of rangers that have died while working in Virunga. It’s a swaggeringly militaristic display, tucked between a cage of howler monkeys and the tracks of a small train made to scoot children around the zoo.

As Jacobin has reported, “Some have described the Virunga National Park . . . as a ‘state within a state’; although it protects the region’s biodiversity from poaching and oil exploration, it has also dispossessed the area’s original inhabitants of their land, and its paramilitary-trained rangers have reportedly mistreated indigenous communities on the park’s outskirts.” The Buffett Foundation has funded the Virunga park as well.

Via a public record request, I learned that Buffett managed the gorilla display’s smallest details. In one email exchange, a Buffett employee tells the Decatur Parks Department the precise location where Buffett wants the plaque placed and promises to return with further instructions: “I will present both plaque mounting options to Howard and see what he prefers.”

Just by the zoo is the Decatur location of the Children’s Museum of Illinois. I’d actually heard a story about this museum from a local resident who’s asked to remain anonymous. His preschooler had gone on an outing here and returned home with a surprising item: a mugshot. This resident and his family are part of Decatur’s black community, making up 20 percent of the city’s population.

“What is the purpose? What is the message?” the father remembers thinking. “What the hell is this?

The mugshot station is part of Heroes Hall, a multi-floor police propaganda exhibition that came about, per the museum’s site, “through a generous donation” — a little over $3 million — “and active collaboration with the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.”

I enter past a rush of primary colors and gushing placards: “Welcome! Do you want to be a hero? The police are heroes! They work hard to help their communities and keep them safe. You can learn to be a hero too!” At the crime lab, you can build a sketch of a suspect using a Mr Potato Head. At the Make A Badge station, you can make your own with crayons. At the K-9 course, you can throw on flappy ears and, well, cosplay as a cop dog.

One exhibit urges you to stand in front of a mirror and state an oath of service to law enforcement. Another lets you throw on the uniforms of various officers, including those of the jail guards of the Macon County Sheriff Corrections Division.

Outside, it gets more dramatic. Next to a big red fire truck (“made possible . . . by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation”) there is a slick black helicopter that kids can clamber all over. In chunky orange wording on its front fuselage, it reads, “Howard G. Buffett, Macon County Sheriff.”

And tucked just toward the fence is a bronze statue of a police officer armed and covered in tactical gear holding the leash of a dog, alongside a beaming little girl. The badge on the vest of the statue reads: “Sheriff H. Buffett.”

To Wetzel, it feels like Buffett has spent his money in Decatur building “monuments to himself and to his family and to his friends.”

“He could have taken those millions of dollars and taught every kid in the city of Decatur how to swim over three summers,” Wetzel said, “and had more of a lasting impact than what he’s done now.”

In late 2019, after Illinois passed the cannabis legalization bill, the Buffett Foundation funded and forced through the creation of a Decatur Police Department position for an officer solely tasked with drug and alcohol driving offenses. At this point, Buffett had left the Macon County Sheriff’s Office and was once again a private citizen.

In an email to the police department (released via my public records request), Buffett writes, “I want to be perfectly clear: this officer must be 100 percent committed to DUI/DRE activity [Driving Under the Influence and Drug Recognition Evaluation] for all four years. I just pulled two resolutions for DRE officers from the county board because the [Macon County] sheriff could not guarantee that their time would be 100 percent devoted to DUI/DRE enforcement.”

The police agreed to it all, with deference. While cajoling the police chief to complete some relevant paperwork, Buffett takes the opportunity to make a joke: “He is old, forgetful!”

The chief emails back, “Yes I agree,” with a smiley face emoji.

The official Buffett Foundation grant proposal required an annual report from the police as well as a write-up of every single arrest with the specific determination if the arrest was related to alcohol or drugs and, if the latter, which drug. A member of Buffett’s foundation writes that “the funds will be returned to the foundation at our sole discretion if all of our conditions are not met.”

To many locals, it seemed that Buffett wanted police officers to find a way to arrest people for getting high. During the city council meeting on the new position, one resident asked a relevant question: “How is this not going to again target minorities and less privileged sections of our city, as has been the case with every other similar type of enforcement, particularly drug enforcement?”

Buffett also influenced the policies of the Macon County State Attorney’s office. In one email exchange, Buffett sends a New York Times article, “New Tactic in War on Opioids: Charging Dealers in Overdose Deaths.”

The state attorney responds: “Interesting article. Thanks for sending it. I’m all for going after the dealers on the overdose deaths.” He then explains the resources the office would need to pursue these kinds of cases routinely. “We will do it,” Buffett answers.

This exchange eventually led to the creation of a special prosecutor within the Macon County State Attorney’s Office for opioid cases.

In physical form, Buffett’s law enforcement passions are embodied in the Macon County Law Enforcement Training Center. Minutes from downtown Decatur, it’s a cordoned-off cluster of shiny, boxy training facilities. The grass looks freshly cut. The cement feels freshly poured. On one corner stands a statue of Bass Reeves, a man in a cowboy hat and a droopy mustache who was, according to the plaque, a legendary Old West lawman-slash-prolific murderer: in the course of duty, Ol’ Bassy “shot and killed fourteen outlaws to defend his life.”

Down the street from the main campus is the newest Buffett-funded venue: a center for de-escalation education that cost a reported $120 million. Dan Alioto, a de-escalation trainer formerly of the St Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office in Maryland, shows me around the place. We see the pristine lecture hall, the spacious conference rooms, and the VirTra training room, where officers use “simunition” guns as they go through video-game-like training. Colloquially, Alioto says, cops used to call this kind of training “shoot/don’t shoot.”

While de-escalation training has become more prevalent nationwide in response to 2020’s sweeping racial justice protests and an increased awareness of police violence, Buffett’s training center is also in line politically with his Children’s Museum’s Heroes Hall. The message seems to be: cops can save lives, but they need expensive training in order to do so. Since 2020, Alioto laments to me, “Some agencies lost money. How do you help them get better when they have no money or resources?”

Across town is another spotless Buffett-funded campus: Crossing Healthcare. Founded in 1972 as the Community Health Improvement Center, it operated for decades as a clinic for the medically underserved. A few years ago, Buffett pumped some $60 million into it, changed the name, moved the location, and pulled in a whole network of adjoining services for everything from new mothers to people experiencing food and housing insecurity.

Cindy Jenkins, Crossing Healthcare’s chief compliance officer, tells me that before the Buffett makeover, the site we’re standing on was all “gnarly trees and groundhogs.” Now there’s a full-time gardener tending a community garden that produces cherries, apples, pears, and plums. These days, Crossing Healthcare sees over fifteen thousand people a year, many of them Medicaid patients.

At Buffett’s behest, as part of its makeover Crossing Healthcare built out a robust addiction treatment center. It provides the distribution of Narcan for overdose prevention, addiction counseling, and in-patient housing. There’s equine therapy, small-ball bowling, a doula, a dietician, a movie theater, a fitness center, and a basketball court (uniquely, it is a carpeted court). There’s also a children’s playground prominently featuring a character called “Duluth the Dragon,” who was created by Buffett’s wife, Devon, for a series of children’s books.

As we walk through one of the Crossing Healthcare buildings, Jenkins points out the photos lining most of the available wall space: polar bears, cheetahs, baby tigers sipping water out of puddles.

“The art work is Howard’s,” Jenkins explains. “He’s an amazing photographer.”

A sign explains that the photos “were all taken by Mr Buffett over the past 25 years. Through his photography, our clients and staff are able to travel to new parts of the world every day. We thank him for this ever-lasting gift and all that he does for our community.”

Beyond its initial spending to build the center, the Buffett Foundation is not providing Crossing Healthcare with additional funding. Effectively, Buffett can create local institutions that people in Decatur then have to figure out how to fund. Buffett has said he prefers not to repeat donations year after year so as to keep the Buffett Foundation “creative.”

Even activists critical of Buffett acknowledge that projects like Crossing Healthcare provide sorely needed support. (Gav is particularly impressed by the dental work that is offered to individuals in recovery.) Those who are the direct recipients of Buffett’s largesse support him unwaveringly.

Dr Juanita Morris runs the Civic Leadership Institute, an organization created via a $2.3 million Buffett grant “to raise awareness and encourage the pursuit of careers in public service” in Decatur Public Schools. (Civic service here is defined as several fields including “nursing” and “law enforcement.”)

The conversation around “the dispensary, to me that’s all perception and opinion,” Morris says. “Crossing Healthcare, the Law Enforcement Training Center — those are the tangibles. The things that I see and that I know are the things that are changing the lives of people in Decatur. For me, it’s my students. It’s the outcomes of our kids’ lives, who are typically black and brown kids.”

Girdler first got politically active when the Decatur Public Library, where he ran a popular movie night, pushed back against his programming choices. “They wanted to shut me down for showing bisexual movies,” Girdler says. “When they ask me what radicalized me — Showgirls!”

Then, as the outrage around the dispensary vote swelled, Girdler found his footing as an activist with public record requests and outlandish council meeting performances. He thought of it as being in character as a pro wrestler. His hassling of the council was incessant. One council member joked to a local paper that city council meetings had become more stressful than his tour of duty in Vietnam.

Around Decatur, in conversation after conversation, I’d hear about Hickory Point Mall. In 1974, after lobbying from influential Decatur businessmen, the city council denied a permit for the mall. It was subsequently built in tiny next-door Forsyth, where it became a dependable tax revenue generator for decades.

For many residents, the dispensary felt like a chance to right a historical wrong. So after the city council’s initial anti-dispensary vote, public meetings became increasingly heated and colorful. One local gained temporary notoriety for going up to the mic, firing off finger guns, and yelling, “Hey everybody, I’m Howard Buffett and my daddy says I can be Sheriff!”

Jokes at Buffett’s expense are common in Decatur. Multiple people told me about one particularly infamous incident from his tenure in the sheriff’s office: Halloween night, 2017, when Sheriff Buffett took off on a wild car chase that led to a flipped Chevy Trailblazer and four people hospitalized. (“The Trailblazer hit an electrical pole and electrical box, along with a cement block, fire hydrant and tree,” the local WAND TV station reported at the time.)

Through 2020, as statewide dispensary licensing picked up speed, Girdler and the Decatur Cannabis Coalition kept pushing for one of their own. In March of 2020, the activists managed to get a dispensary referendum on the ballot for primary elections in Decatur Township, a slightly smaller municipality within Decatur. A commanding 62 percent voted yes to cannabis.

But to the activists, it felt like the city council just pretended like the referendum never happened at all. The hardcore Buffett-aligned majority of the council began limiting public comment and instituted a “civility” policy to restrict the limited public comment they did allow. They were also able to block the dispensary issue from even reappearing on the council agenda. Facing that kind of filibuster, the Decatur Cannabis Coalition began to fray and, eventually, disintegrate.

The hardcore Buffett-aligned majority of the council began limiting public comment and instituted a ‘civility’ policy to restrict the limited public comment they did allow.

And what happened, inevitably, was that another nearby municipality took the opportunity. This March, a dispensary called Mystic Greenz broke ground just over the Decatur city border. So it’ll be Harristown, Illinois — population 1,310 — enjoying that tax revenue, free of Buffett’s directives. Harristown is planning on using the first surge of money to build a park.

Along the way on Decatur’s dispensary fight, the council’s “no” bloc made their logic abundantly clear.

“I personally can’t think of a more flat-out rejection of our former sheriff and his foundation,” Councilman Chuck Kuhle said in one meeting reported by the Intercept, “than to approve the sale of recreational marijuana without a wait-and-see approach.”

Wolfe, Decatur’s mayor, would later explain she was against the dispensary specifically because she saw it as standing in opposition to Crossing Healthcare and its addiction services.

A. D. Carson is a professor of hip hop at the University of Virginia who was raised in Decatur and is still politically active locally. He was the first person to tell me about Buffett and Decatur; he encouraged me to learn more. Explaining Buffett’s relationship to his hometown, Carson referenced the vintage rap song “Reservoir Dogs,” on which Beanie Sigel offers aspiring criminals some strategic advice: “Pressure bust pipes, it’s time to apply it now / Pick out a quiet town and tie it down.”

“Pick out a quiet town and tie it down?” Carson told me in our first conversation, laughing incredulously. “Howard Buffett actually did that!”

As for the dispensary, Carson said it felt like Buffett derailed a singular opportunity. He pointed out that Illinois is prioritizing the granting of cannabis licenses to those who have been negatively affected by the “war on drugs.”

“We are fairly focused on Russian oligarchs,” Carson told me. “But maybe we don’t think about it in the American context. His existence literally perpetuates inequity.”

Decatur hadn’t been forcefully influenced. It happily welcomed Buffett’s philanthropy and the world-building that came with it. Ultimately, then, the story of Howard Buffett in declining Decatur sounded like a manifestation of a uniquely American belief: the billionaires will save us.

“We desperately needed the [dispensary] money,” Girdler laments. “And people can say that I’m a weirdo or whatever, but we really try to help this community. And because we’re not gonna fall in line with Buffett’s vision for Decatur, we’re getting cut out of everything? Are they catering to the constituents, or are they catering to one man?”

Adds Gav, “There’s a lot of apathy and a lot of disenfranchisement and it’s hard to tell which comes first.”

Despite the dejection, the activists I spoke to largely agreed that Decatur is not the same place as it was before the dispensary battle — and that it’s not quite as in thrall to Buffett as it once was.

Wetzel told me that if I’d come to town ten years ago, “Nobody would have talked to you. People were scared. Even five years ago, when he was sheriff — the man felt like he was untouchable.”

But “after the weed thing,” Girdler says — that failed mini-revolution — “people are willing [to talk].”

Buffett’s fraudulent police certification has left him with ignominy. The fact that he successfully pushed the city council to vote down a widely popular, money-generating idea has left him exposed.

Before I came to Decatur, I understood Buffett’s local influence to be unshakable. The dispensary, after all, had been sunk. But it seemed clear to me now that the basic acts of regular people showing up and speaking out had left a mark.

His expansive donations had bought him palpable political capital. But the money didn’t make him bulletproof. If Buffett’s influence in Decatur was a microcosm of the power of the American billionaire class, then the Decatur activists’ pushback, too, was symbolic of a great force: organized political action.

In the heart of downtown Decatur, across the street from a Jimmy John’s and a Del’s Popcorn, is the listed headquarters of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. The building goes up three floors and takes up half a city block. It’s covered in a jaunty pastel paint. It has no signage identifying it as the foundation’s HQ. Its windows are all opaque.

I’d heard stories of Buffett riding through town in a convoy of black Suburbans. I’d read articles about him having the same homespun lunch (“coleslaw, a four-cheese toastie, and a gallon of Coke”) at the same Decatur restaurant every day. But for me, this is the closest I’d get to Buffett.

When I reached out to the foundation asking to speak to him, the foundation president emailed back to say Buffett could not be made available as his focus currently lay far beyond Decatur.

“Our strategic priorities — and where Howard spends his time — are using our grantmaking to mitigate conflicts that cause human suffering, bolster global food security, combat human trafficking, and improve public safety,” she wrote. “Frankly, Howard would have moved out of Illinois years ago if his wife’s health allowed. As it is, foundation travel and business travel limit the amount of time he’s even in the area, save for planting and harvesting seasons.”

But after leaving the Macon County Sheriff’s Office, Buffett didn’t go far. Just south of Macon County is Christian County, a community about half the size of Decatur. And recently, at least for a while, the Christian County Sheriff’s Office boasted a certain volunteer auxiliary deputy: Undersheriff Howard G. Buffett.

You can subscribe to David Sirota’s investigative journalism project, the Lever, here.


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