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And ever since, Rove hasn't let Kinder sit on his wallet. Through January 2000, Kinder was the tenth-largest individual contributor to Bush's campaigns for governor and president, giving his friend a total of $119,409, according to figures compiled by Texans for Public Justice. Over the past 30 months or so, Kinder has become one of the Republican National Committee's biggest donors, giving nearly half a million dollars to the party.
He and wife Nancy have pumped in many thousands more to GOP candidates in Texas and elsewhere. In addition, during the Florida recount, Nancy Kinder was one of 149 Texans who gave the George W. Bush campaign the maximum donation of $5,000.
Her connections with the Bushes go back further than her husband's. As Lay's primary assistant, she spearheaded two key Houston events for George H.W. Bush: the 1990 Economic Summit of Industrialized Nations and the 1992 Republican National Convention.
Enron donated $250,000 to the convention effort, with Nancy riding herd on the festivities to make sure the corporation got its money's worth. "She was quite a presence," says one source who worked closely with Lay. "She was extremely capable. She had a bossy streak and tended to run things with an iron fist."
The Kinders continue to be key contributors for the Bushes. Early last year, they hosted a fund-raiser at their house in River Oaks for Florida Governor Jeb Bush.
Kinder insists his donations have not given him special access or influence over federal energy policy. "I expected nothing," he says, "and I got nothing."
Closer to home, it's harder for local politicians to determine Kinder's political agenda. "I always thought Kinder was a reluctant political guy. It's Nancy who's interested in that," says George Strong, a political consultant and former Enron lobbyist. "She got that from hanging around with Ken and being his political person. She enjoys hobnobbing with senators and presidents and so forth. They make a great combination."
Although Kinder hasn't been a big giver to local candidates, that could change. In mid-January, he was one of a handful of Republicans who showed up in the River Oaks garage of fellow oilman Michael Zilkha to hear a pitch from mayoral hopeful Bill White, a Democrat and former assistant secretary of energy in the Clinton administration. Kinder calls White a good friend and says, "Nancy and I will help support him."
Kinder's status as a political insider reflects what may be his biggest accomplishment of the last few years: He and his wife have completely escaped the shadow of Enron.
While Ken and Linda Lay have become social lepers, the Kinders are fixtures on the city's social scene. In 2001, they chaired the Museum of Fine Arts' Grand Gala Ball. And like many others of Houston's upper crust, they are among Aspen's elite. (The Kinders have a vacation home on the Roaring Fork River a few miles outside of the upscale resort town.) Last summer, they hosted a cocktail party for bigwigs from the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, a favorite charity of the Kinders.
Part of Kinder's vast fortune has been put into a foundation headed by him and his wife. He says he plans to leave the bulk of his estate to fund philanthropic endeavors, particularly those involving children and education.
According to documents filed with the IRS, the Kinder Foundation had nearly $23 million in assets as of May 2001. That year, it donated a total of $1.5 million to 68 organizations, most of them in Houston. The biggest recipients were the DePelchin Children's Center, which got $606,800, and M.D. Anderson, which received $216,866. Among the other gifts was $48,350 to a cause near and dear to the Bushes, the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.
If Kinder follows through with his pledge to leave his money to the foundation, he could become Houston's biggest philanthropist. If he quit now and gave all his money to the Kinder Foundation, its assets would be equal to those held by the city's traditional philanthropic powerhouse, the Houston Endowment, which was funded by another former king of Houston, Jesse Jones.
Since 1997, Rich and Nancy Kinder have been living in the heart of River Oaks, in a $2.8 million home containing almost 10,000 square feet of living space. It's on Del Monte Drive, just a few doors down from the home built (but never occupied) by former Enron chief financial officer Andy Fastow.
But the Kinders won't be staying there much longer. In early 2001, they bought a lot on Lazy Lane, some 3.5 acres valued at more than $4 million, and began constructing a gargantuan residence.
During a recent interview, Kinder appeared to be taken aback only once, when he was asked the obvious question: A man who has shunned fancy jets and fleets of Ferraris, a man who prides himself as being Mr. Practicality -- how is it that he's now building such an enormous house?
Kinder went silent before eventually replying, "It's a good question." After another pause of nearly ten seconds, he said, "It's a lovely site, and we wanted to build something we could live in for the rest of our lives."
For all of Kinder's aw-shucks behavior and I-don't-really-need-a-lot-of-stuff attitude, he's made it into the leagues of the Big Rich. In Houston, nothing shows you've made it better than having a mammoth house in the 77019 zip code.