Few politicians have met Bob Perry. The last time he was directly involved in a campaign was nearly 30 years ago. Yet Perry is one of the most politically active businessmen in America. During the 2004 election season, Perry and his wife gave at least $8.2 million to national Republican candidates and advocacy groups, making the home builder the largest Republican donor in the country.
Perry's handlers characterize his reclusive nature as humility. "He's a very low-key guy," says his spokesperson, Bill Miller. He "doesn't seek out glory; he doesn't have any of the accoutrements of politics; he just goes about doing his business, and that's who he is."
But his opponents say he can afford to let his money do the talking. "Generally speaking, Perry is one of those who have just bought the government for himself," says Glenn Smith, once a campaign manager for former governor Ann Richards. "He contributes money, and the people he contributes to do what he tells them."
What nobody disputes is that Perry's money is a windfall to politicians at every level of government. A study of Houston elections between 2001 and 2003 by Campaigns for People, a campaign finance reform group, found Perry ranked as Houston's top political donor, giving $227,000 to local candidates. He donates widely to members of both parties yet tends to avoid incumbents from the Heights, says Democratic political consultant Marc Campos. "Among Heights voters, Bob Perry is a person they don't really take to," he says, "only because there is an effort to protect their neighborhood" from town houses.
Statewide, Perry indisputably holds the high-roller dice. He has given more money to campaigns and political organizations in the past four years than any other Texan. His checkbook is so profligate that it outstrips donations from the entire Texas home-building industry. According to a study of political giving, released last month by the consumer group Homeowners for Better Building, home builders handed out close to $9 million between 2001 and 2004 to state executive and legislative candidates, political parties and political action committees. More than 75 percent of that money came from Perry.
Perry's favorite state candidates and organizations have won him major victories and favors. Governor Rick Perry, to whom Perry has given $425,000 since 2000, appointed John Krugh, Perry Homes's vice president and legal counsel, to serve on the newly created Texas Residential Construction Commission. Perry also donated $630,000 to Texans for Lawsuit Reform in the same period, aiding tort-reform victories. Now, awards of punitive damages must be based on unanimous jury verdicts. And a constitutional amendment in 2003 allowed the state legislature to cap how much money juries can award for noneconomic damages.
In addition to wielding cash, Perry marshals a vocal and well-paid army of lobbyists. He has contracted with seven different Austin and Houston lobbyists since 1999 for up to $860,000 in services.
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Miller describes Perry's support for politicians and their issues as affirmative and nurturing. "If he likes them, he is a very solid guy. And if he doesn't, he just moves past them," he says. "He doesn't get hung up in antipathy. He is not much of an 'against' kind of person; he is more of a 'for' kind of person, if that makes sense."
Of course, that depiction quickly unravels at the national level, where Perry gave most of his money last year. A $100,000 check that he wrote early in the election season famously provided the majority of seed money to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the anti-John Kerry attack group. Perry went on to donate another $4.35 million to the organization, funding television ads that questioned the validity of Kerry's Purple Hearts and ultimately may have swayed the election in favor of George W. Bush.
Perry's generosity in the 2004 season also extended to a wide range of other Republican races and causes. He donated $3.6 million to Progress for America and the Club for Growth, two Republican 527 groups. And he gave $97,000 to several dozen politicians, most of them Republicans, such as Representatives Tom DeLay and Pete Sessions and Senator John Cornyn.
Perry's recent flurry of check-writing to national political groups perplexes his opponents, who say they still haven't figured out what he hopes to gain. Andrew Wheat, research director for Texans for Public Justice, guesses that Perry is hoping Bush will push through the same kinds of tort reforms nationally that he won as Texas governor in 1995. "Does it explain every dollar that [Perry] gives? Probably not," he says. "But it would certainly explain a lot of them." -- Josh Harkinson