Texas millionaires, billionaires help fuel Rick Perry’s rise

AUSTIN, Texas — En route to becoming Texas’ longest-serving governor, Rick Perry has forged a network of reliable big-money donors who could help fuel a Perry presidential bid and would be in position to exert expanded influence on the national stage if another Texan lands in the White House.

Years of Texas campaign finance reports offer insights into Perry’s political alliances and his conservative, business-oriented style of governance.

His biggest contributors include Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, who made national headlines by helping finance a political attack on former Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, and Harold Simmons, a Dallas multibillionaire who is developing a controversial nuclear waste disposal site in West Texas.

Those and other donors compile a roster that includes the elite of Texas business and industry.

Nearly half of the $102.8 million that Perry raised from 2001 through 2010 came from 204 “mega-donors” who contributed $100,000 or more, according to Texans for Public Justice, a watchdog organization that monitors state political contributions.

Perry’s political opponents have charged that the big-money contributions have led to political favors and cronyism from the governor’s office, assertions that Perry supporters adamantly dismiss.

Environmentalists say that Simmons’ donations to Perry and state lawmakers helped fuel approval of the waste disposal site despite concerns over groundwater contamination, but a spokesman for the project said the application was rigorously vetted and approved only after added protections were included.

Unlike the federal government and many other states, Texas permits unlimited individual donations in state races, allowing sky’s-the-limit contributions across the political spectrum. Houston trial lawyer Steve Mostyn, a financier of Democratic causes, has donated millions in state races and is an outspoken Perry critic.

The 2010 Texas governor’s race generated more than $77 million in contributions over a two-year period, including nearly $38 million for Perry, $25 million for Democratic challenger Bill White and $14 million for U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Perry’s main rival in the Republican primary.

Perry appears to be moving closer to entering the 2012 presidential race after more than a decade in the governor’s office, but his strategists say the decision will rest heavily on whether he can put together a national fundraising base.

Since he first started taking a look at a possible presidential bid about two months ago, Perry and his political team have been reaching out to donors and Republican fundraisers in other states to make sure they can raise enough money to go the distance in a campaign that could cost well over $50 million.

With Perry’s presidential overtures still in the formative stage, the extent of potential financial backing from his home state remains an open question, and some of those who supported Perry for governor could conceivably embrace other presidential candidates.

But there is little doubt that Texas, with more than 340,000 millionaires and at least 40 billionaires, would be a deep wellspring for a Perry presidential endeavor, just as it was for Democrat Lyndon Johnson and Republicans George W. Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush.

Some of Perry’s donors in the $100,000-plus bracket include Fort Worth billionaire Lee Bass, Plano developer H. Ross Perot Jr., Dallas entrepreneur Kenny Troutt, oilman T. Boone Pickens, Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton of Mineral Wells, Dallas investor Sam Wyly, and Peter Holt, chairman of the board of the San Antonio Spurs.

Under federal law, individual donors are limited to $2,500 in the primaries and $2,500 in the general election in direct contributions to presidential candidates, but a practice known as “bundling” allows supporters to pool together a large number of contributions from individuals and political action committees on behalf of a candidate.

The Supreme Court’s rulings in the Citizens United and SpeechNow cases last year also permitted the creation of “super PACs,” political action committees that may raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations and individuals.

Unlike traditional political action committees, super PACs can’t contribute directly to political candidates, but they can spend unlimited amounts to overtly advocate for or against political candidates through advertising, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which reviews federal campaign spending.

“If you’re a rich donor, you have lots of tools in your toolbox to use, and some of them are very big hammers,” said Michael Beckel, the center’s spokesman.

Bob Perry, who is no relation to the governor, has spread his wealth to candidates and causes both in and outside of Texas, gaining a reputation as one of the nation’s biggest political benefactors. He bounded into prominence in 2002 by contributing $3.8 million to state races.

Two years later, he made a name for himself nationally by donating $4.45 million to the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” ad campaign that raised doubts about Kerry’s Vietnam War record and was widely credited with derailing the Democratic senator’s bid to unseat then-President George W. Bush in 2004.

He is also the top donor to American Crossroads, an independent pro-Republican fundraising organization whose advisers include former White House strategist Karl Rove and former national Republican Chairman Ed Gillespie. Perry donated $7 million to the super PAC in 2010 and another $500,000 in the current election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

“Bob Perry is one of the most high-profile conservative donors out there,” Beckel said.

Bob Perry’s association with conservative politics masks a pattern of giving to both parties as well as to charitable causes, including orphanages in Mexico and Central America.

He has contributed to the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, and, along with supermarket magnate Charles Butt, applied behind-the-scenes pressure to help block an anti-illegal immigration bill in this year’s special legislative session. The bill, backed by the governor, was designed to ban so-called sanctuary cities by forbidding local governments from policies that prevent officers from questioning suspects and detainees about immigration status.

Bob Perry and his wife, Doylene, have contributed a total of $2.5 million to Rick Perry since 2001, the second-largest amount after $4 million in donations from the Republican Governors Association PAC. The homebuilder was reportedly a major force in the 2003 creation of the Texas Residential Construction Commission, which builders promoted as a vehicle to resolve disputes with consumers but critics attacked as a tool of industry.

Perry Homes’ corporate counsel, John Krugh, helped write the legislation that created the agency and was appointed by Rick Perry to serve on the commission, according to press accounts. The agency was phased out in 2010.

“His (Bob Perry’s) fingerprints are all over it,” said Alex Winslow, executive director of Texas Watch, a citizen advocacy group.

But Bill Miller of the Austin-based HillCo Partners lobbying firm, which represents the homebuilder, said there was nothing improper behind Bob Perry’s efforts involving the commission. “It’s not a bit unlike trial lawyers trying to pass tort law,” Miller said. “Paying attention to your business is just smart business.”

Despite his ever-expanding presence in the news media, Perry, 78, a former schoolteacher who started Perry Homes in the late 1960s, shuns the spotlight, never gives interviews and has been alternately described as reclusive and low-profile. Public officials who have received Perry donations have told reporters that he has never called to demand favors or special treatment.

Perry’s support of the Texas governor invites speculation that he would aggressively embrace the governor’s bid for the White House, but Anthony Holm, the homebuilder’s spokesman, said such talk is premature. “Gov. Perry hasn’t announced, and we don’t know if he will announce and that’s a hypothetical at this point,” said Holm.

Rick Perry’s next largest individual contributor is Simmons, whose wealth is valued at $5.7 billion by Forbes magazine. Simmons, a University of Texas graduate, was a bank examiner who acquired a single Dallas drugstore in 1961 that he expanded into a chain that he eventually sold for $75 million. He went on to become a feared corporate raider in the 1980s and controls several companies, including Dallas-based Valhi, a chemicals company.

Simmons has donated $1.2 million to Perry since he became governor in December 2000. Like Bob Perry, he was also a major backer of the Swift Boat advertising campaign against Kerry in the 2004 race and contributed $182,350 to 92 of the 150 members of the Texas House in their most recent campaigns, according to the Texans for Public Justice’s Lobby Watch.

Simmons’ political influence in the Texas capitol has received heightened attention after a successful effort by one of his subsidiaries — Waste Control Specialists — to import out-of-state, low-level radioactive waste to a disposal site in Andrews County in far West Texas.

Originally designed for Texas and Vermont as part of a two-state compact, the project has been expanded to include waste from 36 states. It has won approval from state environmental regulators, a Texas-Vermont commission whose Texas members were appointed by Perry and the state Legislature.

According to Lobby Watch, 77 House members who received donations from Simmons voted in favor of a waste disposal bill in May; 11 recipients of Simmons’ donations opposed it.

Simmons was not available for an interview, but Chuck McDonald, a spokesman for Waste Control Specialists, said that the legislation was designed to impose safeguards and incorporates strict limits on the amount of out-of-state waste.

McDonald acknowledged that the staff of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality raised concerns about possible groundwater contamination but said the review process was extended from two to five years to address the concerns and included tripling the amount of testing and installing 460 monitoring wells.

Environmental advocates dispute the assurances, saying the out-of-state shipment of radioactive waste on Texas highways could endanger residents and sensitive aquifers.

“It’s one of the clearest examples in recent years of buying political influence,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizens Texas Office.

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