By Laylan Copelin Saturday, August 28, 2004
Texas' biggest political donor may have blown his cover.
Publicity-shy Bob Perry, a Houston-based home builder, is getting more notoriety for his $200,000 donation to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth than the $3.8 million he pumped into the 2002 state elections.
As the John Kerry campaign scours the record for a tie between President Bush and the swift boat ad campaign, Perry's penchant for privacy is being tested by the national spotlight that comes only with a presidential election. The fact that so few people have heard of Perry outside of Texas political circles and Houstonians familiar with his battles over inner-city construction is testament to his insistence on staying in the background.
"Neither Perry Homes or Bob Perry give interviews," said John Krugh, vice president and lawyer for Perry Homes. "That's company policy."
Bill Miller, Perry's Austin-based spokesman, quips about his client: "He's the Greta Garbo of politics."
Two views of Perry quickly surface. Those who have benefited from Perry's money say he is an unassuming, devout family man who never asks personally for anything in return for his donations. Those who view his large amounts of political money as a corrosive influence argue that Perry doesn't have to ask because his lobbyist, Neal "Buddy" Jones, and lawyers can do his bidding for pro-business legislation.
Perry, 71, has been a player in Texas Republican political circles since former Gov. Bill Clements recruited him to help raise money in 1978. He became the player two years ago as his donations to conservative causes and Republican candidates eclipsed everyone else's.
In 2002, Perry was the largest individual contributor to Gov. Rick Perry, no relation, ($225,000), Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst ($115,000) and Attorney General Greg Abbott ($537,600), and the second largest donor to Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn ($100,000). All are Republicans. He also was the top individual giver to the Republican Party of Texas, Texans for Lawsuit Reform and U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's Texans for a Republican Majority. He gave lesser amounts to a handful of Democrats, particularly Houstonians or those who supported curbing lawsuits.
The closest to Perry's $3.8 million total was $1.3 million from San Antonio businessman James Leininger, whose higher profile as primary benefactor to a conservative foundation in Texas made him the Democrats' favorite big-donor devil.
Craig McDonald with Texans for Public Justice, a group that tracks campaign finance, said the home builder had been in Leininger's range of donations until he opened up the checkbook for the 2002 election cycle. In President Bush's 1994 and 1998 campaigns for governor, Perry gave $46,000.
McDonald said Perry's donations reflect typical Texas conservatism favoring low taxation and less regulation or legal liability for his business.
"He's the primary bankroller of all things Republican," McDonald said. "But he's a mystery man who doesn't jump personally into politics. He's the opposite of (Enron's) Ken Lay, who seemed ubiquitous." Before Enron collapsed, "Kenny Boy," as President Bush nicknamed him, was a top Bush money-raiser and a Fortune 500 CEO who made the company jet and millions of dollars of donations available to elected officials from both political parties.
Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who has known Perry since 1984 and counts him as his biggest financial backer, said the escalation in Perry's donations is just a reflection of the home builder's growing fortunes.
"He used to be a home builder in Houston," Patterson said. "Now he's a home builder in Texas."
From its base in Houston, Perry Homes has expanded to Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, Mission-McAllen and Central Texas. Its homes range from $100,000 to more than $400,000. In Hutto's Star Ranch, Perry has homes starting at $160,000. At Four Seasons Farms in Kyle, he sells homes starting at $120,000.
Last year, according to Professional Builder magazine, the privately held Perry Homes ranked as the nation's 42nd largest home builder with $420 million in revenue.
'Happy with his life'
Perry was not born to money.
Born in 1932 in a one-room house in rural Bosque County, northwest of Waco, Perry later attended Baylor University in Waco, where his father, W.C. Perry, completed a public school teaching career as vice president of student affairs.
Upon graduation, Perry followed in his father's footsteps by teaching high school. In 1968, at 36, he started his home-building business in Houston.
He and his wife, Doylene, have been married since 1961. They have four grown children.
He and his wife live in the suburban community of Nassau Bay, where they attend services each weekend at the Nassau Bay Baptist Church.
"He's happy with his business; he's happy with his family; he's happy with his life," said Miller, Perry's spokesman. "You get the sense the guy really doesn't need anything."
To his critics, Perry got plenty for the $3.8 million he spent on the 2002 elections.
In 2003, a Republican-controlled Legislature curbed the ability of consumers to file lawsuits against businesses.
Krugh, the lawyer for Perry Homes, also helped write legislation that created the Texas Residential Construction Commission, a new state agency to create rules for dispute resolution between home builders and consumers. The governor then appointed Krugh to the nine-member commission.
Opponents see the new agency as a hurdle to consumers suing home builders; the builders defend it as a quicker, fairer way to resolve disputes.
"Bob Perry was highly rewarded with his own state agency," said Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston. "In Texas you can buy your own state agency, then regulate yourself."
Coleman also complained that Perry Homes, which builds in 47 neighborhoods in Houston, is gentrifying the inner city. Perry's defenders say he is providing homes where needed. Coleman said the three-story town homes don't fit in the neighborhood, won't last and are displacing the elderly.
'A very nice man'
At the state level, several office-holders said Perry never asks anything of them.
Patterson was the state senator for Perry's district before becoming land commissioner.
"In 20 years, he's never asked me for anything," Patterson said. "When I was in the Senate, there were issues he was interested in, but he never called up and said, 'Can you help me on this?' "
Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs agrees.
"He doesn't lobby me," she said. "I lobby him. I know he has contacts."
She said she asked his advice on how to encourage home construction in rural areas. He also organized a meeting of Houston ministers in minority communities when she wanted to talk about schoolchildren's diets.
When Bob Deuell was running against a Democratic incumbent for a Dallas-area Senate seat, he got help from Perry before ever meeting him.
"I just started getting these checks from him," Deuell recalls. When Deuell phoned to thank Perry and ask for a meeting, Perry said there was no need. "I know who you are," Deuell remembers Perry telling him.
By Election Day, the checks totaled more than $250,000.
Last year, during the legislative session, the two finally met during one of Perry's rare trips to the Capitol with a delegation of business leaders from Houston.
"I bumped into him in the hallway," Deuell said.
Now that Deuell has gotten to know Perry, he said his generosity does not stop at politics.
"He's a very nice man, very devout and gives a lot of money to charity," Deuell said. "He and his son fund an orphanage in Mexico. That is the other side of Bob Perry."
While Patterson said Perry is an ideological donor, he said he is pragmatic enough to support Houston-area Democrats where necessary.
Sen. John Whitmire, a longtime Houston Democrat, said Perry has supported him for years. When he attends Whitmire's fund raisers, the senator said, Perry just tells him, "Keep up the good work."
When a delegation of about 20 Houston leaders visited the senator to discuss legislation to curb lawsuits last year, Whitmire said Perry was in the audience but said nothing.
"He's very unassuming," Whitmire said.
Under a microscope
Even as President Bush says he doesn't believe Kerry lied about his military service in Vietnam, he declines to criticize the ads by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
The Kerry campaign is looking for a tie between the Bush campaign and the anti-Kerry veterans because federal law forbids coordination between a campaign and independent groups speaking out on the issues. Through Perry, the Kerry campaign sees a longtime supporter of Bush and ally to Bush's political chief, Karl Rove, who was the primary Republican Party consultant in Texas for years.
Patterson said he doubts the Kerry campaign will find that the Bush campaign coordinated the donation with Perry. Two Bush campaign associates have resigned over the swift boat ads: Campaign lawyer Benjamin Ginsberg quit the campaign after disclosing he also advised members of the swift boat ad campaign, and volunteer adviser Ken Cordier, a retired Air Force colonel, resigned his advisory role after appearing in one of the ads.
When Patterson heard that Perry contributed money to the anti-Kerry swift boat campaign, he phoned Perry to thank him.
"Why is he doing this? He thinks John Kerry is a bad guy and wouldn't make a good president," Patterson said. "He doesn't like a guy who waffles."
John E. O'Neill, the Houston lawyer and Vietnam veteran leading the swift boat campaign, said Perry's contribution was important early on but that the organization now claims 30,000 donations totaling $2.1 million. "It's just a fraction of the total," he said.
O'Neill calls Perry a "casual friend."
He said he has had lunch with Perry four or five times over the last 30 years, the last time two years ago. O'Neill said some of his clients, whom he didn't identify, recommended he phone Perry for money.
"I knew him more as a home builder than a contributor," O'Neill said. "If you had asked me to whom or how much, I couldn't have told you."