Bob Perry, megadonor behind 'swift boat' ads, dies

Bob Perry donated over $75 million dollars to political causes, including bankrolling the 'swift boat' attack ads against John Kerry in the 2004 presidential race.

Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle / AP / File
Houston homebuilder and GOP megadonor Bob Perry, seen here posing at one of his housing developments in 2002, died Saturday night April 14, 2013.

Once in a rare interview, the Texas tycoon who gave at least $75 million in political contributions over his lifetime argued that writing big checks didn't buy big influence.

"It is my view that government is not owned by anyone, least of all wealthy contributors," Bob Perry told the Houston Chronicle, his hometown newspaper, in 2002.

Perry was remembered Monday by friends and foes alike for his prolific bankrolling that gave him both stature and notoriety. Republicans chiefly benefited from the wealthy Houston homebuilder, who became a titan of spending in modern American politics.

Perry died at age 80 Saturday night "peacefully in his sleep," said former Texas state Rep. Neal Jones, a close family friend. Public word of his death didn't spread until late the next day — perhaps a final victory for Perry and his aversion to the spotlight. He rarely spoke to the press, skipped fancy fundraisers and was a mystery to even some of his benefactors.

That top was blown off that low profile in 2004 when Perry spent $4.4 million financing the famous 2004 Swift Boat Veterans campaign against Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, which remains among the most famous political television ads in history.

Critics sought to highlight the buying power Perry's largesse afforded — particularly as the issue of campaign finance and the role of big money came before the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2000s and vaulted to new levels of public consciousness.

Perry's supporters saw him as a quiet champion of conservative causes who wasn't merely an ideologue.

"His astonishing success story as a businessman serves as an inspiration to anyone who ever dreamed of bigger things, and his selfless dedication to the people and causes he believed in serves as an inspiration to anyone who has ever felt the call to get involved," said Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is of no relation and has received reliable financial support from Bob Perry.

Bob Perry was a fixture of GOP fundraising in Texas — and nationally — dating back to former President George W. Bush's Texas gubernatorial races in the mid-1990s.

Last year alone, Bob Perry gave more than $18 million to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and organizations that backed his candidacy. That ranked him third among all Romney donors, behind only Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons.

Calculating exactly how much Perry donated in his lifetime is difficult. Since 2004, Perry has given a total of at least $45 million in federal contributions — excluding direct donations to candidates, according to Federal Elections Commission records, a 2012 AP analysis and figures tabulated by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

In his native Texas, Perry donated slightly less in statehouse campaigns but was peerless in his spending. He gave at least $32 million since 2000, according to an analysis of campaign finance reports by Mark Jones, who chairs the department of political science at Rice University.

That is three times what any other single donor in Texas spent over that span.

"Perry is someone who believed in the Texas model. He put his money where his mouth was," Jones said. "But what distinguishes him from some other conservatives was that while he was very conservative, he was realistic and pragmatic in terms of how he approached politics."

Perry vaulted to the top ranks of conservative donors in 2004 with the Swift Boat ads. He became involved at the urging of his friend John O'Neill, a Houston attorney who co-wrote "Unfit for Command," a book that questions Kerry's military service.

Bill Miller, an Austin lobbyist who Perry hired as a spokesman when scrutiny surrounding the ads erupted, said in 2004 that Perry's donation to the Swift Boat Veterans reflected his belief in the group's message.

"In my conversations with Bob, he just said, 'John contacted me, told me what he was trying to do, and it sounded good to me.' That's really the way he does it," Miller said in 2004. "People call him and pitch him, and if he likes what he hears, he'll write a check."

Raised by a father who was a teacher and later became dean of students at Baylor University, Perry started his career as a high school teacher after college. But he switched professions in 1968 and established Perry Homes, where he made his fortune.


Associated Press Writer Stephen Braun in Washington and Will Weissert in Austin contributed to this report.

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