HOUSTON — The chief financial backer of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and its television ad challenging Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry’s military record is a wealthy Texas homebuilder known for his deep pockets and aversion to the limelight.
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Bob J. Perry, 71, provided at least $100,000 to help start the veterans group at the urging of his friend John O’Neill, a Houston attorney who co-wrote “Unfit for Command,” a book which attacks Kerry’s military record.
Perry donates generously to conservative causes in Texas and across the nation, but public records reflect little effort to gain the ear of politicians he’s helped elect.
A man of contrasts, Perry founded a home-building company that reported revenues of $420 million in 2002. But he and his wife, Doylene, live in a $662,000 five-bedroom house in Nassau Bay, a modest Houston suburb near NASA’s Johnson Space Center, rather than a multimillion-dollar mansion in River Oaks, Houston’s wealthiest enclave.
He’s given more than $5.2 million to Texas candidates and committees since 2000, according to Texans for Public Justice, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign contributions, yet Texas’ top GOP donor is rarely seen at fancy fund-raisers or hobnobbing with the political elite.
White House senior adviser Karl Rove told Fox television’s Brit Hume this week that he’s known Perry for 25 years, and he was one of the few wealthy Texans “willing to write checks to support Republican candidates.”
Rove said he had not spoken with Perry in more than a year, and he “certainly did not discuss with him or anybody else in the Swift Boat leadership what they’re doing.”
Perry, in Mexico this week, declined an interview for this story and referred questions to recently hired spokesman Bill Miller, an Austin political consultant.
He'll write the check
Miller said 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. “People call him and pitch him, and if he likes what he hears, he’ll write a check.”
The Swift Boat ads, which ran in three swing states earlier this month, challenged Kerry’s wartime service in Vietnam for which he received five medals. The ads said Kerry didn’t deserve his Purple Hearts, lied to get his Bronze Star and Silver Star and unfairly branded all veterans with his 1971 congressional testimony about atrocities in Vietnam.
The Kerry campaign rebutted the ads with Navy records and witnesses who served with him. Kerry contends the group is a front for President Bush’s re-election campaign.
Bush has criticized ads by outside groups of all political stripes but refused to specifically denounce the Swift boat ads.
Perry donated $46,000 to Bush’s 1994 and 1998 Texas gubernatorial campaigns, and $2,000 to his current re-election effort.
Perry is the top individual contributor (but not related) to Gov. Rick Perry, Bush’s successor, giving $225,000 since 2001.
Documents in the Texas archives do not show Perry ever received special board or committee appointments from the governors. Perry did write each of them about legislation he opposed.
In 1997, Perry asked Bush to oppose a title insurance bill, which passed the state Senate but never made it out of the House.
In 1999, Perry urged then-Lt. Gov. Rick Perry to block a bill he contended would discourage judges from dismissing or ruling on civil cases before trial. Rick Perry wrote back a month later that Bush had vetoed the bill.
Lots of money, few words
Miller said Perry considers Rick Perry a friend, but they seldom see each other and don’t talk often.
Bob Perry “doesn’t come to Austin, doesn’t do social events or political events,” Miller said. “Just like when O’Neill called him up — he’s not incommunicado, but he’s not a schmoozer at all.”
Perry was born 50 miles south of Fort Worth in a farming and ranching area.
His father was a teacher and later became dean of students at Baylor University, where Perry studied history. Perry taught high school after graduating from Baylor in 1954, but in 1968 he switched professions and established Perry Homes. The private Houston-based company is now one of the largest builders of homes and townhouses in Texas.
In 1978, former Texas Republican Gov. Bill Clements asked Perry to help raise money for his first successful gubernatorial campaign.
Since then, Perry’s donations have grown.
“I have been fortunate to gain more financial strength in recent years, and I made a decision to be more involved in campaigns that I think are important,” Perry told the Houston Chronicle in a rare 2002 interview.
In the 2002 election cycle, Perry was the state’s largest individual contributor to the Texas Republican Party ($905,000) and to the campaigns of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst ($115,000) and Attorney General Greg Abbott, who got $387,500 from Perry and $150,000 from Perry’s wife.
Since 2000, Perry has also given to political groups known as 527s after a provision of law authorizing them. Along with Swift Boat, he gave $165,000 to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s Texans for a Republican Majority and $105,000 to the Texas Association of Business.
A Texas grand jury is investigating whether those two groups broke state campaign finance laws when they funneled $2.5 million in corporate contributions to Republican state House candidates during the 2002 election.
Perry’s donations this election cycle include $10,000 to the pro-Republican Club for Growth and at least $19,250 to federal candidates and party committees, according the Center for Public Integrity, which tracks contributions.
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