Sunday, November 2, 2003

Bob Perry is probably the most influential man in Texas you'll never meet. The Houston home builder doesn't attend fund-raisers, political gatherings or big social events. He doesn't stand before microphones or issue public statements. There are no photos in his office of beaming politicians firmly shaking his hand.

Builder's money talks, but what is it saying?

Beneficiaries of Texas' top political contributor rarely speak with him

Dallas Morning News
Sunday, November 2, 2003

AUSTIN -- Bob Perry is probably the most influential man in Texas you'll never meet.

The Houston home builder doesn't attend fund-raisers, political gatherings or big social events. He doesn't stand before microphones or issue public statements. There are no photos in his office of beaming politicians firmly shaking his hand.

The man, whose style is more deacon than dynamo, walks softly and carries a big checkbook.

Since January 2000, Mr. Perry has donated more than $5.2 million to state candidates and causes, making him by far the most prolific giver in Texas over that time, according to campaign records reviewed by The Dallas Morning News.

Chunks of his money, coming sometimes in a flurry of $25,000 checks, have gone to support anti-lawsuit, pro-business groups ($320,000) and the state Republican Party ($980,000).

Last year, he provided $600,000 to 23 GOP candidates for the Legislature, helping lift Republicans to their first takeover of the Texas House since Reconstruction.

He also has given $175,000 to Gov. Rick Perry (no relation), $215,000 to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and $437,500 to Attorney General Greg Abbott. He is the largest individual contributor to almost every statewide officeholder, all Republicans.

Detractors say Mr. Perry, who turned 71 Thursday, is playing kingmaker and has introduced a level of giving that is corrosive in politics. Those who received the contributions say that they rarely have met the man and that what he wants is a matter of conjecture. Mr. Perry declined to be interviewed.

"He didn't seem to be an ideologue on individual issues," said former state Rep. Debra Danburg of Houston, a liberal Democrat, who received $10,000 from Mr. Perry. She said she called him once to say they should meet, but it never happened. "I think he just likes being a player," she said.

Another Houston home builder, Richard Weekley, leader of the Perry-backed Texans for Lawsuit Reform, recalled that earlier this year he was walking in the Capitol with a group of Houston business leaders when they happened upon Bob Deuell, a new Republican senator from Greenville.

"I asked Bob Deuell, 'Have you ever met Bob Perry?' And he said, 'No, I haven't. My gosh, where is he?' " Mr. Weekley said.

Dr. Deuell looked eagerly among the faces. That day he was pleased to meet Mr. Perry, who had given his campaign $267,500.

Early years

In 1932, in the heart of the Depression, Bob Perry was born in a one-room, threadbare house in Bosque County, northwest of Waco. Bobby, as he was known, grew up in communities so rural that his first pet was a pig. It was a childhood played out in small Central Texas towns where everyone knew him. His father, W.C. Perry, was principal and later school superintendent.

The elder Perry eventually worked his way up to Baylor University in Waco, where he retired in 1980 as vice president of student affairs. It was W.C. Perry who in 1967 asked undergraduate student Tom DeLay "not to re-enroll" at Baylor because of some pranks. The current U.S. House majority leader transferred to the University of Houston.

Any difficulties eventually were put aside. W.C. Perry supported Mr. DeLay's run for Congress, and in 2001, the younger Perry gave $95,000 to Mr. DeLay's political committee, Republican Majority Issues Committee, federal records show.

Mr. Perry's early years are documented in the book The Grand Prairie Years -- A Biography of W.C. Perry, published in 1987 and backed by the W.C. Perry Foundation, founded the same year by Bob Perry. The book's author, Ron Arnold, said he met Bob Perry at a conservative issues conference in the mid-1980s attended by some of President Ronald Reagan's Cabinet and other administration officials. Mr. Perry liked a book Mr. Arnold had written on Interior Secretary James Watts. The two met, and Mr. Perry arranged for a book about his father. "He seems very determined and persistent," Mr. Arnold said of the younger Perry. "There's an astuteness there that's almost uncanny." He said Mr. Perry was always quiet and gracious, never showy. "I could never imagine this guy blustering," he said.

The other thing that comes across is his Baptist faith, Mr. Arnold said. "He would say something like, 'The Lord's been good to me,' or about a near family tragedy that turned out well because God protected him," he said.

The book describes Mr. Perry's father in similar terms, and in ways that reflect on Mr. Perry's penchant for remaining behind the political scene. It was a trademark of the elder Perry, according to the book, "to make much over others but not over himself or his own."

Mostly Republicans

Of the 160 state campaigns that received money from Bob Perry in the last three years, 90 percent were Republican. But nestled amid those names, with slightly fewer 0s on their checks, were about 15 Democrats, mostly from the Houston area.

In total, Mr. Perry's $5 million in contributions eclipses the state's other large givers in the same period: Republican and school voucher advocate James Leininger of San Antonio has given more than $2 million, and trial lawyer John O'Quinn of Houston has contributed just over $1 million.

"I think I've met him," said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who has received $26,000 of Mr. Perry's money.

"A group of businessmen came to my office. I don't think he said a word," Mr. Whitmire recalled. "He's never asked me to support any particular issue."

Correspondence in the governor's office shows he has never written the governor about a public policy issue or to pass along an invitation. He has hired others to speak for him. Neal "Buddy" Jones, arguably the state's top lobbyist, works for him, and Bob Perry supplied Mr. Jones' political committee $200,000 to spread around as campaign donations. This year, the Legislature did two things of keen interest to Mr. Perry: It clamped down on civil lawsuits, limiting damage awards and how they could be filed, and it created the Texas Residential Construction Commission.

Many lawsuits

Court records show that Mr. Perry has been sued about 20 times since 1985 in Harris County alone. Most of the suits were settled. The largest suit, known as the Brio case, involved 1,700 plaintiffs in hundreds of homes built in the 1980s over a toxic waste dump in southeast Houston. Perry Homes was one of more than a dozen defendants sued, including chemical companies and a variety of developers and home builders.

Mr. Perry said through a spokesman that his company was responsible for only 11 home sites along the periphery of the affected developments. An insurance consortium settled for the home builders in the area, paying out more than $200 million in 1992, lawyers for homeowners said. The corporate counsel for Perry Homes, John Krugh, declined to discuss the Brio lawsuit.

The second legislative triumph was the Residential Construction Commission, which backers say will establish minimum requirements for home builders, certify them and create an arbitration process for homeowners who have complaints.

Consumer groups have criticized the measure for imposing what they say could be costly and time-consuming arbitration on aggrieved homeowners, who are forced to use the system before they can sue in court. The man who crafted much of the legislation and who was appointed by Gov. Perry to the new nine-member commission is Mr. Krugh, the lawyer for Perry Homes.

Mr. Krugh said his boss, Bob Perry, was not directly involved in the legislative efforts.

He also said that while he was willing to talk at length about the public commission, he would not speak of Perry Homes or the man he's worked with for 15 years, saying they are private concerns.

'Mystery man'

Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, which monitors campaign finance laws, called Mr. Perry a "mystery man." "We never figured out exactly why he gives what he gives. He seems to love all things Republican and conservative," Mr. McDonald said.

Regardless of where the money goes, the sheer volume of it is a problem, Mr. McDonald said.

"It's corrupting to our democracy," he said. "This kind of economic clout puts too much power in the hands of too few wealthy donors." Mr. McDonald said that Mr. Perry has never granted a one-on-one interview to a Texas newspaper.

While Mr. Perry declined to be interviewed for this story, he did clarify a few personal and business issues through an intermediary. And last year, he responded to some written questions, mostly about his background, submitted by the Houston Chronicle.

Former Texas Democratic Party chairwoman Molly Beth Malcolm said she finds Mr. Perry's contributions troubling.

"After making over $4 million in contributions, Bob Perry is the most valuable player in the far right wing of the Republican Party. The man has literally bought his way into influence and power," she said. Susan Weddington, who recently stepped down as head of the Texas GOP -- which has enjoyed almost $1 million of the Perry largesse -- declined to comment. She said she didn't know him well enough to say anything.

In the groove

After graduating from Baylor University with a major in history, Bob Perry followed in his father's footsteps and taught high school students for several years. In 1961, he married his wife of 42 years, Doylene, and they had four children. By 1968, he decided to get into home building, starting in Houston with 44 homes.

"I think he found something he had an aptitude for; he was comfortable; he liked it, and he's been in that groove ever since," said his spokesman Bill Miller.

Perry Homes has since expanded into Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, Austin and McAllen. Last year, the company closed more than 1,500 sales with total revenue of $420 million, according to the trade magazine Professional Builder.

It was gruff, self-made oilfield-equipment millionaire Bill Clements who hooked him on state politics. Mr. Clements was running for governor in 1978, trying to be the first Republican to win in more than 100 years. "He was very active in the campaign in his local area," Mr. Clements said of Mr. Perry. "He just showed up at the events."

Mr. Clements said he didn't know much about him, other than he wasn't one to stick out or voice strong opinions.

"I don't think he's ever been involved as a paint-me-red Republican," Mr. Clements said.

"All he has ever been interested in is just having A-1, first-class government. He's interested in good people. Absolutely in high integrity. He makes that well-known."

By 1986, when Mr. Clements was plotting his comeback to a second term, Mr. Perry served as his campaign treasurer.

They became good friends, and Mr. Perry visited the Governor's Mansion numerous times, Mr. Clements said.

"He's very pleasant. Has a great demeanor. Meets people easily. He does a lot of listening; he doesn't do a lot of talking," the former governor said.

Inspiring loyalty

Most who know Mr. Perry say that he is not thinking about retirement, still enjoys going to the office every day, and devotes time to Nassau Bay Baptist Church, southeast of Houston.

"You would look upon him the first time you met him and you'd think he's a successful man. Whatever he does, he's good at it. But you wouldn't see any pinky rings or flashy jewelry," said state Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson.

He gives to community projects and tries to keep his name out of the charities he sponsors, Mr. Patterson said.

"He's not a knee-jerk, right-wing guy as some might depict him," he said. "He is an ideological conservative who is interested in the big picture."

Mr. Weekley, a home-building competitor, said Mr. Perry is, "soft-spoken, very gracious, distinguished, kind."

He described Mr. Perry as a role model who succeeds and then gives back to his community. "I just got a letter from Bob asking me to contribute to the United Negro College Fund," Mr. Weekley said.

"If he sees there's a need someplace, he has no qualms of doing what he can to help," Mr. Weekley said. "I admire the guy so much; I'll do anything for Bob Perry."