Top Texas Donor’s Influence Far More Visible Than He Is

Times Staff Writer

Robert J. Perry, the main financier behind the effort to discredit Sen. John F. Kerry’s military record, is the most prolific political donor in Texas.

A homebuilder who lives lakeside in this Houston suburb, Perry has helped bankroll the widespread success of Republican candidates here, has long-standing ties to many close associates of President Bush and has contributed to Bush’s last four campaigns. According to interviews and campaign documents, he has given a total of more than $5 million to scores of political candidates.

“And the vast majority of those people have never laid eyes on him,” said Court Koenning, executive director of the Republican Party in Harris County, which includes the Houston metropolitan area.


Despite the enormous influence of his money, Perry, 71, is reticent and guarded, and remains something of a mystery in Texas. But this week, his largess crept onto the national stage.

A group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth launched television ads Thursday accusing Kerry, a Massachusetts senator and the Democratic presidential nominee, of lying about his military record. A $100,000 check that Perry wrote to the group this year represented about two-thirds of the money in its accounts as of June 30, according to financial documents.

The Bush campaign says it has no ties to the group.

The advertisements, running in the battleground states of Wisconsin, Ohio and West Virginia, are part of a multimedia campaign questioning Kerry’s fitness as a leader and commander in chief. A book written by one of the group’s leaders, Houston lawyer John E. O'Neill, is scheduled to be released Aug. 15.

“Bob Perry is a very generous guy with his political donations,” Koenning said. “His primary interest is good government.... Everybody agrees that John Kerry’s service to this country is admirable. But if he lied about it, that speaks to his character.”

Kerry was awarded three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star for his service in Vietnam. Upon his return, he became a leader of a veterans group that declared the war a mistake. His military service is a cornerstone of his presidential campaign, one his advisors believe contrasts sharply with Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard.

None of the veterans featured in the advertisements served on the river patrol boats Kerry commanded during Vietnam. Several of Kerry’s crewmates have condemned the advertisements, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), once a prisoner of war in Vietnam, called them “dishonest and dishonorable.”

“Bob Perry pulls the strings and never gets his hands dirty. But even by his standards, this latest deal is just over the top,” said Charles Soechting, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party.

Perry declined to comment through his spokesman, Bill Miller, an Austin political consultant.

Perry has been a political donor for years, working with White House political director Karl Rove during Rove’s Texas years, contributing to Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s rise in politics and giving $20,000 to Bush’s two campaigns for governor in the 1990s.

But Perry, no relation to the governor, began increasing his donations in 2000. Today, campaign documents and his representatives confirm that he has given more money to campaigns and political organizations in the last four years than any other Texan. A few of his donations have gone to Democratic candidates, but most have gone to Republicans and conservative causes.

He has given nearly $1 million to the Texas Republican Party. He has donated at least $200,000 to Texans for Lawsuit Reform, one of the most successful “tort reform” organizations in the nation.

In the 2002 election cycle, he also provided about $700,000 for the GOP’s effort to dominate Texas politics. That included $165,000 given to Texans for a Republican Majority, an offshoot of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s Americans for a Republican Majority, formed to help conservatives get elected.

The election that year of a slate of DeLay-backed Republicans -- all supported by Perry -- gave the GOP control of the state House for the first time in 130 years. That paved the way for passage of a host of conservative measures, such as abortion restrictions and limits on medical malpractice cases. The GOP also redrew congressional maps for Texas, a move designed to shore up Republican control of Congress.

Perry is largely unknown outside of campaign finance databases and a small group of political leaders, shunning social activities often embraced by major donors. Many of the politicians who have received Perry’s money say they have never met him. One who has, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs, said he wanted to know just one thing before supporting her: “Are you a straight-talking, straight-shooting person who is going to represent Texas well?”

“I just think he’s an unassuming guy,” Combs said.

Born in a tiny ranching community in Bosque County, Texas, Perry attended Baylor University and then taught high school for awhile, like his father before him. In 1968, he started a home-building business in Houston.

Today, Perry Homes does business across central and eastern Texas. The company’s website lists 48 communities in the Houston area alone where the company is building or selling houses, which range from $110,000 to more than $400,000.

Perry and his wife, Doylene, have been married since 1961. They have four grown children.

The Perry home is less than a mile from Nassau Bay Baptist Church, where the couple attends services each weekend, said Senior Pastor David Fannin.

“Bob is the most kind, gracious and giving man you will ever meet,” Fannin said. “He is a man of strong conviction.”

Perry donates generously to the church, Fannin said, but never asks anything in return. His supporters also cite that trait.

“He has never asked me for a single thing,” Combs said. “He is one of those rare individuals who is just interested in people being honest and ethical.”

His detractors say otherwise.

Like many prominent building companies, Perry Homes has been sued dozens of times. Last year, Perry was among several developers watching as the Legislature imposed strict limits on civil lawsuits, particularly claims brought by homeowners alleging shoddy construction.

Critics called the seats where he and other builders watched the legislative debate the “owner’s box,” because much of their money had gone to advocacy groups fighting for limits on the civil court system, as well as politicians who supported those efforts. During that debate, the governor put a Perry Homes executive on a panel established to put in place new restrictions on claims against builders.

Perry’s backers also say he works hard to reach out to Houston’s Latino and African American communities. But some leaders of those communities accuse him of aggressively buying land in inner-city areas, then building expensive homes that gentrify those neighborhoods and drive out low-income families.

“I think he fancies himself as a person who can manipulate politics for his own gain,” Soechting said. “Politics and money are one and the same to him.”