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Deal-Maker’s Worlds Mesh at Party in S.F.

Times Staff Writer

It was not your run-of-the-millionaire’s birthday bash.

Tibetan prayer flags hung from the chandeliers. Crimson-robed Buddhist monks mixed with wine-sipping industrialists. And on stage in a ballroom of the Westin St. Francis Hotel were two Nobel Peace Prize winners -- former President Carter and the exiled Tibetan religious leader, the Dalai Lama.

Somehow, it all seemed to fit the eclectic personality of the honoree, San Francisco financier and University of California Regent Richard C. Blum, 70, the husband of United States Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Blum, a longtime behind-the-scenes political spouse, made his fortune in the ruthlessly competitive arena of corporate takeovers.

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But in recent years, he has taken an increasingly public posture as a political patron and philanthropist.

The Nov. 6 dinner was sponsored by the American Himalayan Foundation as a combination charity fundraiser and birthday celebration.

By the end of the evening, the 1,050 guests had pledged more than $1 million for hospitals and schools in Nepal.

Blum, who once owned the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, cheerfully manages his own three-ring act in the not always compatible worlds of business, politics and Eastern religion.

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“I must have done something terribly wrong in my previous life to have been reborn an investment banker,” Blum joked in his introduction of the Dalai Lama at the event.

Born into a family of Jewish clothing merchants, Blum still attends synagogue on high holidays, but says he draws most of his inspiration and compassion from Tibetan Buddhism.

A former mountain climber who once led an Everest expedition, he says his life was changed by encounters with Buddhist Sherpas during a monthlong trek three decades ago in Nepal.

Out of gratitude to one of his first Nepalese guides, Blum paid for the education of the illiterate Sherpa’s five daughters, including, for three of them, university study in the United States.

In the anteroom of his North Beach office, Blum has a large sculpture of the multi-armed Avalokitesvara, Buddha of compassion.

On a balcony of the six-story Blum office building, he maintains a Buddhist prayer wall.

The sedately decorated workplace, with all its religious motifs, gives it the air of an Eastern temple.

Yet from the same office in 2002, Blum successfully battled corporate raider Carl Icahn for control of a New York real estate company that has been a key to a recent surge in Blum’s personal wealth.

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As Blum’s fortune has grown, so has the level of his Democratic political patronage and public philanthropy.

When former Vice President Al Gore’s alternative cable television network, Current TV, was struggling earlier this year, Blum stepped up with a $20-million investment to keep it alive. “He put together the final and critical piece of financing,” Gore said.

After Democratic leader Tom Daschle lost his U.S. Senate seat, Blum found him a corporate directorship on the board of one of his firms.

And when University of California Chancellor Robert Birgeneau mused recently about creating a Global Poverty Center on the Berkeley campus, Blum said he would fund it for what is expected to be between $10 million and $20 million.

Blum, who married Feinstein in 1980 when she was mayor of San Francisco, has long been involved in politics.

He supported longtime friend and former Vice President Walter Mondale in Mondale’s political campaigns since the 1960s.

He was an unpaid financial consultant to San Francisco’s George Moscone before Moscone’s assassination at City Hall in 1978. And he showed himself to be a fiercely loyal and tireless worker in Feinstein’s campaigns for mayor, California governor and U.S. Senate.

But friends say it is only recently that his wealth and influence have grown to a point where Blum has become a power in his own right.

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“I remember Dick when he had a walk-up office on Jackson Street and two secretaries,” recalled Clint Riley, a San Francisco real estate investor and former political consultant who managed some of Feinstein’s early campaigns.

“Now his business success has freed him up philanthropically and given him access all over the world,” Riley said.

In addition to his appointment as a UC regent, Bloom serves on eight corporate boards and a number of nonprofit organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund, the World Conference of Religions for Peace, the Wilderness Society, the American Cancer Society and the American Himalayan Foundation, which he founded in 1980.

He is a major contributor to the Carter Center, the human rights organization founded by the former president, and the Brookings Institution, the Washington-based think tank.

He holds an annual world poverty conference in Aspen, Colo., where he and Feinstein own a sprawling $7-million “log-cabin style” mountainside estate.

Blum started his business career as a stockbroker and analyst with the old San Francisco-based Sutro & Co.

In 1975, Blum launched his own company, Blum Capital Partners. Specializing in corporate rescues, Blum Capital’s major investments have included Northwest Airlines, Playtex Products Inc., Korean First Bank, Perini Corp. and URS Corp., a San Francisco-based engineering design company.

Blum’s wealth and prominence have sometimes been controversial, largely because of his wife’s political position as senior senator from California.

Feinstein’s longtime friendship with former Chinese political leader Jiang Zemin, dating to the days when they were sister-city mayors in San Francisco and Shanghai, gave Blum, who has investments in China, access to the normally impenetrable Beijing political system.

In 1995, for example, Northwest Airlines became the first American carrier to win a nonstop route from Beijing, the Chinese capital, to the U.S.

In response to charges of possible conflict of interest that surfaced in his wife’s reelection campaigns, Blum pledged to divert any profits made in China to the Himalayan Foundation.

Although one of his investment funds, Newbridge Capital, has a $3-billion investment fund in Asia, Blum says only a small percentage is in China.

Blum’s main investment banking house, Blum Capital Partners, manages a total of about $7 billion in funds.

But the recent surge in his wealth, he said in an interview, comes mainly from his substantial interest in Los Angeles-based CB Richard Ellis, the international real estate firm. Blum and his partners bought controlling interest in the company in 2001 for $220 million, merged it with New York real estate firm Insignia Financial Group Inc., and took it public in 2004.

According to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Blum’s firm last year sold some of its CB Richard Ellis stock for $432 million and continued to hold on to 17 million shares currently valued at more than $900 million.

Blum said he has no plans to slow down his business ventures.

“When I’m 100 years old, I will still be a deal junkie,” he said.

But he also says he wants to devote even more of his time to philanthropy.

“At this stage in my life, it is my obligation to take my capital and my experience and spend a substantial amount of my time on issues that are going to help people in poverty or advance the next generation,” said Blum, who played on his high school and college golf teams. “I like to think of myself as someone who replaces his divot.”


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