There has been no one quite like Howard Hughes in some time. But one man comes close as a “bashful billionaire” or reclusive powerbroker: leftist Peter B. Lewis.
A graduate of Princeton University and chairman of the Cleveland-based Progressive Corp., Lewis oversees the third-largest automobile insurer in the United States and is worth an estimated $1.1 billion, according to Forbes magazine.
The 70-year-old Lewis holds the distinction of being the second-largest donor during the ’04 election cycle to the non-party groups known as “527s” (after a section of the tax code that permits these huge donations). In fact, Lewis donated nearly $23 million to such organizations, including $16 million to the Joint Victory Campaign (created by combining the three largest 527s dedicated to President Bush’s defeat), $2.9 million to Americans Coming Together (ACT) and $2.5 million to Move On.Org.
One website that delineated the activities of the left-wing 527s characterized their biggest bankroller as “reclusive”—an adjective frequently applied to Hughes in his day.
Lewis has not granted interviews, is rarely photographed, and, writes Jane Mayer in the New Yorker, “spent much of 2004 discreetly directing millions of dollars to liberal groups allied with the Democratic Party . . . while cruising the Mediterranean Sea on his two-hundred-and-fifty foot yacht, Lone Ranger.”
In addition to his anti-Bush efforts, Lewis is particularly interested in the cause of marijuana legalization.
Having succeeded his father at the helm of the family insurance business at age 32, Lewis helped raise Progressive from a relatively small operation into the third-largest auto insurer in the nation. Today, with nationwide operations, Progressive has more than 26,000 employees.
He estimates that he has thus far given away $250 million, with nearly half of it ($117 million) going to his alma mater, Princeton.
Last year, longtime Princeton contributor and trustee Lewis made headlines when the university announced a gift of $60 million to support construction of a library to be named for him. The design of the library is the work of architect Frank Gehry, a noted disciple of “architecture is art” school. With its ultramodern design—including ski-slope-like roofs and space capsule-style compartments—the proposed Lewis Library stands in striking contrast to the very traditional buildings that have long been emblematic of Princeton.
The mercurial side of Lewis’s philanthropic nature was also on display in his hometown of Cleveland. In July ’02, he made headlines there by announcing a moratorium on gifts to local nonprofits and institutions of higher learning. Cleveland was on a downward slide, in Lewis’s view, because corporate managers and corporate lawyers were running the city.
Whatever controversy and irritation comes out of Lewis’s philanthropic works, they are dwarfed by the anger engendered by his political activities—most notably, those involving efforts to legalize marijuana.
In 2000, Lewis made news of an unusual nature when he was arrested after customs agents found 1.7 ounces of marijuana and two ounces of hashish in his luggage at an airport in New Zealand. The charges were dropped when the billionaire agreed to make a donation to a drug rehabilitation center.
A year later, Lewis became the largest single donor to the American Civil Liberties Union. But, as with many of his charitable donations, there were some minor “strings attached” to his $7 million gift: namely, that $5 million be earmarked for the ACLU’s drug-policy litigation project, which challenges current laws dealing with drug testing in schools and the medicinal use of marijuana.
Since 1996, prior to the recent Supreme Court decision calling such laws into question, seven states have passed ballot initiatives permitting the medical use of marijuana. Although many states do not have the strict disclosure laws and spending limits that are required at the federal level, “in the states for which data are available, the measures are financed,” according to The Political Arena, by what might be deemed the holy trinity of drug policy reform: George Soros, Lewis and John Sperling. (Soros, of course, is the billionaire investor and bankroller of liberal causes and candidates; Sperling is an octogenarian businessman from Arizona who created the for-profit University of Phoenix in 1976.)
In 2002, Lewis financed through the Marijuana Policy Project an initiative in Nevada known as Question 9, which would have legalized marijuana outright. “It would force the state to grow marijuana, tax it, and sell up to three ounces per purchase in retail stores,” noted Sue Rusche, president of the anti-drug National Families in Action group. Nevadans said “no” by a 2-to-1 margin.
Rusche and other opponents of liberalizing marijuana laws also suggest that Lewis & Co. deploy duplicitous tactics in their efforts to secure passage of their initiatives and referenda. “When they promoted Proposition 36 in California [in 2000], the Soros camp told voters California’s prisons were filled with first- and second-time drug offenders who needed treatment rather than jail,” Rusche said. “But six months after the law’s implementation, the Los Angeles Times reported that Proposition 36 participants had an average of not one or two but 14 previous arrests, three felony convictions, and five misdemeanor convictions. What’s more, 50% of drug offenders either never showed up for treatment or failed to complete it. They’re back out on the street using drugs again, committing crimes again, being re-arrested and recycled through California’s now-overwhelmed treatment system. The result? Proposition 36 is failing at least half the people it promised to help.”
In Lewis’s own state of Ohio, he, Soros, and Sperling were again the major financial forces behind a statewide voter initiative, state Issue 1. Again, the purpose of the measure was a step toward decriminalizing marijuana by mandating treatment rather than jail for first time offenders. The measure went down by a 67%-to-33% margin.
One week after last year’s Democratic National Convention, reported Jane Mayer in the New Yorker, “a clandestine summit meeting took place at the Aspen Institute, in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. . . . Five billionaires joined half-a-dozen liberal leaders in a lengthy conversation about the future of progressive politics in America [and] they shared a common goal: to use their fortunes to engineer the defeat of President George W. Bush in the 2004 election.”
Out of this meeting came the contributions Lewis made to the Joint Victory Campaign, Americans Coming Together and MoveOn.org.
When asked by the Boston Globe what he hoped his money would buy, the billionaire responded with words that seem so symbolic of his high-dollar dealings in philanthropy and other areas: “It is a reasonable question, and I have chosen throughout this cycle not to comment. Let me continue not to comment, but you are asking me a fair question.”
Reprinted with permission from Foundation, a newsletter of the Capital Research Center.