A Bush Nemesis

Posted May 4, 2004 at 4:36pm

Peter Lewis might not have the clout of famed political donor George Soros or possess as big a Republican bull’s-eye on his back as the Hungarian-born billionaire. But if President Bush loses this fall’s election, it’s safe to say that Lewis’ monetary contributions will have had a hand in it.

[IMGCAP(1)]The irony is, Lewis was once a Bush donor.

With the political season heating up, Lewis, the head of Ohio-based Progressive Auto Insurance Co., has already donated $7.6 million to the increasingly influential 527 political groups that are providing soft money to liberal political candidates and causes, according to figures from PoliticalMoneyLine.com. He is the third-largest individual donor to the burgeoning soft-money receptacles.

Of that load of soft money, close to $3 million has gone to America Coming Together.

Lewis “was one of the initial donors,” said Lorraine Voles, a spokeswoman for the grassroots organization.

ACT’s primary mission this election season is to target 17 swing states and tailor political messages to voters in each one.

“The economy is a national issue, but in Ohio economic problems are different than those in Minnesota,” Voles said.

ACT is trying to generate support from previously disenfranchised voters by reminding them that they have the power to create change in this country.

“ACT’s whole mission is about bringing voters to the voting booth. We are committed to bringing democracy door to door,” Voles said.

Left unsaid is that the group’s corollary mission is to make sure Bush doesn’t win four more years.

People who know Lewis — whose office did not respond to requests for comment — said there is a certain irony in his involvement with these anti-Bush organizations. Lewis, they said, is less interested in the partisan mission of the organization and more interested in the fact that ACT is generating messages that are

geared toward specific states and specific audiences.

In fact, he gave $1,000 to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s fledgling presidential campaign in 1999.

Now, however, the 70-year-old insurance mogul is spreading his money around to other anti-Bush groups. Not that he isn’t used to spreading around money in general.

Lewis has donated at least $55 million to his alma mater, Princeton University. He has given $24 million to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where his insurance company is based. The college plans to name a campus after him.

Lewis has also been a huge donor to arts and athletic programs — most notably a $50 million endowment to the Guggenheim Museum in New York. And he is known as one of the biggest donors in history to the American Civil Liberties Union.

On the 527 front, Lewis has given $2 million to the Joint Victory Campaign 2004, which comprises both ACT and the Media Fund, whose sole purpose is to run television, radio, print and Internet ads in states crucial in the upcoming election. Interestingly, Joint Victory Campaign 2004, has poured $7.37 million of its receipts into ACT, making it very likely that swing state voters will be finding plenty of ACT volunteers on their doorsteps in the weeks leading up the Nov. 2 election.

Most visible of all the groups Lewis has contributed to so far is the MoveOn.org Voter Fund, which Lewis has aided with $2.5 million this election cycle.

Despite the 527 group’s name, MoveOn.org’s Voter Fund is very different from its 501(c)(4) sister organization, MoveOn.org.

According to the group’s Web site, the Voter Fund component of the political group “primarily runs ads exposing President Bush’s failed policies in key ‘battleground’ states.” Its 501(c)(4) counterpart “primarily focuses on education and advocacy on important national issues.”

So is Lewis simply using his money to help defeat Bush in 2004 or is he just trying to make voters as progressive as his auto insurance company’s name?

According to Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project Political Fund, another beneficiary of Lewis’ largess, the millionaire’s donations are more about educating potential voters to important issues.

Mirken is careful not to put words in the mouth of the multimillionaire donor, whose company has 11 million customers, saying, “Peter is a relatively private guy.”

The MPP received $145,000 from Lewis and is putting that money toward lobbying Congress and state legislatures to pass laws allowing marijuana to be used for medicinal purposes.

“We don’t use the word legalize. That makes people think marijuana will be on the candy bar counter next to a Snickers bar,” Mirken said.

Mirken says that Lewis is one of the group’s largest donors, but that his philanthropy toward the pot lobby is really just a drop in the bucket compared with the federal government’s funding for the war on drugs.

“We don’t have the drug czar’s ad budget. He spends more on ads in two and a half weeks than we do in a year,” Mirken said.

With the Bush campaign almost certain to outdistance Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry’s (Mass.) fundraising efforts, it seems that at the very least Lewis’ donations might just be an effort on his part to make this election year as fair of a fight as possible.

Even if Lewis isn’t as well-known as Soros, some conservative groups are taking note of his activities. A Web site that has been set up anonymously urges readers to boycott Progressive Auto Insurance because of Lewis’ views.

“The auto insurance bills those 11 million customers pay every month are being used by Mr. Lewis to fund secretive groups pushing causes we think many of his 11 million customers would find objectionable,” the site warns. “Money you send Mr. Lewis’ company to insure your car, and eventually paid to him, should not be used to fund a political agenda that you oppose.”

If anyone wants to take this group’s advice to heart, Progressive Auto Insurance makes it easy for the consumer: One of the company’s well-known innovations is posting its prices alongside those of its competitors on its Web site.