Bobby Jack Perry was, in some ways, the stereotypical mysterious rich Texan at the middle of a conspiratorial Oliver Stone movie. He was the sort of political player whose combination of ideology and money influenced legislation and elections far beyond the ability of a normal citizen.
The self-made Houston homebuilder was one of the biggest bankrollers of conservative causes over the past two decades, a financier of politicians like George W. Bush, Rick Perry and Greg Abbott, of Super PACs like American Crossroads and Make Us Great Again, and of 527s that include, most famously, the Swift Vets and POWs for Truth. He gave $28 million to Texas candidates and causes between 2000 and 2010, and another $38 million over that period outside of Texas, according to a Texas Tribune analysis. The Center for Public Integrity counted $23.5 million in contributions to super PACs during the last election cycle, among other contributions.
Perry also gave to Democrats — not nearly as much, but more than $1 million in Texas over the last decade. Most, but not all, were Houston figures like state Sens. John Whitmire, Rodney Ellis and the late Mario Gallegos and state Reps. Sylvester Turner, Ana Hernandez Luna, Garnet Coleman, Harold Dutton and Carol Alvarado. Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, was a Perry favorite, and the homebuilder even contributed to San Antonio Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, the thorn in the sides of Texas House Republicans.
Perry didn’t explain his politics, his donations, his ideology or his aims — not in public and, often, not to the candidates he financed. That left Perry's friends and foes to describe him after he died in his sleep this weekend at the age of 80.
“When you look at Texas political history from the 70s to today, and particularly the time frame in the late '80s and early '90s, we focus a lot on the elected officials,” said Steve Munisteri, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas. “At least some of the weight needs to be given to those who financed them.”
Perry fits into a line of rich Texans involved in politics, a list of names that includes brothers Herman and George Brown, Dan Root, members of the Hunt family, Louis Beecherl, Fred Baron, Bernard Rapoport and a few dozen more, who gave big to both parties. They weren’t the only sources of political money in their times, but they were often the most important ones.
“You can couch it a million different ways, but it is a great loss,” said Wayne Hamilton, a Republican political consultant and a former executive director of the state GOP. “It was not just money with Bob Perry. He was one of the moral bulwarks we had, concentrating on getting good candidates. People think of him as an economic conservative, but he was one of the best funders for social conservatives.”
Their acumen and experience were doubtlessly treasured by their political friends, but their influence came from their money.
It’s critical to have a ready source of funds in politics. And it’s a setback when it disappears. Dallas trial lawyer Fred Baron was the primary supporter for Texas Democrats for a period in the mid-2000s, helping attract other donors and stepping in with his own checkbook when others fell short. That’s one reason — not the only one — why legislative Democrats increased their numbers in the 2006 and 2008 elections. After he died, no donor of his caliber came forward to replace him. The Democrats — not solely for that reason — had disappointing results in Texas in many races in 2010 and 2012.
The Democrats were more dependent on a single donor than the Republicans. Perry was one of a handful of mega-donors in Texas conservative politics. But he was among the most generous, and the candidates who depended on him will have to find other patrons to replace him — if they can.
Todd Olsen, a Republican consultant who knew and worked with Perry, said “you don't” replace people like Perry. “He gave, and he cared about results,” Olsen said in an email. “He gave without ego.” He called Perry “faithful and optimistic to a fault.”
Steve Munisteri met Perry as a high school conservative, when the Houston homebuilder was a regular $1,000 donor to Young Americans for Freedom. “We didn’t know him, and he wouldn’t take our calls, most of the time,” said Munisteri, now the chairman of the Republican Party of Texas. “But he supported us.”
Perry was one of four donors who bailed the state GOP out of a $900,000 debt in the 1980s, according to Munisteri. “He was a steady and ready source of funding for a long time, which was critically important,” he said. “There are only a very few people in the whole country who can give at that level. So to have one in Texas and to have one who was focused on Republicans and have it constant over 40 years is not only a rarity but it’s certainly possible that it may not be replaceable.”
That’s a problem for Munisteri’s generation and the one behind it, a problem they have in common with the Democrats.
“It would be a pleasant surprise to find another donor like that in my remaining lifetime, ” Munisteri said. “It is a matter of some concern that so many of our biggest donors are well past the age of Social Security.”