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Quietly, ‘Swift Boat’ donor throws big money behind Romney

Bob Perry has given $80 million to political candidates and committees over the last decade, including $4 million to Restore Our Future, the super PAC supporting Mitt Romney. Bob Perry has given $80 million to political candidates and committees over the last decade, including $4 million to Restore Our Future, the super PAC supporting Mitt Romney. (Melissa Phillip/Houston Chronicle via AP/file 2002)
By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / April 13, 2012
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The leading donor to Mitt Romney’s super PAC is not a hedge-fund manager or Bain Capital executive. It is Bob Perry, a Houston home-building magnate who was also the top donor to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, in 2004.

Along with Foster Friess, who was Rick Santorum’s benefactor, and Sheldon Adelson, Newt Gingrich’s patron, Perry has become one of the most important, if least known, members of an elite class of Republican moneymen who are almost single-handedly reshaping the race for the White House.

He has doled out $80 million to political candidates and committees over the last decade. That includes $4 million to Restore Our Future, the super PAC supporting Romney that has systemically obliterated his opponents with negative ads.

Perry is also the second biggest donor to American Crossroads, the super PAC founded by Karl Rove that is planning a major ad blitz attacking President Obama. He has poured $9.5 million into that group.

But unlike Friess and Adelson, who have risen to prominence in this presidential election, Perry has always shunned attention. Associates say he never shows up at fund-raisers and rarely grants interviews.

“He’s an unassuming and very quiet person who you couldn’t pick out of a grocery store,’’ said Dave Carney, a Republican strategist who has known Perry since the 1990s.

Yet his vast fortune, combined with the new rules that allow unlimited donations to super PACs, means the reclusive businessman, 79, could play an even bigger role than he played in 2004, when the Swift Boat ads accused Kerry of lying about his record in Vietnam and helped sink his candidacy.

“I don’t speculate about the future, but he’s done quite a bit already, and clearly believes Romney would be much better for America’s future than another four years of President Obama,’’ said Anthony Holm, a Perry spokesman.

Perry has a habit of quietly giving money to recipients he has never met or even spoken with. Two weeks ago, he sent an unsolicited $10,000 check to the Texas Tribune, a nonprofit news organization in Austin. In a two-sentence letter, he praised the organization for its balanced political coverage. Associates said the donation was quintessential Perry.

“Bob Perry just does his own thing - you never know how much, how big, or when,’’ said Bill Miller, one of Perry’s lobbyists in Austin. “That is the way he operates.’’

Democrats are trying to use the specter of a new wave of Perry-financed attack ads to energize their donors. Last month, the Obama campaign sent a fund-raising e-mail from Kerry in which the senator said he wished the term “swiftboating’’ could be retired from the American lexicon.

“But guess what: Bob Perry, the deep-pocketed funder of the ‘Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,’ just gave $3 million to Mitt Romney’s Super PAC,’’ Kerry wrote. “Their multimillion dollar smear tactics were new in 2004; in 2012 we know their playbook, and shame on us if we don’t tear it into shreds.’’

In the last decade, Perry has dropped $31 million on races in Texas, helped fuel the rise of Governor Rick Perry, who is not related, and given $4.5 million to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, according to Texans for Public Justice, a campaign finance watchdog group that has called him the “King of Dirty Politics.’’

A believer in lower taxes, less regulation, and tort reform, Perry supports affirmative action and “an immigration solution that gives hope to those that need it most,’’ according to his biography. He has a particular interest in supporting Hispanic Republicans and, outside of politics, has donated to Latino studies programs and orphanages in Mexico.

“He’s clearly a conservative, but he’s not an ideologue, and I’m not aware of any purity test or anything like that,’’ Carney said.

The son of a school principal, Perry was raised in a rural farmhouse in Central Texas, where he raised and sold rabbits, goats, sheep, and bantam hens.

He started Perry Homes in 1967. The company is now the second-largest home builder in Texas and the 23d largest in the nation, with about $380 million in revenue last year, according to Denise Dersin, editor-in-chief of Builder Magazine, a trade journal.

Perry first entered politics as a supporter of conservative Democrats in the 1970s and has been a force since then, showering some Democrats, but mostly Republicans, with money.

In 2006, for example, Perry gave Joseph Nixon, a Republican member of the Texas House, $262,500, a massive sum for a state legislator, after Nixon authored and passed a bill that could have benefited the home-building industry by sharply limiting personal injury claims. Nixon said he had never even met Perry when the donations rolled in.

“That’s his deal,’’ Nixon said. “He doesn’t call you and ask you to do this or that. He will support you financially and leave you alone.’’

Critics say that, with his financial clout and well-connected lobbyists, Perry does not have to pick up the phone to influence elected officials.

“His money speaks for him,’’ said Craig McDonald, the director of Texans for Public Justice. “And it’s well known where Perry stands on most issues.’’

In 2003, after Texas home builders were hit with a spate of mold-related lawsuits, Perry’s lawyer, John Krugh, helped draft a bill creating the Texas Residential Construction Commission to screen buyers’ complaints before they could sue for damages in court.

Consumer groups complained the agency was tilted heavily in favor of the building industry, and the Legislature abolished it in 2010.

Last year, Bob Perry helped kill Governor Perry’s effort to prohibit Texas from allowing “sanctuary cities’’ where police are barred from asking about the immigration status of people they detain. Many pointed out that the home-building industry relies heavily on immigrant labor.

Perry has supported Romney since 2005, when the former Massachusetts governor became chairman of the Republican Governors Association. While associates declined to predict how much he would donate, they say if Perry is committed to a cause, he tends to go all in. “I always say small is not in his vocabulary,’’ Miller said.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.

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