What does the 2012 campaign’s biggest donor really want?
April 24, 2012
In early 2010, Karl Rove convened a group of businessmen for lunch at a private club in Dallas. The guests included some of the richest and most influential people in Texas. T. Boone Pickens, the corporate raider from Amarillo, was there, as was Harlan Crow, the prodigal son of Trammell Crow, the most prominent real estate developer in the country in his day. Some of the men had contributed to Rove’s campaigns for a quarter of a century.
Rove had come to them with a new proposition. He and his partner, former George W. Bush White House counselor Ed Gillespie, were traversing the country to drum up financial support for an organization called American Crossroads. Taking advantage of the Supreme Court’s recent obliteration of limits on corporate campaign contributions in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission,Rove and Gillespie were building an independent campaign operation with the aim of taking Congress back from the Democrats that November and, two years later, pulling the plug on Barack Obama’s presidency. “All of us,” Rove told the group, according to an account of the meeting in The Wall Street Journal, “are responsible for the kind of country we have.”
After Rove finished, one of the men spoke up. “I’m in,” Harold Simmons said.
Simmons, the billionaire owner of a Dallas-based constellation of companies in industries ranging from sugar-refining to nuclear waste disposal, had been financing Rove’s campaigns since 1986. He had donated $90,000 to Bush’s gubernatorial campaigns and $2.5 million to Bush-allied political organizations during his presidential runs. Gale Norton, Bush’s interior secretary, had previously been a Washington lobbyist for one of Simmons’s companies. When Bush held his first white-tie dinner at the White House in 2007, in honor of Queen Elizabeth, Simmons and his third wife, Annette, were among the guests eating spring lamb off the Lenox china.
Still, nobody knew just how “in” Simmons intended to be until this February, when Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings revealed him to be the single largest contributor in American politics. In late March, the Dallas billionaire told the Journalthat, along with his wife and his holding company, Contran, he had donated $18.7 million to Republican political organizations—not just Crossroads ($14.5 million) but also independent expenditure groups aligned with Mitt Romney ($800,000), Rick Santorum ($1.2 million), Newt Gingrich ($1.1 million), and Rick Perry ($1.1 million)—and that he planned to give nearly twice that much by November.
Simmons’s appearance at the top of the donors list marked the second reordering of the conventional wisdom regarding what the post–Citizens United frontier of campaign finance would look like. At first, doomsayers predicted that groups like Crossroads—the independent-but-not-really organizations known as super PACs—would become de facto fronts for behemoths like Exxon Mobil and Walmart. Then came the South Carolina primary and Gingrich’s unlikely resurrection thanks to a $5 million contribution to the Gingrich-aligned Winning Our Future super PAC from the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Suddenly, it appeared that American politics had been hijacked not by corporations, but by a handful of mildly eccentric plutocrats driven by personal hobbyhorses: Adelson’s Israel hawkishness or the Santorum-backing multimillionaire Foster Friess’s fear of Al Qaeda training camps in Latin America.
And then there was Simmons, a reclusive 80-year-old former corporate raider, who seemed to belong to a different category of donor altogether. In pictures, he appears the very archetype of the shadowy billionaire, his green eyes gone rheumy around the rims, his rangy farm-boy physique buried inside boxy suit coats. Simmons almost never speaks to the press; his interview with the Journal was the first he had granted to a national newspaper in more than a decade, and, in it, he offered only a couple of off-the-rack complaints about “that socialist, Obama” to explain his generosity. For reporters who had been looking forward to a season of cable-friendly oddballs, it was all a little deflating.
Nor was Simmons terribly ideological—a departure from activist billionaires like Charles and David Koch or George Soros. Espousing a bland Chamber of Commerce–style business-friendly conservatism, Simmons described himself as pro-choice, and his philanthropic foundation—administered by a daughter who until recently had an Obama bumper sticker on her car—occasionally funded borderline-liberal social causes, such as legal services for immigrants. Even longtime observers of Texas professed bafflement at Simmons’s newfound prominence. “I have no ready explanation,” Bill Miller, an Austin lobbyist and an old hand in Texas Republican politics, told me. “I’m plugged in, we’re all plugged in—but this guy, he’s below the radar.”
Simmons declined to be interviewed for this story, and even many of his one-time adversaries were reticent—his legendary litigiousness had left them bound by the settlement terms of past lawsuits or wary of provoking new ones. One former top executive of a major company who tangled with Simmons more than two decades ago spoke with me at length about the episode, but then quickly called back and begged me not to use his name. “I’m serious,” he told me. “I have some money, but nothing compared to what he has.”
If Simmons is a sphinx, however, he’s not an entirely unreadable one. The record of his nearly three decades of political activism—contained in campaign disclosure filings and thousands of pages of court documents in government sub-basements in Dallas and Austin—offers some clues as to why he has decided to spend so lavishly in the political arena. Ultimately Simmons, not his wackier fellow super PAC benefactors, may be the truest bellwether of how the new rules of campaign finance will shape this year’s election and those of years to come. What, exactly, does Harold Simmons expect to get for his money? The best way to answer that question is to look at what he’s gotten for it already.
HAROLD SIMMONS grew up in Golden, an unincorporated East Texas farming town an hour and a half’s drive from Dallas, whose residents, today as in Simmons’s youth, number in the low hundreds. Simmons is far and away the town’s most famous native son and most generous benefactor—a fact that is difficult to forget when you visit, as a plurality of Golden’s public spaces are named after him.
The son of schoolteachers, Simmons left Golden to attend the University of Texas in Austin, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and earned a master’s degree in economics. For several desultory years, Simmons worked as a bank examiner for the federal government and then as a banker, during which time he began to venture into business. According to Golden Boy: The Harold Simmons Story, John J. Nance’s authorized 2003 biography, he made his first deal of any significance in 1956, when he met the owner of a local bank in La Vernia, a small town near San Antonio. The man was looking to retire, and Simmons convinced him to give him the option to purchase the bank with no money down. Simmons proceeded to place a notice in a trade publication offering the property for sale, for $7,000 more than the owner’s asking price. When he found a buyer, Simmons paid the owner and pocketed the difference. With barely a cent to his name, Simmons had sold a bank he didn’t own while clearing enough money on the transaction to buy his first house…