Billionaire insurance executive Peter B. Lewis has largely eluded the spotlight, even though he is the most prolific contributor to the independent political committees.
Lewis, 70, of Cleveland, has donated $18.9 million to Democratic 527 committees attempting to defeat President George W. Bush, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-based organization that tracks campaign financing.
Lewis' donations eclipse the $18.2 million contributed by George Soros, the better-known financier and philanthropist.
Lewis "hasn't avoided publicity entirely," CRP spokesman Steven Weiss said last week. "But there's no question that Soros is much more outspoken, and probably for that reason has attracted more attention."
Among Lewis's largest 527 contributions:
- $12.million to the Joint Victory Campaign 2004, a group whose self-described mission is to support "an aggressive national strategy attacking the right-wing on the ground and in the air."
- $ 3 million to America Coming Together, an organization that in the campaign's final days is funding 12 million phone calls and hand-delivering 11 million pieces of campaign literature to targeted voters. ACT also plans to have 45,000 paid canvassers working in battleground states on Election Day.
- $2.5 million to MoveOn.org, which sponsored the "Vote for Change" concert tour featuring artists such as Bruce Springsteen, the Dave Matthews Band, Pearl Jam and REM.
Forbes Magazine estimates Lewis's wealth at $1.6 billion. It ranks Lewis as the world's 356th wealthiest person.
Lewis obtained his fortune after assuming control of his father's small insurance company in 1965. Today, Progressive Insurance, headquartered in Cleveland, has grown to become the nation's third-largest auto insurer, with more than 12 million customers.
Lewis stepped down as Progressive CEO in 2001, though he remains the company's chairman. Author and syndicated columnist Jacob Sullum last year wrote that Lewis observers have characterized him as a "perfectionist," an "extraordinary businessman" and a "functioning pothead."
In 2000, Lewis was arrested for marijuana and hashish possession at a New Zealand airport. He was released after donating money to a local drug rehabilitation center.
Lewis, a proponent of drug policy reform, told the Wall Street Journal in 2001, "My personal experience lets me understand and have a view of the relative effects of some of these substances."
During the 2003-04 election cycle, Lewis has donated $485,000 to the Marijuana Policy Project, a 527 group striving to eliminate criminal penalties for marijuana use. Lewis could not be reached last week.
Asked last month by the Boston Globe what he thought his 527 contributions might accomplish, Lewis responded, "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." Weiss said it's obvious what people such as Lewis and Soros are attempting to accomplish.
"They are trying to defeat George Bush, and they have not hesitated to put as much money as possible into that effort," he said.