Pot Fan Puts Up Cash to Help Defeat Bush
WASHINGTON - A chief contributor to a Democratic shadow campaign to defeat
President Bush is a 70-year-old marijuana enthusiast who made a fortune
selling car insurance to so-so drivers.
Peter Lewis now spends much of his time cruising international waters in a
$16 million converted oceangoing tugboat named "The Lone Ranger."
He is also:
* A fitness fanatic who barely slowed his regimen of swimming and
weightlifting after losing part of a leg to a circulation ailment.
* A former chief executive who tolerated office romances and admitted
indulging in such affairs himself.
* A generous patron with an estimated worth of more than $1 billion whose
interests include liberal politics, modern art and his alma mater,
Describing himself to Fortune magazine, Lewis declared, "I'm the best
person to have been fired by, or divorced from, that I know."
Lewis, the retired head of the Progressive group of insurance companies,
has given about $3 million to America Coming Together and pledged $10
million to the anti-Bush organization, according to the Center for
Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group that studies money in
That makes Lewis a major player in a new political game that allows such
independent political groups to solicit unlimited "soft money" political
contributions from corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals.
Critics charge that these groups are circumventing campaign finance reforms
that stopped political parties from raising and spending soft money. They
claim that the groups, often run by veteran Democratic or Republican
strategists, take advantage of a loophole in regulations to conduct
"shadow" campaigns, filling in with ads and messages when the parties can't
Reform Spawns Groups
The growth of these groups started after Congress enacted the Bipartisan
Campaign Reform Act of 2002. Though the Republicans fought the act, they
have had far more success raising the small "hard money" donations from
individuals it allows. That has left the Democrats far more reliant on the
Through his representati
ves, Lewis declined to be interviewed for this
article. But his donations make his political positions clear.
"His two big issues are getting Bush out of office and regulating
marijuana," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy
Project, a group dedicated to decriminalizing adult pot use and placing it
under regulations. Lewis has given $340,000 to the organization, according
to the Center for Responsive Politics.
"It takes a certain breed of person to be a philanthropist on the marijuana
issue," explained Kampia, who described Lewis as "direct," "easygoing" and
Jim Jordan, a spokesman for America Coming Together, said he could not
comment on Lewis.
Lewis' history can be pieced together from articles in various publications
over the years.
Growing up in upper-middle-class Cleveland Heights, Ohio, he listened to
"The Lone Ranger" on the radio. He told The Cleveland Plain Dealer in an
interview that he identifies with the masked cowboy who fought for good
with silver bullets.
His father was a lawyer who co-founded Progressive Corp., an auto insurance
company, in 1937. He died during Lewis' senior year at Princeton.
After his graduation, Lewis went to work at Progressive. By the time he
turned 31, he had bought out his father's partner and become CEO.
Under his leadership over the next 35 years, Progressive grew from about
100 employees to about 25,000, becoming the fourth-largest auto insurer in
the country. Much of its growth came from insuring high-risk drivers who
pay high premiums.
"Peter Lewis is an extraordinary businessman," said Fortune magazine. But
while focused on the bottom line -- and quick to fire underlings who fail
to meet expectations -- Lewis was far from a typical executive.
For example, he believed that sexual relationships will occur in offices,
even if officially banned, and that they were permissible as long as they
didn't hinder efficiency.
"Intraoffice romances just happen," he told Fortune. "And I've had them,
both inappropriately and appropriately."
Lewis and his wife, Toby, were divorced in 1981 after being married for 26
years and having three children. The pair maintain a friendship, however,
and Toby Lewis is curator of Progressive's contemporary art collection.
Associated With Pot
Over the years, Lewis has been publicly associated with pot almost as often
as with profits. He was arrested in New Zealand on marijuana charges in
2000 and featured in a Time magazine story titled "Has America Gone to Pot?"
"Based on the experience I've had with Scotch whisky, which is plenty, and
the experience I've had with marijuana, which is plenty, I think it should
be regulated the same way alcohol is," Lewis told The Princetonian, the
student newspaper of his alma mater.
According to Kampia, Lewis believes "there is no downside to regulating
marijuana. If you want to improve the world, it's the easy way to go. No
one is going to get hurt."
Health concerns prompted Lewis to retire from the active leadership of
Progressive. In 1998, a vascular ailment forced the amputation of his left
leg below the knee.
Lewis now devotes his attention his philanthropic efforts.
He has contributed $116 million to Princeton, making him the university's
largest single donor. He donated $36.9 million for a business school
building at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He serves as
chairman of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. And, of course,
he contributes millions of dollars to political causes.
Meanwhile, he cruises the world's waters on "The Lone Ranger,' attended by
a crew of 18.
"You have no idea how easy and luxurious it is," Lewis told The Plain
Dealer. "Because these 18 people on the boat have only one objective: To
make me happy."
The Atlanta Journal