Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution (GA)
Author: Bob Dart, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published: April 14, 2004
Copyright: 2004 Cox Interactive Media
Contact: [email protected]
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, Princeton University.
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 politics.
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 afford to.
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 independent groups.
Through his representatives, 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 "high energy."
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.
"Intra office 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."
Related Articles & Web Sites:
Marijuana Policy Project
What's New in Drug Policy Reform
Is Pot Good For You?
The New Politics of Pot
Medical Marijuana: A History