- Former Board Chairman of the Cleveland-based Progressive Insurance Corporation
- Was a major donor to Democrat political candidates and leftist causes
- Supported the legalization of marijuana
- Was a close friend of George Soros
- Died in November 2013
Peter B. Lewis was the Chairman (and onetime CEO) of the Progressive Insurance Company, which was co-founded in 1937 by his father, Joseph Lewis. According to Forbes magazine, Peter Lewis possessed a fortune worth an estimated $1.1 billion.
A strong supporter of the Democratic Party and its agendas, Lewis first became active in politics when he served as the Ohio finance chairman for George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign. “I did it essentially because I hated Richard Nixon,” Lewis later recounted. Over the years, Lewis used his immense wealth to fund a host of leftist political campaigns, organizations, and causes.
Lewis was born in 1933 and graduated from Princeton University in 1955. A decade later, he took the reins of Progressive Insurance. Overseeing 100 employees and $6 million in revenues when he began, Lewis eventually grew the company to the point where it employed 14,000 people and boasted sales in excess of $4.8 billion annually. It became the third largest auto insurance company in the U.S.
Lewis was particularly interested in promoting the legalization of marijuana. In 1998 he was a signatory to a public letter addressed to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, declaring that “the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself.” Said the letter:
> “Every decade the United Nations adopts new international conventions, focused largely on criminalization and punishment, that restrict the ability of individual nations to devise effective solutions to local drug problems. Every year governments enact more punitive and costly drug control measures. Every day politicians endorse harsher new drug war strategies….
> “In many parts of the world, drug war politics impede public health efforts to stem the spread of HIV, hepatitis and other infectious diseases. Human rights are violated, environmental assaults perpetrated and prisons inundated with hundreds of thousands of drug law violators. Scarce resources better expended on health, education and economic development are squandered on ever more expensive interdiction efforts. Realistic proposals to reduce drug-related crime, disease and death are abandoned in favor of rhetorical proposals to create drug-free societies.”
Between 2001 and 2006, Lewis contributed $25 million to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Between 1991 and 2003, Lewis gave $5 million specifically to the ACLU’s drug-policy litigation project, which challenges current laws dealing with drug testing in schools and the medicinal use of marijuana. In addition, he made large donations to drug-legalization initiatives in Arizona, Nevada, California, Oregon, Utah, Florida, Maine, and Massachusetts.
According to the anti-drug group, National Families in Action, Lewis “contributed heavily to the destruction of thousands of America’s children” by promoting the notion that marijuana possesses medicinal benefits and by telling youngsters that “pot is OK.”
In 1999, Hoover’s Handbook of American Business described Lewis in print as “a functioning pot-head.” In 2000, Lewis was arrested after customs agents found 1.7 ounces of marijuana and two ounces of hashish in his luggage at an airport in New Zealand. The charges were dropped when the billionaire, who said he was carrying the drugs for “medicinal purposes,” agreed to make a donation to a drug-rehabilitation center.
The reclusive Lewis did not grant interviews to the press and was rarely photographed. According to a Jane Mayer article in the New Yorker, Lewis “spent much of 2004 discreetly directing millions of dollars to liberal groups allied with the Democratic Party … while cruising the Mediterranean Sea on his two-hundred-and-fifty foot yacht, Lone Ranger.”
During the 2004 election cycle, Lewis was the second leading donor to the non-party organizations known as “527s” — named after a section of the U.S. tax code that permitted unlimited “soft money” donations to groups pledging to use the funds not for the “express advocacy” of any particular political candidate, but rather for “voter education,” “issue-oriented” political advertising, and other nebulous enterprises. Lewis donated nearly $23 million to such organizations in 2004, including $16 million to the Joint Victory Campaign, $2.9 million to America Coming Together, and $2.5 million to Move On.Org.
In 2004 Lewis estimated that he had thus far given away some $250 million during his lifetime, nearly half of it ($117 million) to his alma mater, Princeton University.
Lewis retired as the CEO of Progressive Insurance in 2000, but he stayed on as the company’s Chairman of the Board.
Lewis died of a heart attack on November 24, 2013 at his home.