Peter B. Lewis was born in 1933 and graduated from Princeton University in 1955. A decade later, he became chairman of the Progressive Insurance Company, which was co-founded in 1937 by his father, Joseph Lewis. Overseeing approximately 100 employees and $6 million in revenues when he began, Peter Lewis eventually became CEO of the company and grew it to a point where it employed 14,000 people and boasted sales in excess of $6 billion annually. In the process, Lewis himself became a billionaire.
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. He became a particularly passionate supporter of marijuana legalization after using the drug to control his pain following a partial leg amputation in 1998. That same year, Lewis 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.” Added 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.”
Other signatories to the aforementioned letter included such notables as Tammy Baldwin, Rev. William Sloan Coffin, Jr., Walter Cronkite, Morton H. Halperin, Kweisi Mfume, George Soros, and Cornel West.
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.
Lewis retired from his position as the CEO of Progressive Insurance in 2000, but he stayed on as the company’s board chairman.
Between 2001 and 2006, Lewis contributed approximately $25 million to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). From 1991 to 2003, he gave some $5 million specifically to the ACLU’s drug-policy litigation project, an initiative that challenged existing laws vis-a-vis 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 the early 2000s, a number of journalists began to make reference to the emergence of certain pro-Democrat “shadow organizations” that seemed geared toward circumventing the McCain-Feingold Act’s ban on so-called “soft-money” — i.e., 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. In time, the term “Shadow Party” came into use. The billionaire philanthropist George Soros set in motion the wheels of this Shadow Party when he gathered a team of political strategists, activists, and Democrat donors at his Long Island beach house on July 17, 2003, to discuss how President Bush could be defeated in the 2004 election. Peter Lewis was one of those attendees. Others included such luminaries as Open Society Foundations director Morton Halperin; EMILY’s List founder and abortion-rights activist Ellen Malcolm; former Bill Clinton chief of staff John Podesta; Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope; labor leader and former Clinton adviser Steve Rosenthal; former Clinton speechwriters Jeremy Rosner and Robert Boorstin; and major Democrat donors such as Lewis and Dorothy Cullman, Robert Glaser, and Robert McKay.
The consensus of these attendees was that voter turnout—particularly in 17 “swing” or “battleground” states —would be the key to unseating President Bush. Steve Rosenthal and Ellen Malcolm—CEO and president, respectively, of a newly formed voter-registration group called America Coming Together (ACT)—suggested that voters in those swing states should be recruited and mobilized as soon as possible. Agreeing, Soros told the pair that he personally would give ACT $10 million to help maximize its effectiveness. A few other attendees also pledged to give the fledgling group large sums of money: Peter Lewis, for one, promised to give $10 million; Robert Glaser promised $2 million; Robert McKay committed $1 million; and Lewis and Dorothy Cullman pledged $500,000.
By early 2004, the administrative core of the Shadow Party was in place. It consisted of seven ostensibly “independent” nonprofit groups—all but one of which were headquartered in Washington, D.C. In a number of cases, these organizations shared one another’s finances, directors, and corporate officers; occasionally they even shared office space. The seven groups were: America Coming Together, the Center For American Progress, America Votes, the Media Fund, Joint Victory Campaign 2004, the Thunder Road Group, and MoveOn.org.
When George Soros in September 2003 told MoveOn.org co-founder Wes Boyd that he would donate $2.5 million to Boyd’s organization, Peter Lewis, who was a friend of Soros, agreed to match Soros’s gift. Moreover, Soros and Lewis also pledged a joint match of $1 for every $2 in additional donations to MoveOn, up to $5 million.
The reclusive Lewis did not grant interviews to the press and was rarely photographed. According to a Jane Mayer article in the New Yorker, the billionaire “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. Lewis made nearly $23 million in such contributions, including $16 million to the Joint Victory Campaign, $2.9 million to America Coming Together, and $2.5 million to MoveOn.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.
Along with George Soros, Lewis was a key financial supporter of Media Matters for America. Indeed, he gave David Brock some $1 million to help get the organization up and running in 2004. Lewis explained that he was initially inspired to help Brock after having read the latter’s memoir. Said Lewis: “Seeing the things he [Brock] couldn’t deal with over there on the conservative side and then being abused because of his [gay] sexual preference—his whole story was just compelling to me.”
Lewis was an original partner in the Democracy Alliance (DA), a funding clearinghouse for progressive groups and causes that was established in early 2005. In July of that year, Lewis went to Atlanta to attend a major DA meeting where he and other Alliance partners pledged a combined $39 million to various selected recipients. About a third of that total came directly from George Soros and Mr. Lewis.
Lewis served a stint as chairman of the Guggenheim Museum’s board of trustees before stepping down in 2005.
Lewis died of a heart attack on November 24, 2013, at his home.
Further Reading: “Longtime Progressive CEO Peter Lewis Dies at 80” (Associated Press, 11-24-2013); “Peter B. Lewis, Philanthropist Who Led Progressive Auto Insurance, Dies at 80” (New York Times 2013).
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