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Silent media mogul is big noise in the world of politics, business

Third of three parts

The media mogul in charge of the nation’s largest Spanish-language
television outlet doesn’t speak Spanish. And he doesn’t do media interviews.
But while Jerry Perenchio may be silent in the press, he does have the ear
of California’s–and the nation’s–political power brokers, as a prolific
campaign contributor who has been a top donor to each of the state’s last
three governors, Republicans and Democrat alike.

Perenchio–who Forbes magazine ranked as the 89th richest man in America–made
his estimated $3 billion fortune in the entertainment industry and has not
been shy about signing off seven-figure checks to political allies,
including Gov. Schwarzenegger. Since 1989, Mr. Perenchio has donated an
eye-popping $17.7 million in California to just about every notable
statewide official, save U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, according to state
records.

Critics and defenders alike say he is an “equal opportunity donor,” cutting
checks as a business expense, not an ideological tool.

“In the fundraising world, there are raisers and givers. He is one of the
great givers of all time–Democrats, Republicans, all people in power,” said
lobbyist Darius Anderson who helped coordinate fundraising efforts for Gov.
Gray Davis.

And Perenchio is certainly a shrewd businessman.

Now 74, he began his professional life under the tutelage of legendary
talent agent Lew Wasserman of MCA, and eventually helped chaperon the
careers of some of Hollywood’s favorite sons and daughters, including
Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando and Elton John.

In 1971, Perenchio promoted the first Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier boxing match.
In 1973, Perenchio worked behind the scenes of the historic “battle of the
sexes” Bobby-Riggs-Billie Jean King tennis contest. He then partnered with
Norman Lear to produce the hit television series “All in the Family.” A
decade later, the pair sold their stake in the company to Coca-Cola for a
cool $485 million. Perenchio quickly turned another $140 million profit by
buying, and selling, the Loews Cineplex theatre chain within a year. All the
while, he has steered clear of the media.

It was from Wasserman that Perenchio first learned to take a back seat to
the “talent,” shepherding star-studded careers from the shadows.
It is a lesson he has not forgotten.

Every newly hired Univision executive receives a copy of Perenchio’s 20
“Rules of the Road.”

Rule number one: “Stay clear of the press. No interviews, no panels, no
speeches, no comments. Stay out of the spotlight–it fades your suit.”
Perenchio takes the rule very seriously. He once fined Ray Rodriguez,
current Univision president and chief operating officer, $25,000 for
granting a magazine interview. Even Univision’s vice president of public
relations must get approval from top-ranking executives to go on-the-record
with reporters. Perhaps most telling: The most recent photo of the
publicity-shy Perenchio in the Associated Press archives dates back to 1973.

Not surprisingly, Perenchio, through a Univision spokeswoman, declined to be
interviewed for this story.

Like nearly every venture in his career, Univision has soared to new heights
since Perenchio took the helm of the Spanish-language network in 1992. The
network currently controls some 80 percent of the Spanish-language market
nationally, and can claim the mantel–in any language–of the most popular
network in major cities like Miami, Houston, Phoenix, and New York.

In California, Univision routinely has double the adult (18-49) prime time
viewers of the next most popular networks in the Fresno, Bakersfield and Los
Angeles markets, according to Nielsen Media. It was the most popular prime
time network in Sacramento, Monterey and Palm Springs among adults this
July, and finished a close second in San Francisco and Santa Barbara.

As the chairman and CEO of California’s most popular television network and
the state’s most prolific individual donor, Perenchio is seated firmly at
the state’s fulcrum of power–simultaneously a political patron, who has the
capacity to make careers, and a media titan.

As profits have poured into the Spanish-language conglomerate (net revenues
rose 36 percent last year), Perenchio has donated to the campaigns of
statewide officeholders of both parties, though none has received as much
largesse as Gov. Schwarzenegger

This year alone Perenchio gave Schwarzenegger’s campaign a direct donation
of $1.5 million, another $250,000 to promote Schwarzenegger-backed
Proposition 75, and another $1.5 million to the Citizens to Save California,
a group formed to gather signatures to help qualify Schwarzenegger’s reform
proposals for the special election ballot, according to filings with the
secretary of state. Between the recall and special election, Perenchio has
given more than $2.25 million directly to the governor, ranking him as the
governor’s third largest direct contributor after William Robinson, founder
of DHL, and Alex Spanos, owner of the San Diego Chargers.

Perenchio also bankrolled Proposition 49, the 2002 after-school initiative
that helped launch Schwarzenegger’s political career, to the tune of $1
million. Since 2002, Perenchio, a registered Republican, has contributed a
grand total of more than $5 million to Schwarzenegger, his
candidate-controlled committees, and initiatives pushed by the
actor-turned-politician.

And before Schwarzenegger, there was Gray Davis.

Dating as far back as 1992, Perenchio had donated to Davis, Schwarzenegger’s
predecessor and a Democrat. In the 1998 gubernatorial campaign, Perenchio
was Davis’ single largest individual contributor (though several unions and
organizations gave more), donating $235,000. In total, Perenchio shelled out
more than a $1 million to Davis, with $775,000 of that coming after he was
first elected governor in 1998.

“It is clearly donations for government access when you give after the
election. Then you are betting on the winner–that’s a sure bet,” said Robert
Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles-based
campaign watchdog group.

At the national level, Perenchio is generally a Republican contributor. He
is a Bush Pioneer, gave $4 million to the conservative Progress for America
fund in 2004, and ranks as the top contributor in the country this year to
so-called 527s, or “soft-money” committees.

But in California, party affiliation has been no barometer for Perenchio’s
donations. In the 1998 campaign, Perenchio was not only Gray Davis’ top
individual donor, but also the third-largest individual donor to Davis’
Republican opponent, Dan Lungren, at $200,000. Over a decade, Perenchio also
has given $173,000 to Democratic state Treasurer Phil Angelides, who is
running for governor next year. Perenchio has not donated to Angelides in
the latest election cycle.

Perenchio’s bipartisan doling out of donations was on full display in 2002
when he alternatively gave the incumbent Democrat Gray Davis and Republican
gubernatorial candidate Dick Riordan matching $500,000 donations. The
eventual GOP nominee Bill Simon also received $200,000.

The very next year, during the 2003 recall, Perenchio gave a committee
controlled by Democratic candidate Cruz Bustamante $100,000, an anti-recall
committee another $50,000 and threw in $21,500 contributions to both
Schwarzenegger and Bustamante for good measure.

And before the tenures of both Schwarzenegger and Davis, Perenchio
contributed a total of $512,000 to then-Gov. Pete Wilson during his
campaigns and governorship, making him, once again, a top donor.
“Those people have one thing in common–they were all governor of
California,” Garry South, a Democratic consultant, notes somewhat
facetiously.

“It’s reall
y not that unusual for very wealthy business folks to spread
their money around,” adds South, who worked for Davis and is currently
advising State Controller and Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Steve Westly.

“[Perenchio] stands out because of the magnitude [of his donations], but the
pattern is not all that unusual.”

Jaime Court of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights says that
Perenchio’s millions in contributions afford him access to elected officials
that average Californians are denied.

“This is someone who wants to buy influence and has no political
conviction,” said Court. “The question is what control does the governor
have over this guy’s business dealings?”

But the answer, at least at the state level, is virtually none. The
communications business is regulated nationally.

But Robert Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies says that
businessmen like Perenchio don’t just drop $17 million in political
donations across the political spectrum without purpose.

“When someone gives to both sides, they are not giving philosophically, they
are giving either for business or access–or both,” said Stern. “I am sure
his phone calls get returned first.”

At the federal level, some Democrats have charged that Perenchio’s giving
helped Univision win approval at the Federal Communication Commission in
2003 for its acquisition of the Hispanic Broadcasting Network. The FCC
approved the merger along a 3-2 Republican party-line vote.

Some critics say Perenchio’s decade-long donating binge (he has given at
least $1 million in every California election cycle since 1995) also paid
off last year in a vote by the California Coastal Commission to approve an
after-the-fact permit for a secret golf course that Perenchio built years
before at his private Malibu compound.

Perenchio’s successes at both the FCC and the Coastal Commission demonstrate
not only his reach and influence, but also his knack for crafting a deal.

In politics, as in business, Perenchio operates on a grand scale: As a top
donor to the every California governor since 1990, with donations totaling
more than $17 million, the media-shy media mogul is a household name in
California’s most powerful households.

Perhaps Perenchio summarizes his strategy best in his own Rule 12.
“When you suit up each day, it’s to play in Yankee stadium or Dodger
Stadium,” writes Perenchio.

“Think big.”


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