Harold Simmons, 82, who in the last presidential election became the most prolific political donor in the country, died Saturday at the Baylor University Medical Center. His legacy is complicated -- at once toxic, literally and figuratively, and marked by laudable philanthropy.
He grew up in Golden, Texas, the son of school teachers. After graduating from the University of Texas, he became a banker who brokered deals on the side, if not toeing the edge of the law, then at least testing the limits of morality. A single drug store was his first acquisition of many.
Simmons wasn't politically active until his purchase of Amalgamated Sugar. With money from the pension fund of a hardware chain he owned, he arranged its buyout. But the Department of Justice balked, calling the move risky. So, Simmons simply bought the company with his own money and was proven right -- it made him a billionaire. He had fancied himself a champion of the free market ever since. Except, that is, when the free market ran afoul of his interests. He lobbied diligently for years to maintain high tariffs on imported sugar.
When Karl Rove was looking for Texas fat cats to bankroll the Republican revolution in an historically Democratic state, he found a receptive ear and a willing fount of cash in Simmons. Governors George Bush and Rick Perry came to rely on him as their biggest donor and were the recipients of his millions. A Simmons lobbyist eventually became Bush's interior secretary.
After a single meeting with the organizer of the Swift Boat campaign against presidential candidate John Kerry, Simmons gave him $2 million. Kerry lost, though the allegations against his service in Vietnam were later discredited entirely.
A Dallas investor and acquaintance once told Texas Monthly that Simmons cared for nothing so much as money. He uncharitably likened Simmons to "the guy in college whose objective is to sleep with every woman he can find."
He once fought his two eldest daughters in court over a trust that held their inheritance and much of Simmons' money. He refused at trial to agree to a settlement that gave him everything he wanted and awarded his daughters what amounted to a pittance in the grand scheme of his vast wealth. They later settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
He must have lamented the pesky limitations to political giving, because he was investigated and fined by the SEC for making more contributions than the law allowed. He admitted to forging his daughters' names after he ran up against the limit. But whatever he paid was a small investment that promised far larger returns.
In 1995, he was approached by Kent Hance, a former congressman and lobbyist, with an investment opportunity: Waste Control Specialists, a company that handled hazardous waste. With Simmons' resources, they might have a shot at cracking into the radioactive market, where they could make billions. Simmons bought up nearly all of the shares and went to work, plying the connections he'd spent years accumulating. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality first opposed the idea, but relented under pressure from Governor Bush's office. When WCS encountered resistance from within the Clinton administration, Simmons called up the beneficiaries of his largesse: Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison, Phil Gramm and Richard Shelby. They threatened to hold up the appointment of the Department of Energy's new general counsel if it didn't back off.
Finally, in 2006, a state law was passed that allowed private companies to handle radioactive waste. A second law was enacted that permitted only one company to do so: Simmons'. This was all above the protest of TCEQ staffers, who found that the Ogallala Aquifer -- the largest underground reservoir in the country -- was within 14 feet of the disposal site, and could become contaminated if it rose during a hard rain.
"It was not more than a week before I first heard from one of my colleagues, 'Do you know who owns WCS? You know they're going to get their license, no matter what,'" a TCEQ staffer told The New Republic. "I had no idea who Harold Simmons was. And I was informed that Harold Simmons was a main campaign contributor to the governor -- the current governor, Perry -- and had been a main contributor to Bush. It was just the assumption from the beginning: This will be approved."
A subsequent bill now allows the WCS facility in Andrews to accept waste from some 36 states. As usual, this investment was a winner for Simmons. WCS stock has soared, and Simmons' net worth doubled. At last count, he was worth nearly $10 billion.
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He put it to use after the U.S. Supreme Court in its Citizens United decision opened the floodgates and finally unshackled his political giving. Simmons spent mightily in the 2008 and 2012 elections, referring to President Barack Obama as a "socialist" and the gravest threat to free enterprise and the country. In this last presidential election, he became the largest single contributor in the country.
And yet, he was pro-choice. His philanthropic foundation, run by his Democratic daughters, funds liberal causes like legal services for immigrants, Planned Parenthood and the Resource Center, which supports those affected with HIV and the gay community.
But in the midst of righteous spending, he has also been at the forefront of a political movement to erode taxes in this state. Shortfalls have prompted the Legislature to make massive cuts to schools and other social services relied on by the state's numerous poor. So, how to reconcile this with the man whose name, Charles Homans notes in this TNR piece, you'll find affixed to any number of charitable endeavors?
"Simmons and the other Texas billionaires are often defended on the grounds of their philanthropy -- and it's true that there are few hospitals in the Dallas area without a wing named after Simmons. But there is a Gilded Age paternalism to these projects in a state that is otherwise mired in policy dilemmas wrought by the politicians whom the philanthropists have financed -- a sense that the only new public goods that Texans are allowed to have are the ones the billionaires see fit to give them."