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Harold Simmons, The Dallas Billionaire, Leaves A Political, Philanthropic, Financial Legacy

Harold Simmons Foundation
Harold Simmons, who made millions of dollars with a chain of pharmacies, then turned it into billions as a corporate raider and investor. He also gave away tens of millions of dollars to Republicans and charities.

Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons left an important and pricey mark on American politics. The businessman, who helped fund the 2004 Swift Boat campaign against Democrat John Kerry, died Saturday. He was 82.

Harold Simmons was one of the wealthiest, most generous, and opinionated Republican donors in the country, according to NPR’s Peter Overby. Overby has covered political power and money for years.

“He played hardball, and you see it in the Swift Boat Veterans ad," Overby said. "You see it in 2008 when he was the main underwriter for an attack ad that tried to tie then-Senator Obama to the Weather Underground of the 1970s, when President Obama was just starting school.”

Overby says with the death of Simmons, and of Houston home-builder Bob Perry earlier this year, there’s now a changing of the guard among top Texas campaign donors. He says the next generation may be more careful about what they say. (Simmons once called President Obama the most dangerous man in America.)

Cal Jillson, a political scientist at SMU, expects the “new” guard of political donors will be equally generous.

“There are legions standing in the wings to take their place,” Jillson says. “I think conservative groups and the Republican Party in Texas will find willing donors among the Texas financial elite to step up.”

Jillson bases that on history. In the early 20th century, he says Colonel Edward House, from Houston, helped fund Woodrow Wilson. Later in the century, the Hunts and Clint Murchison were among millionaire oilmen who funded conservative Democrats when Democrats were the party in power in the Lone Star state.

“There have been a phalanx of conservative donors from Texas for at least a century that have had an impact not just here in the state, but nationally on the nature of our politics,” Jillson said.

Simmons not only left his mark in politics but philanthropy. He gave millions of dollars to hospitals, education programs, and scientific research.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.