Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle via AP, file
Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, seen here posing at the sales center at one of his Houston developments in 2002, died on Saturday. He was 80.
AUSTIN, Texas -- Republican mega-donor Bob Perry never cared for the spotlight. But writing big checks and financing one of the most famous television ads ever in a presidential campaign made the Texas millionaire famous nonetheless.
A wealthy Houston homebuilder who shunned publicity while generously bankrolling GOP candidates — and becoming a force in a new era of lavish spending in American politics — Perry died over the weekend, said former Texas state Rep. Neal Jones, a close family friend.
Jones said late Sunday that Perry died "peacefully in his sleep" Saturday night. He did not offer further details.
"Mr. Perry was a wonderful friend to many all around the United States," Jones said. "With his passing we've lost a great patriot who has made a great difference in the lives of people all across the land. He will be sorely missed."
Perry was a fixture of GOP fundraising in Texas — and nationally — dating back to former President George W. Bush's Texas gubernatorial races in the mid-1990s. His largesse included giving $4.4 million in 2004 to the Swift Boat Veterans campaign that sought to discredit then-Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.
Perry spent prolifically on politics but did so from a distance. He rarely gave interviews, skipped fancy fundraisers and was a mystery to even many of his benefactors.
Yet Perry couldn't avoid attention following his financing of the Swift Boat ads, which challenged Kerry's wartime service in Vietnam for which he received five medals. Some Democrats blamed Kerry's slow response to the criticism for sinking his candidacy.
Perry donated money to help start the veterans group at the urging of his friend John O'Neill, a Houston attorney who co-wrote "Unfit for Command," a book that questions Kerry's military service.
Bill Miller, an Austin lobbyist who Perry hired as a spokesman when scrutiny surrounding the ads erupted, said in 2004 that Perry's donation to the Swift Boat Veterans reflected his belief in the group's message.
"In my conversations with Bob, he just said, 'John contacted me, told me what he was trying to do, and it sounded good to me.' That's really the way he does it," Miller said in 2004. "People call him and pitch him, and if he likes what he hears, he'll write a check."
Perry was also a prominent financial supporter of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, but was not related. He was the founder of Houston-based Perry Homes, one of the largest homebuilders in Texas.
Last year alone, Bob Perry gave more than $18 million to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and organizations that backed his candidacy. That ranked him third among all Romney donors, behind only Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons.
Perry was also involved in state politics. Late last year, he gave $45,000 to George P. Bush, the 36-year-old nephew of former President George W. Bush who is now running for Texas Land Commissioner in his first bid for public office.
Perry's generosity extended to other statehouses, included in Wisconsin last year as Republican Gov. Scott Walker fought efforts for a recall. Perry donated at least $250,000 to help Walker keep his job, making Perry among the largest out-of-state donors.
Raised by a father who was a teacher and later became dean of students at Baylor University, Perry started his career as a high school teacher after college. But he switched professions in 1968 and established Perry Homes, where he made his fortune.
This story was originally published on Mon Apr 15, 2013 5:21 AM EDT