Billionaire 'playboy' has a $20 million vision to save California
Posted: 12/09/2011 02:07:23 PM PST
He's a little like Bruce Wayne without the cowl, Thomas Crown without the thievery, Howard Hughes without the planes (or the weirdness).
Now Nicolas Berggruen is trying to do what even a superhero governor couldn't: Save California.
At 50, never married, childless and bored with a billionaire's usual trappings, Berggruen owns no home, instead living in fine hotels as he roams the globe for business and pleasure, his extensive art collection ensconced in museums, his annual pre-Oscar party at the Chateau Marmont still a must for Hollywood's elite glitterati. He has been called a "playboy financier," living a life most Californians can't imagine.
But for the past year and a half he has been reimagining how to run the state, and he's promising to spend at least $20 million to make it so.
Berggruen is the brain and bankroll behind the Think Long Committee for California, a panel of political and business A-listers, which last month issued a report amid much buzz urging an overhaul of the state's tax structure and creation of a citizen "super committee" to shepherd future reforms. He said he'll spend millions of dollars to persuade Californians to vote for these changes in November.
"It may cost much more than $20 million, and if it does, then it does -- we'll just have to put in more money or raise more money," he said in a telephone interview. "I'm a facilitator. At the end of the day, this very much has been a group effort, very much a bipartisan effort. And if my name disappears from this, it's perfectly good. It's not about me at all."
Fat chance. Politics get personal, and Berggruen's biography is so intriguing that many are suspicious that his mission isn't what it seems.
The Paris-born son of a German actress and a prominent art dealer and collector -- his father was Pablo Picasso's friend and had a fling with Frida Kahlo -- Berggruen studied finance and international business at New York University before launching a company to make investments that multiplied the family fortune. Forbes says he "has holdings that range from a revitalization project in Newark, N.J., to Hydro Electric Power Plants in Turkey to a Spanish media conglomerate," and is worth about $2.3 billion.
Reforming California's political scene may seem like an odd sideline, but those who know Berggruen say it's in keeping with his newfound civic philanthropy.
San Francisco art dealer John Berggruen, 68, said the Think Long Committee's seeds might have been planted at his breakfast table a few years ago, when then-Attorney General Jerry Brown dropped by to meet his younger half-brother and talk "about California's electoral process and the referendum process, about whether this state was governable." By then, the elder Berggruen said, his brother had realized "there was more to his existence than creating wealth" and had begun studying political philosophy and practice with UCLA scholars.
"One thing led to another, by virtue of his innate curiosity and intelligence, and this is something that became intensely stimulating to him," John Berggruen said.
Nicolas Berggruen in 2010 founded a namesake Los Angeles-based think tank as a vehicle of that commitment, aimed at convening panels of experts to reach consensus ideas -- more appealing to the public than one billionaire's own musings -- to better the world. Among its projects is a "21st Century Council" of former heads of state, Nobel laureates and others pursuing global governance reform. It also has a "Future of Europe" project seeking a way toward integration and out of debt, and a "Vision for Africa" project aimed at enriching and democratizing that continent.
Fixing California might seem easy by comparison -- unless you know much about California.
Progressive Democratic activist Robert Cruickshank blogged that if Berggruen really wants to help California, "he would take the $20 million he is pledging to spend on this shockingly regressive proposal and instead invest it in an initiative to raise taxes on the rich, on corporations, and to fix the state's unfair property tax system. Instead he's using it to help himself and his friends get even richer."
California Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro issued a statement saying he's "saddened to hear that some believe that a massive new category of taxation is the answer to California's economic or budget problems."
Berggruen hoped to overcome this schism by assembling a diverse panel of the state's top political and business minds, unburdened by concerns of re-election or even popularity.
Former Gov. Gray Davis said he had met Berggruen only once before, briefly, when the billionaire came to him in February 2010 seeking "a couple of ex-governors to lead this operation." That didn't work out, but a heavy-hitting bipartisan panel was convened nonetheless.
"It was spirited at times, but basically ... a relatively amicable and positive environment, because we all realized what we were there to do," Davis said -- to smooth California's boom-and-bust fiscal cycle, and reform its shortsighted, must-get-re-elected governance.
Of Berggruen, Davis said, "As far as I can tell, what you see is what you get -- he wants to do his part to leave this world better off and he's willing to devote a lot of his time and a good deal of his resources to make that happen, with no guarantee of success."
Berggruen said he knew the report would meet with push back.
"Entrenched interests will always defend the status quo," he said. "Californians know the system doesn't work. ... People have to be in a state of mind where they know change is needed."
There are some third rails even a billionaire won't touch. Altering Proposition 13's property-tax strictures -- perhaps a "split-roll" plan for commercial property reassessment, or modifying the two-thirds legislative majority requirement for tax votes -- "obviously was discussed" but "could've made the overall plan less feasible," Berggruen said.
Davis expects Berggruen will have final versions of the proposed ballot measures by Christmas and then get them cleared for petition circulation.
Berggruen believes in letting voters directly decide the state's fate.
"At the end of the day," he said, "that's the ultimate way of giving citizens the real power."
Think Long Committee for CaliforniaBillionaire Nicolas Berggruen convened a group of political and economic powerhouses to discuss ways to reform the state's government. Other than Berggruen, the roster includes:
chairwoman (Clinton administration)
*abstained from vote on final recommendations
**died in June
Proposed ballot measuresBerggruen intends to fund measures in November to push two Think Long Committee ideas: