Progressive’s Peter B. Lewis 1933-2013

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“I am a progressive by birth, by nature, by philosophy – that’s the name of the insurance company I ran as well, which is coincidental – but I am a small “p” progressive. I don’t believe that laws against things that people do regularly, like safe and responsible use of marijuana, make any sense.”

                                                   – Peter B. Lewis 1933-2013

We don’t really cover business news here, except as the NJ-specific numbers  on indicators like job creation, unemployment, uninsured New Jerseyans, and economic recovery tell us about our quality of life here, and how Gov. Christie is doing (badly, generally). Or if there name is Zuckerberg.

But I just want to flag this for you, in case you didn’t see it.

A guy named Peter B. Lewis just died. He was the guy who ran Progressive Corporation – yes, Progressive Insurance, the people whose advertising features “Flo” the spokesperson with the Snooki bump in her hair.

So, why might you care?

Lewis was a billionaire who got there by refocusing the company his father started into one that specialized in insuring high-risk drivers; those other companies thought were “too young” or “too old,” or had spotty driving records. He also insured the drivers of sleek, hot sports cars that cost a fortune when they crash. And he made other companies’ rates available for comparison shoppers. You know that part.

But that’s not why I’m talking about him here. It’s the interesting things the Progressive chair did with his profits.

He was a Trustee (and alum) of Princeton University, where he endowed a Frank Gehry-designed science library, Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, an academic hub of the idea that the science of the future is going to require understanding of more than just one discipline, and a lot of arts stuff there.

But Lewis’s money also went to distinctly progressive causes. He was a high-profile backer of drug reform who NORML says spent about $40M over the last 30 years or so trying to get marijuana legalized, including bankrolling legalization bills in Massachusetts and Washington. Lewis was a very early advocate of legalizing pot for medical use. In New Jersey, we finally did get a medi-pot bill passed, but partly because of a governor playing to social conservatives against the interests, say, of suffering little 2-year-old girls, NJ threw up what amounted to roadblocks in its way.

Lewis also helped build organizations like America Coming Together, which ramped up to a staff of 4,000 plus 45,000 paid canvassers to get out the vote in battleground states to try and stop the re-election of Bush and Cheney. He also put big money into MoveOn.org (brother billionaire George Soros matched his contributions on both). And the ACLU. And the Democratic Party. Surely some of that touched some of us.

Just thought his death shouldn’t go unnoticed here.  

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