William Louis-Dreyfus has one request: “Don’t call me a billionaire.”
If he were one, he says, he would have donated much more than the $1 million that he has contributed to voter registration and turnout efforts in a bid to stem the voter-suppression that he sees playing out in toughened voting laws.
“One way you can tell I am not is the number I gave them would have been 50 or 100, and not just one” million,’ says Louis-Dreyfus, retired chairman of Impala SAS and Louis Dreyfus Natural Gas Corp. “I’ve never given anything close to this number” for a political cause, he said in an interview with Bloomberg News. “I woke up one morning and thought to myself, `My God, what am I doing standing by doing nothing?’ I decided to put my money where my mouth is.”
Louis-Dreyfus, who in past years has been listed by Forbes magazine among the world’s billionaires (he says they never get that list quite right), called on fellow wealthy people in a full-page ad in the New York Times this week to join him in combating voter suppression. His “call to arms” directed donors to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.
For his own part, he says, he has given some of the $1 million that he committed to Democrats in Pennsylvania who are working on registering voters and gave most of it to the Black Civil Engagement Fund housed at the Tides Foundation.
He had “trouble giving this money away,” he says, because he found plenty of willing takers but not many well-organized to take on the work he is concerned about. He wasn’t interested in opening an office for someone — “I wanted to actually not let the election take place falsely.”
Not enough people have paid attention to the potential impact that new voting laws could have, Louis-Dreyfus says. He views laws enacted in Pennsylvania, Florida and elsewhere to either make voter identification more difficult or restrict early voting as efforts at suppressing the vote of people some lawmakers don’t want counted.
“What got me going on this one was the realization that, if enough of the votes were suppressed in Florida or Ohio for instance to skew the vote… then we’d have a poisoned democracy,” he says.
He can’t speak to what the Brennan Center is collecting from his advertisement, but he has heard from “a good number of people” calling and mailing “small amounts of money.” And what does an erstwhile billionaire who maintains he isn’t one consider small? “We’ve gotten people who have pledged to send in a couple hundred dollars, which is marvelous… It wasn’t addressed only to the super rich.”
The question of voter suppression goes beyond the Nov. 6 election, Louis-Dreyfus says.
“It does go beyond this election, and that is one of the grave problems with it,” he says. “If (Mitt) Romney wins and we get a Supreme Court that is in his style, then it is too late.” At which point, the retired businessman’s political preference becomes clearer — he’d support President Barack Obama’s re-election regardless of his clear competence, he explains. “What choice have we got?”