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Deal-Maker's Worlds Mesh at Party in S.F.

Businessman-turned- philanthropist Richard Blum's birthday is marked by Dalai Lama, an ex-president -- and wife Dianne Feinstein.

November 18, 2005|Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — It was not your run-of-the-millionaire's birthday bash.

Tibetan prayer flags hung from the chandeliers. Crimson-robed Buddhist monks mixed with wine-sipping industrialists. And on stage in a ballroom of the Westin St. Francis Hotel were two Nobel Peace Prize winners -- former President Carter and the exiled Tibetan religious leader, the Dalai Lama.

Somehow, it all seemed to fit the eclectic personality of the honoree, San Francisco financier and University of California Regent Richard C. Blum, 70, the husband of United States Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Blum, a longtime behind-the-scenes political spouse, made his fortune in the ruthlessly competitive arena of corporate takeovers.

But in recent years, he has taken an increasingly public posture as a political patron and philanthropist.

The Nov. 6 dinner was sponsored by the American Himalayan Foundation as a combination charity fundraiser and birthday celebration.

By the end of the evening, the 1,050 guests had pledged more than $1 million for hospitals and schools in Nepal.

Blum, who once owned the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, cheerfully manages his own three-ring act in the not always compatible worlds of business, politics and Eastern religion.

"I must have done something terribly wrong in my previous life to have been reborn an investment banker," Blum joked in his introduction of the Dalai Lama at the event.

Born into a family of Jewish clothing merchants, Blum still attends synagogue on high holidays, but says he draws most of his inspiration and compassion from Tibetan Buddhism.

A former mountain climber who once led an Everest expedition, he says his life was changed by encounters with Buddhist Sherpas during a monthlong trek three decades ago in Nepal.

Out of gratitude to one of his first Nepalese guides, Blum paid for the education of the illiterate Sherpa's five daughters, including, for three of them, university study in the United States.

In the anteroom of his North Beach office, Blum has a large sculpture of the multi-armed Avalokitesvara, Buddha of compassion.

On a balcony of the six-story Blum office building, he maintains a Buddhist prayer wall.

The sedately decorated workplace, with all its religious motifs, gives it the air of an Eastern temple.

Yet from the same office in 2002, Blum successfully battled corporate raider Carl Icahn for control of a New York real estate company that has been a key to a recent surge in Blum's personal wealth.

As Blum's fortune has grown, so has the level of his Democratic political patronage and public philanthropy.

When former Vice President Al Gore's alternative cable television network, Current TV, was struggling earlier this year, Blum stepped up with a $20-million investment to keep it alive. "He put together the final and critical piece of financing," Gore said.

After Democratic leader Tom Daschle lost his U.S. Senate seat, Blum found him a corporate directorship on the board of one of his firms.

And when University of California Chancellor Robert Birgeneau mused recently about creating a Global Poverty Center on the Berkeley campus, Blum said he would fund it for what is expected to be between $10 million and $20 million.

Blum, who married Feinstein in 1980 when she was mayor of San Francisco, has long been involved in politics.

He supported longtime friend and former Vice President Walter Mondale in Mondale's political campaigns since the 1960s.

He was an unpaid financial consultant to San Francisco's George Moscone before Moscone's assassination at City Hall in 1978. And he showed himself to be a fiercely loyal and tireless worker in Feinstein's campaigns for mayor, California governor and U.S. Senate.

But friends say it is only recently that his wealth and influence have grown to a point where Blum has become a power in his own right.

"I remember Dick when he had a walk-up office on Jackson Street and two secretaries," recalled Clint Riley, a San Francisco real estate investor and former political consultant who managed some of Feinstein's early campaigns.

"Now his business success has freed him up philanthropically and given him access all over the world," Riley said.

In addition to his appointment as a UC regent, Bloom serves on eight corporate boards and a number of nonprofit organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund, the World Conference of Religions for Peace, the Wilderness Society, the American Cancer Society and the American Himalayan Foundation, which he founded in 1980.

He is a major contributor to the Carter Center, the human rights organization founded by the former president, and the Brookings Institution, the Washington-based think tank.

He holds an annual world poverty conference in Aspen, Colo., where he and Feinstein own a sprawling $7-million "log-cabin style" mountainside estate.

Blum started his business career as a stockbroker and analyst with the old San Francisco-based Sutro & Co.

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