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Theodore Earl Williams, 86; Bell Industries CEO and Activist

September 21, 2006|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Theodore Earl Williams, co-founder and chairman of the California Clean Money Campaign and former chief executive of Bell Industries, died of heart failure Monday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 86.

During his three decades with Bell Industries, Williams guided the electronic company's growth from less than $60 million in annual revenues to more than $900 million. But in recent years the former chief executive was best known for his push to remove special interest money and its influence from the electoral process in California.

"He really saw it as the necessary gateway to resolving so many problems that face our society and our country," said Susan Lerner, executive director of the California Clean Money Campaign, which advocates public funding of elections in the state. "He cared deeply about peace and social justice and equal opportunity for all."

Born May 9, 1920, in Columbus, Ohio, Williams grew up in Detroit, the son of a machinist. In 1942 he graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering.

After serving in the Army during World War II, Williams owned several businesses. Eventually he moved to Los Angeles and opened Williams Metal Products Co., which produced high-precision components for the electronics and aircrafts industry.

In the 1960s he offered good wages, healthcare benefits and pensions, priding himself on treating workers well, said his son, Wayne Williams. Each year, the same employee asked workers to vote to bring a union into the shop.

"And every year they would vote not to have a union," Williams said. "My father was a very progressive, liberal activist."

Bell Industries purchased Williams' company in the late 1960s. As the conglomerate struggled to manage the numerous electronics and other companies it purchased, Williams volunteered to help and soon became executive vice president and eventually chief executive.

"Our problem was how to put all these companies together in a way that made sense, how to manage them, and how to decide which we should hold and which should be dumped," he told The Times in 1977.

At Bell Industries, Williams led the company to growth while also speaking out on social issues. He was a member of the American Civil Liberties Union and active with other company leaders in Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, which supports a nuclear freeze and has protested the growth of the military budget, arguing that money could best be used for other needs in the country. Reluctance to become involved was, in Williams view, part of the problem.

In 1999, Williams helped launch California Clean Money Campaign. The organization was founded out of frustration that obvious solutions to societal problems were not being implemented, Lerner said. Williams and other co-founders argued that campaign donations from large corporations left politicians more interested in pleasing donors than solving problems.

"That led him to the conclusion that until we are able to cut the link between special interest campaign dollars and public policy we are going to be continually facing the same problems and not solving them," Lerner said.

Williams threw his support and finances behind the California Clean Money Campaign. The organization is a key backer of Proposition 89 on the November ballot. If passed, the initiative would place limits on how much money corporations and individuals can donate to candidates. It would also offer candidates the option of rejecting private funds and accepting a set limit of public funds. Williams viewed Proposition 89 as a significant milestone in the work of the group, Lerner said.

Earlier this year, Williams was diagnosed with prostate cancer and had been hospitalized for the illness. In addition to his son, Williams is survived by his wife Rita; children Lezlie, Shelly, and Patti; and a brother, Jerry Williams.

A funeral service is scheduled for 10 a.m. today at Mount Sinai Memorial Park and Mortuary, 5950 Forest Lawn Drive. Memorial donations may be made to the California Clean Money Campaign: www.caclean.org

jocelyn.stewart@latimes.com

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