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Sen. Feinstein's husband takes on a starring role

Behind-the-scenes power broker Richard Blum compares his new job as chair of the UC Board of Regents to a corporate restructuring.

March 21, 2007|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

They are one of California's most influential political couples: four-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Richard Blum, a wealthy businessman, philanthropist and behind-the-scenes political advisor.

For decades, first as San Francisco mayor and then as senator, Feinstein has had the public persona while Blum has operated in the background. Now, at 71, Blum has stepped into the limelight to take over as chairman of the University of California Board of Regents.

Blum, who chaired his first regents meeting last week, sees an opportunity to use his skills as a corporate takeover artist to help streamline university management, find new sources of money and help rebuild the 10-campus system.

"For a private equity guy, this is like a big corporate restructuring," he said. "This is a huge enterprise, almost $20 billion. I am sure the place can run more efficiently."

Blum was appointed to a 12-year term on the 26-member board in 2002 by then-Gov. Gray Davis, to whom Blum and his companies had given more than $75,000 in campaign donations. But Blum said he felt so ineffective during the first few months that he was ready to resign from the coveted post.

"When I first came on board, I almost quit after the first two or three meetings," he said. "It was hard seeing the way the place was run how to have an impact. I can't just go to something and not to try to reshape the place."

Reshaping things is what Blum has been doing for more than 40 years as a corporate investor.

As a young man, he put together a deal to buy the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for $8 million and sold it four years later for $40 million. That helped give him his stake and he went on to make major investments in companies such as Northwest Airlines.

He met Feinstein in 1977 when she was a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and he was advising then-Mayor George Moscone -- the last time he had a public political role. After Moscone was assassinated in 1978, Feinstein became mayor. Blum and Feinstein married in 1980.

There is no question that Blum is well-connected. For his 70th birthday in 2005, he played host to a bash in San Francisco that was attended by former President Carter and the Dalai Lama. He also is close friends with former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale, who almost named Feinstein his running mate in 1984.

Blum, who once attempted to climb Mt. Everest, developed a keen interest in the people of the region and established the American Himalayan Foundation, which has set up schools and operates other aid programs in Nepal. He serves as an honorary consul of Nepal and Mongolia.

Over the years, Feinstein's political rivals have accused Blum of using his political connections and his position as a senator's husband to promote his business interests, particularly in China, but he has long denied any inappropriate business dealings.

Blum, who graduated from UC Berkeley with a bachelor's degree and a master's in business administration, continues to be a booster of the UC system.

He has donated or pledged more than $20 million to the university system, including $15 million for the Blum Center on Developing Economies on the Berkeley campus to combat global poverty.

"His first passion is for his family, and his second passion is for the University of California," said Kam Kuwata, who managed Feinstein's four Senate campaigns and is friends with the couple. "He's got a big reach, and he's going to utilize that reach to help the university."

Blum says that the UC system is nearly twice as large as the eight Ivy League schools and Stanford University put together and that UC campuses do far more to help students from "less-than-wealthy" families. Nearly two-thirds of all UC undergraduates receive some form of financial aid, totaling $1.3 billion.

One of the UC system's most pressing problems is finding money to rebuild the university after years of state cutbacks and soaring student fees.

Last week, Blum presided over the meeting as the regents reluctantly approved a 7% fee increase for most students and a 10% fee hike at selected law and business schools.

In addition to lobbying Sacramento for more funds, Blum also plans to push for a more aggressive program of raising money from corporations and the million-plus alumni of the UC system.

As evidence of UC's cutting-edge role in the world today, Blum cites the $500-million award UC Berkeley recently received from oil company BP to research new bio-fuels that would help reduce carbon emissions and curb global warming.

"I think one of the ways you get more support in terms of contributions and from Sacramento is having people better understand how important the university is, not just for the future of California but for the nation," Blum said.

He acknowledges that his public responsibilities as a regent sometimes overlap with those of his wife, in such areas as federal funding of education and the UC's administration of national research laboratories. But Blum said these issues don't pose any conflict for them.

"There's nothing in it for either one of us," he said. "We're just a couple of folks trying to make things better, and sometimes it works."

richard.paddock@latimes.com

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