In political contributions, Zell leans right and wife leans left

Nearly 70 percent of prospective Tribune Co. owner's donations to Republicans

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Samuel Zell, real estate mogul, billionaire and the prospective new owner of the Tribune Co., has given more than $100,000 in political contributions since the 1998 election cycle, most of it supporting Republican causes according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission records by the Center for Public Integrity.

His wife Helen, however, stands on the other side of the political divide, giving almost entirely to Democrats and abortion rights groups. Together, the Zells give generously to candidates from both political parties.

Samuel Zell, 65, a native Chicagoan who built his fortune in real estate, landed an $8.2 billion private bid for the Tribune Co., one of the country's top media companies whose holdings include leading daily newspapers such as The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, and The (Baltimore) Sun, 23 television stations and the cable Superstation WGN. Tribune Co. announced the deal on Monday.

The Center's Media Tracker offers users a complete list of Tribune media properties, as well as political contributions by the company and its employees.

Zell is one of the 400 richest Americans, with an estimated net worth of $4.5 billion, according to Forbes.com.

He has contributed $107,700 to federal campaigns, parties and political action committees since the 1998 election cycle. Nearly 70 percent of the $84,200 he gave in direct contributions to candidates went to Republicans. He doled out $20,000 in a series of contributions — his biggest total to a single recipient — to the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts, Inc. Political Action Committee, which represents publicly traded real estate companies worldwide.

But despite favoring Republicans and professional interests, Zell has given money to prominent members of both political parties. For example, he has contributed to presidential candidates George W. Bush ($3,000) and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., ($2,000), former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., ($500), and current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., ($1,000), as well as former House Majority Leader Tom Delay, R-Texas ($1,000) and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., ($4,000).

A month before the 2004 presidential election, Zell gave $10,000 to the Progress for America Voter Fund, a "527" organization linked to the Bush administration that was charged with violating campaign finance laws.

In the final three weeks of the election, the fund spent $16.7 million on broadcast advertising alone — more than twice the total for all the Democratic 527s combined. (Read the Center's article on the campaign advertising blitz.)

The fund was co-founded by Tony Feather, who headed the 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign and is associated with Bush strategist Karl Rove. (Read the Center's profile of Feather and his consulting firm.)

In February, the fund agreed to pay $750,000 to settle charges that it failed to register and file disclosure reports as a political action committee, in what was the third-largest civil penalty in the FEC's history.

Zell has contributed to candidates now running for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, including:

  • Sen. John McCain: $1,000 in 1999 and $1,000 in 2006 to his PAC, Straight Talk America;
  • Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney: $2,000 in his failed 1994 Senate campaign, according to records maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics;
  • Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani: $1,000 in 2000 to his presidential exploratory committee.

Zell also has supported Republicans who, in previous elections, squared off against contenders for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. They include:

  • Illinois millionaire Jack Ryan: $4,000 in his 2004 Senate race against Barack Obama;
  • Former Rep. Rick Lazio: $1,000 in his 2000 Senate race against Hillary Clinton.

Yet Zell's wife has had a very different pattern of giving.

Helen Zell has given more than $50,000 in political contributions under her own name. Except for $3,000 to her home-district congressman, Jerry Weller, R-Ill., (whom her husband heavily supports), all of her contributions have ended up in the hands of Democrats and abortion-rights groups.

She was an early supporter of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., investing $12,000 in his 2004 Senate campaign before his speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston that catapulted him to political fame. Her financial support for Obama helped fuel his Democratic primary win over Blair Hull and totals $17,700 through June 2006.

Zell also has contributed to Hillary Clinton, the Democratic National Committee and abortion rights political action committees, including Voters For Choice/Friends of Family Planning and NARAL Pro-Choice America PAC.