`Ahead of you in her ideas'

Philanthropist: The outspoken, rich and unflappable Teresa Heinz Kerry has shaped social policy with giving.

February 22, 2004|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PITTSBURGH - When Teresa Heinz Kerry weighed in on the planned expansion of Pittsburgh's convention center - as she does on almost every major project in this town - Mayor Tom Murphy was skeptical. Turn the convention center into the world's largest "green" building, designed to reduce energy costs, save water and cut down on trash? In Pittsburgh, a financially beleaguered city formerly known for its belching smokestacks and black rain?

Seven years later, the David L. Lawrence Convention Center juts over the Allegheny River, its curved roof looking like a ramp in a giant skateboard park.

Reflective roofing materials and a skylight help control the temperature. A reclamation system makes water flushed down toilets suitable for indoor plants. It was made possible by a design competition paid for in part by the Heinz Endowments, led by Heinz Kerry since 1991.

FOR THE RECORD - An article yesterday about the philanthropy of Teresa Heinz Kerry, the wife of Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry, incorrectly reported that a recipient of the annual Heinz Awards had given her $250,000 gift to the League of Conservation Voters. While the recipient sits on the league's board, she has not given the money.
The Sun regrets the error.

To Murphy, the building is an example of why those who underestimate the fabulously wealthy and outspoken wife of Democratic presidential front-runner John Kerry - known for her frank discussions of Botox, pre-nups and her husband's Vietnam nightmares - are bound to be surprised.

"This woman is not flaky," says the mayor, a Democrat. "You might react that way because she's ahead of you in her ideas. But at some point, you're going to get there."

In Pittsburgh and nationally, the ideas of Heinz Kerry, backed by the $1.4 billion in assets of two funds that make up the Pittsburgh-based Heinz Endowments, have become influential in shaping social policy - from encouraging green buildings in her adopted hometown, to devising a prescription drug plan adopted in Massachusetts, to creation of an environmental research institute in Washington, D.C.

As Republicans seek weaknesses in the Massachusetts senator's candidacy, his wife's giving is already being scrutinized. Heinz Kerry, 65, calls the sniping the comments of "bullies in the play yard."

She registered as a Democrat last year. She was long a part of Republican royalty as the wife of H. John Heinz III, a senator from Pennsylvania killed in a 1991 plane crash and the scion of the family that made its fortune selling 57 varieties of ketchup and condiments.

So it was something of an irony when conservative commentator Christopher Horner called Heinz Kerry "an elitist whose radical pet projects occasionally get off the leash."

Writing in the National Review two weeks ago, he noted that the League of Conservation Voters endorsed Kerry unusually early - before the New Hampshire primary - after a recipient of the annual $250,000 Heinz Awards passed her gift on to the organization. The league has gotten smaller, direct grants from the Heinz Family Foundation in recent years.

"They can write what they want," Heinz Kerry said of her detractors. "Negative people are only negative, and I'm not about that. I'm about doing things that I want that are good."

In an interview, she minimized the influence of her work on her husband's campaign for president. She said that she and Kerry, whom she married in 1995, talk often about issues that are important to them, but that she has not formally helped put together his platform.

"That's a communion, that's how you learn in life," she said of their discussions. "But do I write policy for him? Heck, no."

She says she does not know all the "technicalities" of Kerry's positions on the issues, and she views her role - and that of her charitable work - in his campaign as one of inspiration.

And she points out that some of the trustees on her foundation boards are more conservative than she, yet have approved the grants and projects.

James M. Walton, for example, chairman of one of the endowments, is also a trustee of Pittsburgh's Sarah Scaife Foundation. That foundation's leader, Mellon family member Richard Scaife, is a patron of arch-conservatism who funded the Arkansas Project, an investigation of then-President Bill Clinton by American Spectator magazine.

After her first husband's death, Heinz Kerry was courted by Republicans to run for his Senate seat. Instead, in 1993, Heinz Kerry called a news conference to announce that she found private grant-making a better way to continue his work.

She denounced political campaigns as "the graveyard of real ideas and the birthplace of empty promises."

"She is someone who is incapable of being anyone other than who she is," said Andrew McElwaine, now the president of the nonprofit Pennsylvania Environmental Council, who was the first director of the endowments' environmental program. "Her heart was in this work, and not in being a U.S. senator."

Since devoting herself to the family's philanthropies full time, Heinz Kerry has done much more than give away money.

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