Calif. Ballot Battle On Stem Cells

KEY WEST, July 5 - Dave Price poses with two of Key West's finest including Kurt Stephens, center, winner of this year's first "Great American Vacation" getaway contest.
Over three decades, Bob Klein amassed a fortune by building and financing low-income housing. After his 14-year-old son was diagnosed with diabetes in 2001, however, he redirected his considerable political clout and business savvy.

The longtime Democrat has since become one of the biggest private patrons of human embryonic stem cell research — medical technology that many scientists believe can someday cure a wide range of ailments, including diabetes.

"As a father you can't turn your back on something like this," Klein said. "I'm committed totally to this."

Stem cells appear in the first days after conception and create all the cells, tissues and organs that make up the human body. Scientists hope to someday cure disease by transplanting healthy stem cells into sick people.

Diabetes researchers say they may someday be able to turn stem cells into insulin-producing cells, which could be implanted in diabetics and eliminate the need for injections.

But stem cell research is contentious, and the issue has become presidential campaign fodder. The Roman Catholic Church, many evangelical Protestants and other moral conservatives oppose the research because embryos are destroyed in the process.

With polls showing overwhelming support for stem cell research, Democrat John Kerry has promised to give scientists more freedom than the Bush administration, which has restricted funding of the work, sending stem cell researchers scrambling for financial support wherever they can find it.

Klein, 59, a tan and fit resident of the Portola Valley near Palo Alto, Calif., has become one of the most outspoken advocates of stem cell research.

He's using his fortune and political connections skills to create and back Proposition 71, a California ballot measure that would have the state borrow $3 billion to fund stem cell research over 10 years. That contribution dwarfs all other support combined, including the $25 million provided by the federal government last year.

Klein drafted the proposition's language and provided an initial $1 million last year to launch a petition drive to qualify the measure for the Nov. 2 ballot. He's kicked in another $1 million and is the campaign's chairman and chief fund-raiser for an effort that has raised an additional $10 million.

By contrast, the opposition campaign has raised only $150,000.

"He's a skillful lobbyist in the halls of Sacramento," California's capital, said Willie Brown, former San Francisco mayor and speaker of the state Assembly until 1995. "He has set about to use those extraordinary skills in his personal quest to get government to do something."

Klein is also a board member of the California Housing Financing Agency, which he helped create in 1974. The agency, which helps first-time home buyers, lends about $1.2 billion at below-market rates each year.

"He's given his heart and soul to the board, and the agency is something he's extremely proud of," said Theresa Parker, the agency's executive director. "But he has to do this now, and to have the passion he has is tremendously impressive."

Klein still heads Klein Financial Corp., which focuses on building low-income housing in desirable neighborhoods in projects that make money for their investors. The company is well-respected on both Wall Street and among nonprofit housing organizations — not an easy feat in an industry whose reputation is marred by slumlords.

Besides Klein, well-heeled parents of other sick children, including Hollywood executives Jerry and Janet Zucker and Douglas Wick and his wife Lucy Fisher, have contributed money and time to the "Yes on 71" campaign. Silicon Valley venture capitalists and technology industry billionaires, including Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates, have also made large contributions.

"It has become a cause celebré," said state Sen. Deborah Ortiz, a Democrat who sponsored a law passed last year endorsing stem cell research in the state. "Stem cell research has emerged as a new hot-button, national issue."

Though Klein and his supporters have out-raised the opposition campaign, the vote could be a cliffhanger. A state poll conducted in early August showed 45 percent of the 534 likely voters in support of Proposition 71, and 42 percent in opposition. That's within the margin of sampling error of 4.5 percentage points. The rest were undecided.

The main opposition funders are the Catholic Church and the wealthy evangelical Christian Howard Ahmanson. Opponents say the measure will put the woefully indebted California further in arrears.

"We understand the personal motivation of people like Bob Klein," said Wayne Johnson, manager of the opposition campaign. "But there's something about great wealth that people have an expectation of entitlement that average Americans and average California's don't share."

By Paul Elias