Prechter leaves record of political power
By Scott Held, Heritage Newspapers
Heritage Newspapers File Photo/Larry Caruso
Heinz Prechter greets President George Bush in the early 1990s, flanked by former Michigan Gov. William Milliken (center).
Heinz Prechter was appointed by President George Bush as chairman of the President's Export Council in the early 1990s.
Jim Pendergast, the political boss who ran Kansas City and was instrumental in the rise of President Harry S. Truman, once was asked how he attained his power and influence.
"I’ve got friends," he said, "and that’s all there is to this boss business."
Heinz Prechter, who died Friday at 59, had plenty of friends, too. And a series of relationships with friends in Wayne County, the city of Detroit and the federal government helped make him Downriver’s most powerful political player.
Though he often was linked with Republican candidates and causes, Prechter’s fund-raising largesse hardly was directed exclusively to the GOP.
For all of his political activity — Prechter and Amway founder Richard DeVos annually were the state’s best fund-raisers for the Republicans — his political vision always centered on two special interests: the auto industry and Downriver.
"He had Republican friends and Democrat friends," said U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-16th District). "He was a friend and supporter of mine.
"He was always thinking about the Downrivers and how they could be improved. He was constantly lobbying for things that were good for the area."
But in today’s political world, lobbying means access, and access costs money. In the 2000 election, Prechter’s interest in the auto industry had him firmly supporting George W. Bush.
"You’ve got to be realistic," Prechter told the Associated Press the day before the election. "You cannot be theoretical, and I’m just afraid a Gore administration would be so clever they would mandate everything."
To that end, he was one of Bush’s best fund-raisers, not just in the state, but across the country.
According to records from Texans for Public Justice, a nonprofit group that tracks the influence of money in politics, Prechter was Michigan’s most generous donor to Bush during the 2000 election cycle, giving $111,300 in hard (regulated and limited) money to the Republican Party and $204,337 in soft (unlimited contributions to parties) money.
He also donated $9,000 to Bush’s campaigns for the Texas governor’s office.
In early 2000, a Newsweek story called him a "kingmaker" in the elevation of Bush to the presidency.
In November, Prechter took the unprecedented step of writing a column that ran in Heritage Newspapers encouraging a vote for Bush.
In the mid-1980s, he was part of then-Vice President George Bush’s "Team 100," a group of high-powered fund-raisers who helped Bush ascend to the White House in 1988.
The relationship with the elder Bush — Prechter supported his run for the GOP nomination in 1979 — eventually yielded an appointment to the President’s Export Council. In 1992, he accompanied the president to Japan on a trade mission, during which he struck a deal with automaker Honda to install sunroofs on its cars.
His generosity sparked rumors that he was interested in an ambassadorship, most likely to his native Germany, but Prechter always dismissed such talk.
"The last thing I want to do is ask a politician for a favor," he said last year. "I won’t accept an ambassadorship. I don’t even want an offer."
Closer to home, his political support often went across party lines.
"There’s no doubt he had a strong presence in the Republican Party," said longtime friend Keith Crain, chairman of Crain Communications. "As far as he was concerned in this area, though, there was a lot of nonpartisanship."
Former Gov. James Blanchard, a Democrat who remembered Prechter as a friend and a patriot, said he never let his allegiance to the Republican Party cloud his support for the industry and the area.
"He always made it clear that George Bush was his favorite president, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t willing to work with Democrats," Blanchard said. "He was always willing to help out if it was something good for the area or for the state.
"He was someone who was always promoting Michigan."
The "Duke of Downriver" — a moniker coined by Detroit Monthly when it wrote a cover story on Prechter some 20 years ago — was just as active locally, extolling the virtues of the area and the auto industry.
"He was a tremendous ambassador for the Downrivers," Dingell said. "He was interested in economic development and the economic health of Michigan."
That interest stretched north to Detroit, where Prechter was active in the campaigns of former Mayor Coleman Young and current Mayor Dennis Archer.
In a statement released Friday, Archer remembered Prechter’s role in the merger of Daimler Benz and Chrysler Corp.
"Heinz Prechter was a strong supporter of the city of Detroit who went out of his way to assure a positive and strong introduction between Jurgen Schrempp and myself at the outset of the DaimlerChrysler merger," Archer said.
"When there was a change in leadership at the automaker, he made sure that Dieter Zetsche and his team were comfortable in coming to visit with me so that the relationship between the city and DaimlerChrysler could continue to progress."
Now that Prechter is gone, the leadership vacuum it creates may never be filled.
"Heinz was a one-man chamber of commerce," Dingell said. "I doubt if anyone could do what he did or bring together the resources he did.
"It’s unlikely we’ll ever have anyone else like him."
Former Taylor Mayor Cameron Priebe, Wayne County’s director of public works, said Prechter’s passing will leave an incredibly large pair of shoes to fill.
"It’s up to us in leadership positions to fill that," he said. "He always set a standard of excellence … that kind of leadership is going to be missed sorely."