He’s one of America’s richest men – a massive fundraiser for President Donald Trump, a close confidant of Steve Bannon, and, at least until last week, a primary benefactor of the combative, conservative website Breitbart News.
As it turns out, New York hedge fund mogul and computer genius Robert Mercer is also a graduate of Sandia High School and the University of New Mexico.
Mercer, 71, usually shuns the limelight, preferring to wield his immense political power behind the scenes. But the former New Mexican landed in the media glare last week after he sold his Breitbart stock to his daughters and issued a statement denouncing Milo Yiannopoulos, the inflammatory former Breitbart editor and internet troll who triggered protests at UNM earlier this year. Mercer had previously been supportive of Yiannopoulos – or at least his right to express his views.
Mercer also resigned as CEO of Renaissance Technologies last week, issuing a statement to the company’s staff that accused the media of misrepresenting his own views.
“Of the many mischaracterizations made of me by the press, the most repugnant to me have been the intimations that I am a white supremacist or a member of some other noxious group,” Mercer said. “Discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, creed, or anything of that sort is abhorrent to me. But more than that, it is ignorant.”
According to Forbes magazine, Mercer donated $24.6 million to the Republican Party in 2016. He has reportedly invested $10 million into Breitbart. Financial journals place his net worth at from $900 million to more than a $1 billion.
A must-read New Yorker profile published in March quoted former Renaissance executive Nick Patterson musing on his enigmatic former colleague’s outsize influence on politics.
“Bob has used his money very effectively,” Patterson said. “He’s not the first person in history to use money in politics, but in my view Trump wouldn’t be president if not for Bob. It doesn’t get much more effective than that.”
If you think it all seems a bit much for a reportedly low-key guy who was once a member of the car club at Sandia High, you’re not alone. Deanna Cooper Koloc, who graduated from high school with Mercer, said she enjoyed catching up with her old classmate at their 50th reunion in Albuquerque three years ago.
Mercer attended with his daughter, Rebekah, who is a force in conservative politics herself, having introduced Bannon to Trump. The father-daughter duo took an alumni tour of the school, attended the reunion dinner and reminisced with his old friends just like regular folks.
And Robert Mercer, one of the biggest financial contributors in U.S. politics, apparently didn’t talk politics – at all.
It wasn’t until after the reunion that Cooper Koloc realized who her old friend had become.
“I was excited to see him at the reunion because he was one of the students I remembered well as part of a group I identified with, and I found him very pleasant and interesting to talk to,” Cooper Koloc recalled. “We were both interested in hearing about mutual friends, and exchanged the sort of chitchat that always occurs at high school reunions. I’m glad I didn’t find out until later about his political leanings. I admire Bob for his accomplishments but vehemently oppose his politics.”
According to the 1964 edition of “The Crest” – the Sandia High yearbook – Mercer was active in extracurricular activities. The yearbook shows the bespectacled student as a member of the school’s chess, auto and Russian clubs.
An Albuquerque Journal article from the same year shows that Mercer – who later went on to become a pioneer in artificial intelligence and computer science – had a promising mathematical mind. He took top honors for New Mexico in the 1964 national high school math contest.
Neither Mercer nor his daughter, Rebekah, returned phone messages or emails seeking comment on his New Mexico past.
Mercer’s interest in politics didn’t fully bloom until he got rich. And his political activism eventually put him at odds with his colleagues at Renaissance Technologies.
A New York Times report last week suggested that Mercer stepped down under pressure from the company’s board because the giant hedge fund was starting to encounter protests, with the Baltimore firefighters and police retirement fund pulling its $33 million investment just last week.
In addition to investing $10 million in Breitbart, Mercer also plowed cash into Cambridge Analytica, an online data mining firm that helped both the Trump campaign in the U.S. and the Brexit movement in the United Kingdom. The firm claims to use secret psychological methods to help mine online data that can be used to reach and influence potential voters.
In his letter to Renaissance staff last week, Mercer not only aimed to put distance between himself and Yiannopoulos, but also Bannon, a founding member of Breitbart News and former White House adviser to Trump. Mercer insisted his politics are not “in lockstep” with Bannon’s.
“I have great respect for Mr. Bannon, and from time to time I do discuss politics with him,” Mercer said. “However, I make my own decisions with respect to whom I support politically. Those decisions do not always align with Mr. Bannon’s.”
The onetime Sandia High student, whose life is now centered in Long Island, N.Y., also sought to shed some light on his worldview.
“I believe that individuals are happiest and most fulfilled when they form their own opinions, assume responsibility for their own actions, and spend the fruits of their own labor as they see fit,” Mercer said. “I believe that a collection of individuals making their own decisions within the confines of a clear and concise set of laws that they have determined for themselves will advance society much more effectively than will a collection of experts who are confident in their knowledge of what is best for everyone else. This is why I support conservatives, who favor a smaller, less powerful government.”
UpFront is a regular Journal news and opinion column. Comment directly to Washington correspondent Michael Coleman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.