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Taco Bell Heir Rob McKay Takes Initiative
Published on Sunday, July 14, 2002 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Political Philanthropist Rob McKay
Taco Bell Heir Takes Initiative
S.F. Man Would Spice Voter Registration Rules
by Beth Healy
 

Rob McKay started giving away the burrito money about the time South Central Los Angeles ignited in the wake of the Rodney King verdict. He was just 27 at the time, and among the wealthy called to open their pockets to help rebuild.

That "slap in the face by some serious reality," as McKay calls the 1992 riots, was the very beginning of his philanthropic life. A family fortune, amassed from the Taco Bell empire that his father helped build, started flowing that year into charity projects, many of them in the Bay Area.

Rob McKay
Taco Bell heir Rob McKay is funding an initiative to ease voter registration. Chronicle photo by Michael Macor
Lots of rich guys give away lots of money in California. But McKay -- who lives in a two-bedroom house on Telegraph Hill -- now is joining a select group of millionaires who have ventured into politics through their checkbooks.

Most of them end up looking like rubes.

But McKay is starting at the bottom so to speak, not with his own political ambitions just yet, but with actual voters. He has spent $1.5 million of his own money to put an initiative on the November ballot, Proposition 52, which would allow people to register to vote on election day.

If passed, it would be one of the most dramatic changes in California election law in recent memory, forcing a shakeup of political campaigns that now target mostly middle-class and wealthy voters. With proper ID, any citizen could just walk up and vote.

"We all wish people showed up at town hall forums and watched 'Face the Nation' and all these programs on a weekly basis," said McKay. "We know they don't. Even among so-called concerned voters, there is a time crunch, and I don't think people should be penalized because of it."

For McKay, it's part of a decadelong effort to get to the roots of democracy through his family's foundation, which gives away about $2 million a year. They've funded Santa Cruz Barrios Unidos, which works with former gang members, and the affordable housing activists at Chinatown Community Development.

FINANCED S.F. LIVING WAGE

McKay grew up in conservative Orange County with Republican parents, but he moved to the Bay Area, attended graduate school at UC Berkeley and eventually helped finance San Francisco's successful living wage campaign for low-income workers.

But don't page Dr. Freud. Just because the family money came from an industry that pays notoriously low wages doesn't mean McKay was compensating.

"Let me tell you what I am not: I am not sort of liberal white rich guilt, which frankly in the Bay Area we see plenty of," said McKay.

McKay, a sort of low-key Democrat, said the political realm is more accountable to the public than the "relatively smug world of philanthropy" that rarely takes risks or makes long-term investments. He said most of the grants the McKay Foundation gives are for at least five years and in $50,000 chunks to ground-level community groups.

McKay now is fluent in the language of community-group speak. Asked to describe any political motivation behind his donations, he talks about "empowerment in communities" and "issues about basic fairness and equality."

McKay spent most of his youth in Southern California, attending wealthy Foothill High School and Occidental College, where he studied political science. A job in Chicago training to become a banking analyst got him interested in low-income housing issues and poverty.

PUT $100,000 INTO LIVING WAGE

In 2000, McKay spent about $100,000 to fund the Living Wage Coalition, a group of unions and community organizations that pressured the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to set a minimum $10-an-hour wage for thousands of workers. McKay became the first investment banker to be honored by the 30,000- member SEIU Local 790, which pushed for the living wage.

"To have someone who is very smart in economics but has a wide open heart for people is a remarkable combination," said Josie Mooney, executive director of Local 790 and president of the San Francisco Labor Council.

McKay, who turns 38 next month, begins his days in San Francisco with a latte and newspapers at Cafe Roma, then heads back home for phone calls to the East Coast. The foundation has an office in the Financial District.

He likes contemporary art and fine wine but is an ardent Oakland Raiders fan. "It's a passion of mine, and even in the middle of the campaign, it's very clear to everyone that Sunday is reserved," he said.

McKay is finalizing his divorce from Pam Spritzer, a New York writer who lives with their 3-year-old daughter, Ade. He keeps an apartment in the West Village and visits at least a week every month, he said.

It was during a foggy evening on Telegraph Hill a few years ago that McKay met Deirdre English, the former editor of Mother Jones magazine and a faculty member at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley.

English said McKay is unlike most investors because he does his own research and "has an intrinsic set of values that are very democratic with a small d."

"Rob has given his money in a very, very different way, very un-egocentric, " English said.

McKay said he first read about the extent of his family's wealth as a teenager reading the business pages of the Los Angeles Times. His father, who took Taco Bell from one franchise to a nationwide chain, sold his 10 percent share of the business to PepsiCo Inc. in 1978, netting an estimated $13 million. He remained as an executive until 1981.

McKay said they had a comfortable life and that "Taco Bell was sort of a curiosity for my friends, anyway. It was mostly, 'Hey, can we get free burritos?' "

The family bank account has grown considerably thanks to other investments, including the National Bank of Southern California and US Robotics.

McKay controls much of the activity of the charitable giving and the separate investment portfolio as well.

"I got my MBA on my father's knee," McKay said. "He was passionate about it.

I would grab the business pages before he would. I wanted to make sure I knew something that he and I could talk about on Saturday afternoon."

PROP. 52 COULD COST MILLIONS

McKay now says he could spend several million dollars of his own money to get Proposition 52 passed this November. For McKay, the initiative is an extension of a decadelong campaign to get the disenfranchised connected again to their surroundings. Six other states already have election day registration.

"This is where political consultants don't like election day voter registration: It demands that you talk to really the entire electorate," McKay said. "I think one of the reasons people aren't engaged is that no one is talking to them."

©2002 San Francisco Chronicle

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