Charles Perretti and his Long Island peace group were on to their Mercer neighbors from the beginning.
Today, New York’s Mercer family influences the national landscape from their perch a 60 mile drive from Manhattan. They spent millions backing President Donald Trump when others wouldn’t. They poured money into the data firm Cambridge Analytica, facing scrutiny from congressional investigators looking into potential collusion between Russia and Trump’s campaign. They continue to support Steve Bannon, the ousted strategist who now tends to Trump’s nationalist base.
But in 2014, Robert Mercer was mostly known as chief executive at storied hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, which the Senate concluded had failed to pay more than $6 billion in taxes.
This rankled Perretti, 72, a marine biologist and retired Long Island educator who speaks of civic affairs in hushed, intense tones. He’s the kind of guy who worries about non-soy-based inks and post-Citizens United plutocrats hurting democracy, like Mercer at Renaissance. And where was this company located?
“My God,” Perretti remembers thinking. “It’s right up the block.”
Steps, that is, from the East Setauket corner where the North Country Peace Group says it has met or held protests every Saturday for some 15 years — marshalling a little political influence dwarfed in scale by the money being made at Renaissance and spent at Mercer’s nearby luxury estate.
The peace group started as a band of Christians and humanists protesting the Iraq War, moving on to nuclear weapons and Colin Kaepernick. Standing or sitting in the cold, 30 strong or just a handful, trying to make their voices heard. But with the Mercers, the core problems the peace group saw in the world might never be closer. The source was there to be, perhaps, swayed. And in 2016, they got their chance.
A surprise chance to meet Robert Mercer
In their first Mercer demonstration, they marched up to Renaissance’s offices, carrying signs saying, “Keep corporate $ out of politics.” They presented a letter asking the businessman for a meeting. This didn’t immediately work, but at another protest before the 2016 New York presidential primary, group members talked to Renaissance employees about the political implications of Mercer donations. Then, they got a response: an email from a Renaissance staffer to Perretti. In it, Mercer asked Perretti to dinner.
“I was flabbergasted,” Perretti said recently. “I never thought he would acknowledge us. We were a flea on the elephant.” They’d had reactions from past protests — coffees thrown from passing cars, for example. But here was something big, the promise to learn about the figure down the road. (Repeated efforts to reach the Mercers for comment were unsuccessful.)
In the flood of profiles about the Mercers are the same stray libertarian-leaning details: the intricate $2.7 million train set on Mercer’s estate, its cost revealed in court records after the likely billionaire sued the train maker for overcharging (his exact wealth is hazy, but the hedge fund is estimated to be worth billions). There’s the origin myth of his computer work before arriving on Long Island to join founder (and cross-aisle donor) James Simons at Renaissance: Mercer got fed up with what he saw as government waste while doing collegiate work on an Albuquerque military base. That’s from a rare public speech in 2014. The peace group was excited about its surprise chance to learn more.
Perretti sent a return email to Mercer via the staffer asking if they could meet at a diner, more neutral turf. As a scientist, he also asked pointedly if they “both agree that our planet is experiencing an accelerated rate of CO2 atmospheric saturation with the probability of significant heat build up in the air and oceans?”
But the staffer wrote back with replies from Mercer. “I enjoy discussing issues at dinner,” Mercer wrote. “I enjoy eating dinner at my house.”
As per the diner: “I do not enjoy eating at restaurants because I do not hear well in that type of environment.”
And on the global warming question: “It is likely that we do not agree on this.”
The Mercer profile keeps growing
Perretti considered the situation and decided not to meet with Mercer on his terms. It did not seem a promising way to start a productive conversation. Another member of the group took the plunge, but wasn’t rewarded much for the meeting, which was wrapped in a nondisclosure agreement. Mercer likes his privacy.
These interactions didn’t develop into the kind of dialogue the peace group had wished. Since their emails, Perretti hasn’t heard from Mercer, but the donor only grew in prominence after he and his daughter Rebekah switched allegiances from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to Trump in 2016.
When Trump won, Rebekah became a member of the transition team. Trump attended the annual Mercer costume ball at Owl’s Nest, the family’s estate. In this new era the Mercers’ hidden halls and their luxury yacht have been guarded locations for conclaves that are rarely glimpsed yet have profound impact for hashing out political strategy or campaign plans.
For that reason, the peace group didn’t give up. More protests, more signs. They tried to learn more about the family, even talking to a suspended Renaissance employee who wrote an op-ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer about how Mercer “now owns a sizable share of the United States Presidency.”
This troubled the group. Its members are still not exactly sure what motivates the family next door. The Mercers’ actions are not always linear, and sometimes can surprise. But there are few checks on their money-bought influence, whenever they decide to do what they want to do.
And that might be the most troubling piece of all.