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Gabrieli, known for his wealth, tries to stress currency of ideas

Christopher Gabrieli ran for Congress in 1998 and lieutenant governor in 2002.
Christopher Gabrieli ran for Congress in 1998 and lieutenant governor in 2002. (David Kamerman/ Globe Staff)

Third in a series on the three Democrats in the Sept. 19 gubernatorial primary.

By 1997, a string of big-score investments in healthcare and biotechnology startups had made Christopher F. Gabrieli wealthy beyond his dreams. After more than a decade in the venture capital business, he was restless for something more.

``I realized I didn't need to go to work every day," the candidate for governor said. ``I could work for the pleasure and the challenge, not for the mortgage payment."

Fascinated with politics, he served as an all-purpose volunteer in 1994 on the unsuccessful campaign of Mark Roosevelt, the Democrat crushed by Governor William F. Weld's landslide reelection. From there, Gabrieli turned to what he calls ``civic entrepreneurship," finding or creating vehicles to advance his interest in public policy and his ambition in politics.

Over the next several years, he became cochairman of MassINC, a nonpartisan think tank, headed a commission for Mayor Thomas M. Menino to expand afterschool programs, launched an education advocacy foundation that was a catalyst for the state's extended school day experiment this year, and jumped hip-deep into probusiness, centrist groups like the Democratic Leadership Council and the New Democrat Network. He donated lots of money to all of them, including $580,000 in the past 12 years to the party and Democratic candidates for Congress around the country.

Finally, Gabrieli ran for office and lost costly campaigns for Congress in 1998 and lieutenant governor in 2002; Gabrieli burned through $10 million of his own fortune in those defeats. He has spent another $8 million of his own money in this year's race, a record in this state.

That may explain why, for all his accomplishments in business, as a public policy wonk, and a player in the Democratic Party, Gabrieli's public image is largely defined by something not on his resume: his money.

It is an image he struggles to offset, by playing bocce in the North End, riding the commuter line, even posing for a photo while working at a pastry shop. The Beacon Hill resident is resentful and defensive about the notion that he can succeed in public life only by reaching into his pocket.

``There's sort of an assumption, to be totally honest, that I must write a check, which is an insult," he said during an interview. ``As if the way I succeeded in business was that I just had to write a check."

One of three Democrats in the Sept. 19 primary, Gabrieli preaches his gospel of ideas, innovation, results, and entrepreneurship. This is the vocabulary of his candidacy, informed by his business experience in the high-wire world of venture capital and as a citizen-activist pushing for innovations in education and government.

He travels the state in a blue Ford recreational vehicle that he bought for $50,000 and that doubles as a mobile billboard with huge Gabrieli signs. Whether enough voters believe the business skills he discusses at each stop are transferable to the hidebound ways of government is an open question. At some stops on a recent tour, turnout was light.

G. Felda Hardymon, a friend and business partner for 20 years, thinks Gabrieli's business skills would be an asset. Hardymon, a partner at Bessemer Venture Partners for 25 years, was part of the team that in the mid-1980s helped underwrite Gabrieli Medical Information Systems, a foundering company started by Gabrieli's father, Elemer, but saved by Chris, who dropped out of medical school. The younger Gabrieli, with the financial backing of Bessemer and others, put the company on the road to becoming a leader in computerized coding of medical records to help healthcare payers detect billing errors and control costs.

In 1986, Gabrieli joined Bessemer and made his fortune by specializing in identifying investment opportunities in healthcare and biotechnology startups.

``He played way above his age," Hardymon said, recalling the performance of Gabrieli, now 46, when he was in his late 20s. ``He was a guy who could get into a room full of very smart people in their 40s and 50s and with a lot of experiences and be a leader."

``You're always conceptually selling," Hardymon, a professor at Harvard Business School, said of the venture business. ``You have to shape ideas and get people to buy into them. That's the raw material he had in spades."

A small, close family
By any measure, Christopher Frater Oscar Gabrieli has lived a charmed life. Growing up in Buffalo as the younger son of Hungarian immigrants, he was raised in a refined, intellectually stimulating household. His father was a physician on the faculty of the state university medical school at Buffalo before starting his own business.

Because their parents had no relatives, they were a small, close nuclear family, his older brother, John Gabrieli, recalled. ``We had a pretty nice childhood."

Chris Gabrieli excelled at the elite Nichols School in Buffalo (he funds a scholarship program there), did well at Harvard, where he played varsity squash, and then, hoping to pursue a career in research, entered medical school at Columbia University.

In his second year at Columbia, Gabrieli's career path veered in a life-changing way. It would lead to fabulous wealth and a comfortable life, but at the time, it was a wrenching experience.

His father's business was failing and the son, seeking investors to rescue the venture, faced ``a Faustian bargain," he wrote in a report to his Harvard classmates for their 10th reunion in 1991. ``If I thought the company was worthy of their money, why wouldn't I run it until experienced management could be retained?" Gabrieli wrote of the prospective investors.

Goodbye medical school. At the age of 23, he was in charge of a struggling business, with his parents' financial well-being hanging in the balance.

``He had a willingness to sacrifice himself," John Gabrieli said. ``He took the big hit; I didn't. He felt there was no other way out," said the elder brother , an MIT professor, behavioral neuroscientist, and authority on human memory.

After three years, the company stabilized.

``He did it all on sheer guts and smarts," said John Gabrieli , who shares his brother's enthusiasm for tennis and the Buffalo Bills (they attended two of the Bills' four consecutive Super Bowl losses in the early 1990s). ``He had no business training."

But he did gain business experience, and in 1986 Chris Gabrieli left his day-to-day role in the family business and was recruited by Bessemer to become a venture capitalist, for a while splitting time between the firm's California and Massachusetts offices.

``Chris was one of about 10 people [in the venture capital business] in the country active at the beginning of biotech producing pharmaceuticals," Hardymon said. Gabrieli ran up an amazing winning streak in the risky biotech field. ``All nine of his investments made money, and that's remarkable," Hardymon said.

After a Globe story in June punched holes in Gabrieli's assertion that his venture capital activities ``helped create over 100,000" jobs, his campaign website has been edited, shrinking the figure to ``thousands and thousands of them."

Moreover, amid the successes were Gabrieli-directed failures. Among them were Advantage Schools, a controversial and mismanaged for-profit operator of charter schools -- including two in Massachusetts that fired the company, which was absorbed by a competitor in 2001 -- and, a political website that went bust the same year.

Also, the medical information systems company he helped build became an embarrassment during Gabrieli's 1998 congressional campaign. As a candidate, he was excoriating health maintenance organizations for cost-cutting by restricting care, even as his old company, under new management, boasted about crackdowns on inefficient doctors and excessive treatments.

The venture business taught him the art of negotiation and an appreciation of ``the co-ownership model," Gabrieli said. ``. . . We either make it all together, or we don't."

Mostly, Gabrieli and his partners made it. Success affords him a comfortably staid lifestyle and two homes in Massachusetts for a family that grew rapidly after he married Hilary Conant Bacon, a Harvard graduate and tax lawyer from a socially prominent Boston family, in 1993 when he was 32. Gabrieli was raised Presbyterian, but married in his wife's Episcopal church and remains a congregant of the Church of the Advent on the flat of Beacon Hill. At the time they married, the couple bought a nine-room townhouse, now valued at $5.6 million by the city, on prestigious Louisburg Square. They immediately began a family that grew to five children in their first seven years of marriage.

In 2000, they bought a century-old house with 14 rooms on 3.3 wooded acres in Beverly for $1.5 million. Located near Route 128 at the Wenham line, the house is ``mostly a backyard 35 minutes from our house," Gabrieli said. ``I wanted a place where my kids could enjoy summer, and I can be there every night."

How wealthy is he? Gabrieli won't say. His net worth and tax returns are private matters, he said.

When he ran for Congress in 1998, he disclosed assets worth $20 million to $80 million. As a candidate for statewide office, however, he has had to identify specific investment holdings but not their worth.

If elected, Gabrieli said, he will place his assets in a blind trust managed by others to avoid possible conflicts of interest.

He has, for example, proposed a $1 billion state bond fund over 10 years to finance Bay State-based research and product development in life sciences and new technologies, up to half of the total in stem cell research. The funds would be allocated by an independent panel of specialists.

Gabrieli estimates that 5 to 10 percent of his wealth is in biotechnology companies, but none conducts stem cell research, he said, including California-based Isis Pharmaceuticals, of which he was a director from 1994 through February.

``I would not expect much of this money would be meant to go to established companies, because they already have access to capital," Gabrieli said. ``I would expect this to be going to academic research and maybe just some technology transfer incubator kind of things, but not to established companies."

In response to Globe inquiries, his campaign said that from 2002 through 2004, Gabrieli, on average, donated about 23 percent of his income to charities and paid state and federal income taxes of more than 30 percent of his taxable income. For 2005, he received an extension and will file his returns by Oct. 15, spokesman Joe Ganley said.

Speaking style improved
On the stump, Gabrieli will never be a natural, but his style has improved over the years.

``I'm much more myself as a candidate now and let the chips fall where they may," he said. ``You can't be entirely unguarded in politics. Even appearing to be unguarded is as much a facade as a reality."

But in response to questions, he often gives didactic answers sometimes tinged with condescension.

Explaining why he proposed a state fund to underwrite cutting-edge research, for example, Gabrieli told a reporter: ``An actual understanding of our economy is that our economy most depends on our rate of innovation. . . . It's not actually understood by most of the people running for office, but it's not in fact disputed."

At times self-deprecating, Gabrieli at other points will toot his own horn: ``There are very few people who have had as much public impact as I've already had . . . without being elected to public office in Massachusetts."

But as he campaigns, he is much better at chit-chat with voters and speaking extemporaneously than he was during his run for Congress eight years ago. Then he was often awkward, wooden, and made rookie mistakes. In the Eighth Congressional District primary that year, Gabrieli spent an astounding $5.1 million of his own money, received 5,740 votes, and finished sixth in a field of 10.

``As a pal, it was fairly painful to watch," Tripp Jones, a Gabrieli political confidant, said of the 1998 race. ``But the thing I love about the guy, man, he's got chutzpah. He's willing to test himself and go outside the bounds of his comfort zone."

Jones, who managed the Roosevelt campaign for governor in 1994, has watched Gabrieli grow from eager volunteer in that campaign to a player in party politics and policy debates. Jones, a cofounder of MassINC, said that Gabrieli's money and effort were key factors in the success of the think tank.

``We've all watched the guy basically go through a fairly public training process in how to do this," said Jones, now an executive of The Mentor Network, a provider of community-based care to individuals with special needs. ``He's invested himself intensely in so many civic causes . . . He digs in on the substance of the work in a serious way."

Jennifer Davis, a former federal education official, has worked with Gabrieli for seven years and observed him taking on the Boston afterschool and extended school day issues ``with incredible gusto and enthusiasm." She was Menino's executive director of afterschool programs when Gabrieli led a task force that studied ways to expand those services. Then, in 2000, she and Gabrieli cofounded Mass2020, a foundation that led the effort to raise $26 million for new afterschool initiatives and played a key role in the state's $6.5 million extended-day experiment that began this month in selected schools in five cities.

``He really put himself on the line and became consumed in a positive way with the issue of afterschool programming," said Paul S. Grogan, president of The Boston Foundation. In 1999, Gabrieli had convinced Grogan, then vice president at Harvard University, that the school should contribute $5 million to the afterschool initiatives. In part, it was a peace gesture to Menino, who was irate that Harvard had secretly purchased 52 acres for an expansion into Allston.

When Gabrieli stepped down from the Boston Foundation board early this year, Grogan had some fun at his expense, as he talked about a controversial energy project that Gabrieli supports, but only if the state can extract ``a better deal" from the developer.

``What's disarming about Chris is that unlike some people who like to talk too much, he knows he does and is self-deprecating about it," said Grogan, who is neutral in the governor's race. ``At his going-away party, I joked that everyone knows Chris can be a little windy, so I said he's going to use the excess air from himself to make the Cape Wind project unnecessary."

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