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Robert Mosbacher, 82, oilman, force behind NAFTA, dies

Robert Mosbacher, a Westchester County native who became a Texas oil mogul, served as a chief fundraiser for five Republican presidential campaigns and who as commerce secretary successfully promoted the North American Free Trade Agreement, died of pancreatic cancer Sunday at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. He was 82.

The son of a Wall Street investor who pulled out of the market before the crash of 1929, Mosbacher spent his life amid opulence and privilege.

With $500,000 in seed money from his father, he started the Houston-based Mosbacher Energy Co. and built it into one of the largest private energy businesses in the country. By avoiding risky projects, it managed to outlast the 1980s oil field bust that put some larger corporations out of business, and helped give Mosbacher a personal fortune of more than $200 million.

His East Coast heritage and Gulf Coast riches helped make Mosbacher a successful fundraiser among the Republican elite, and he brought in millions of dollars for presidential contenders, including Gerald Ford in 1976 and John McCain in 2008. His tightest political connection was with fellow Texan George H.W. Bush, for whom he worked on three presidential races - including in 1980, when Mosbacher persuaded Bush to drop out early enough to be considered for the vice presidency.

While the fundraiser's third marriage, to the vivacious socialite Georgette Mosbacher, made the couple a frequent subject of Washington's society and gossip pages, his closeness to President Bush gave him unusual sway as his secretary of commerce, rarely considered an influential position.

As head of the traditionally protectionist Commerce Department from 1989 to 1992, Mosbacher became one of the Bush administration's leading proponents of free trade with Mexico and a key contact for senior Mexican officials as they negotiated NAFTA. With the same gregariousness and affability that made him a top fundraiser, Mosbacher toured the country to stem concerns that free trade with Mexico would result in lost jobs at home.

The agreement, which radically rewrote the economic relationships among Canada, Mexico and the United States, was ceremonially signed in 1992 and became law two years later under President Bill Clinton.

Mosbacher presided over the 1990 Census and its contentious aftermath, drawing criticism when he refused to adjust the count despite another survey that showed that the original effort missed about 5.3 million people.

Civil rights leaders said the decision disproportionately affected minorities and the poor. It also triggered a lawsuit by New York and other large cities that sought to force the adjustment of the count.

In 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in favor of Mosbacher, affirming that he had made a "reasonable choice in an area where technical experts disagree."

Robert Adam Mosbacher was born on March 11, 1927, in Mount Vernon, He grew up commuting between a Park Avenue apartment in Manhattan and a suburban home in Westchester County.

He graduated from Washington & Lee University in 1947 and set off for Texas with his young wife, the former Jane Pennybacker. By 1954, he had found his first million-dollar natural-gas field.

His approach was conservative, with one oilman friend telling Forbes magazine, "Even at the height of the boom, when everybody else was going full blast, Bob ran his business as if we were still in a mediocre period."

In 1970, Jane Mosbacher died of leukemia, and Mosbacher was counseled in his grief by Bush and James Baker III, who had also recently lost his wife to cancer. The trio would go on to the highest levels of government together.

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