WASHINGTON — One day last January, Chicago’s John Rogers was here and met with Bill Burton, the former White House deputy press secretary who now runs a SuperPAC supporting President Barack Obama’s re-election.
Burton was pitching Rogers to contribute to Priorities USA, the SuperPAC created by Burton and Sean Sweeney — who was the chief of staff for Rahm Emanuel when he was Obama’s White House chief of staff.
Rogers, the chairman, CEO, and chief investment officer of Ariel Investments, didn’t donate to Burton on the spot — but a short time later that day he sent a messenger to deliver his $50,000 check to Burton’s office.
Rogers has a unique and important place in the Obama circle. He is very close to the president, first lady Michelle, her brother Craig Robinson (they played basketball together at Princeton) and Valerie Jarrett, a White House senior adviser.
He was a major fund-raiser for the Obama 2008 campaign and is reprising that role in 2012 for the re-election drive. On top of that, Rogers now is helping with Priorities USA.
Rogers was the biggest donor in January to Priorities USA. Earlier this month, Obama, in a switch, had his campaign manager, Jim Messina, tell major Obama donors they should donate to Priorities.
The 2012 presidential campaign is marked by the rise and the enormous influence of SuperPACs, political action committees created as a result of 2010 federal court rulings. SuperPACs are not allowed to coordinate with a campaign. They can take unlimited donations from a person, unlike a federal campaign, where an individual can give only $2,500 for a primary and $2,500 for the general election.
In this cycle, SuperPACs created to bolster the candidacies of GOP contenders Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul have been critical to their candidacies.
At the same time, another Republican SuperPAC, American Crossroads, has a mission to take aim at Obama until the Republicans have a nominee. With the torrent of GOP money, Rogers opened his checkbook.
“Burton made such a credible case of why it is important for us to have an even playing field, I was happy to help with whatever I could afford,” Rogers told me in an interview.
Another Chicagoan, Fred Eychaner, a businessman and major Democratic donor — Obama headlined a fund-raiser last month at Eychaner’s North Side home — was one of Priorities USA major donors, giving the group $500,000 in 2011.
Eychaner was unavailable for comment.
Major Chicago area donors to American Crossroads in 2011 include $300,00 from Kenneth Griffin, chief executive of Citadel LLC, a hedge fund; $250,000 from Janet Duchossois, an Oak Brook member of the racetrack family who is with the privately held Duchossois Group, and $100,000 from Sam Zell, whose holdings include the Tribune Co.
Griffin also hedges his political bets. He was a fund-raiser for both Obama and the GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain, in 2008. This cycle, Griffin has left the Obama camp. I asked a spokesman for a comment and was referred to a statement he gave to Bloomberg News last November, where he said he was backing Romney in 2012.
An analysis of presidential SuperPAC Federal Election Commission filings by Maplight, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, research organization that specializes in money and politics shows that in 2011, Chicago area donors gave:
$500,250 to Priorities USA (two donors, most from Eychaner).
$247,000 to Restore Our Future, a pro-Romney SuperPAC, from four contributors: $100,000 from Griffin, $95,000 each from Kristen Hertel and her husband, Goldman Sachs investment banker Muneer Satter and $50,000 from Zell.
$10,000 to Endorse Liberty, a pro-Paul SuperPAC.
The $10,000 came from the Revolution SuperPAC, headquartered at 3149 Dundee Rd. in Northbrook and run by a man named Gary Franchi Jr., who referred me to his Facebook page for information. He is a 1995 graduate of Glenbrook South High School and described himself on Facebook as “a filmmaker, broadcaster, national grass-roots organizer.”