When Chicago billionaire J.B. Pritzker opened his Gold Coast home to donors wanting to meet presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, he served pre-made roast beef sandwiches from Jewel.
Guests packed Pritzker’s home, mingling before hanging on every word of the candidate’s remarks. Clinton went beyond the stump speeches that might have played on CNN.
“She talked specifics,” says Pritzker, including about his pet subject: early-childhood education.
Later, Clinton lingered to talk with each guest one-on-one.
“This isn’t about lifestyles of the rich and famous. There’s nothing fancy about it. People just want to mingle with the candidate,” says Pritzker, a venture capitalist and heir to the Hyatt Hotels chain. “People were excited. A lot of them had never met her.”
He says the room “was electric.”
Pritzker is among a select group of Chicago-area Clinton fundraisers known as bundlers — people who gather up smaller contributions into one lump sum. Pritzker, for example, could raise — bundle — as much as $1 million.
Energy entrepreneur Michael Polsky, media mogul Fred Eychaner and private-equity investor Antonio Gracias also are bundlers who have held soirees in their Chicago homes to raise money for Clinton. The events feel a little like speed-dating. In just over an hour, guests mingle and nibble on passed appetizers before hearing from the candidate — or her husband, former President Bill Clinton or daughter Chelsea Clinton.
Small gatherings and canapes are en vogue at political fundraisers in Chicago — no more checks stuffed in envelopes addressed to faceless campaign workers. These bundlers tap hundreds of friends and cohorts to pay up to $2,700 to individual candidates, the maximum allowed by the Federal Election Commission, though they can give more to political action committees. And they organize these donations through email invites and Facebook announcements.
These mostly wealthy fundraisers aren’t fazed by Clinton’s tough talk on issues related to their industries. She’s proposed tax hikes on the high-frequency trading business, for example. Yet Raj Fernando, former head of high-frequency trading company Chopper Trading, is a top bundler. (He recently launched tech company Scoutahead.) Clinton attended an event at his home that he co-hosted. Co-hosting allows fellow supporters to each meet their $100,000 (or more) fundraising goals by getting credit for those they bring in.
Other Clinton bundlers include Muhammad Akhtar, CEO of RNA Corp., a Blue Island manufacturing company; Andrew Boron, an executive at Clear Spring Life Insurance; and @properties real estate co-founder Thad Wong.
Deep pockets aren’t the only thing that matters in fundraising. Connections do, too.
Chelsea Clinton headlined an event hosted by Kevin Conlon at Conlon & Dunn Public Strategies earlier this year. Conlon has a hefty Rolodex, having bundled for Democrats the past four presidential elections.
Bill Singer, attorney at Kirkland & Ellis, also is well-connected, having raised money for Bill Clinton, John Kerry and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin.
Singer and his wife had to move their party from their Lincoln Park home to Riva restaurant at Navy Pier.
“More people wanted to get involved than we initially planned,” Singer says. “The Secret Service came and said our house wasn’t big enough.”
Though the party was at a restaurant, this was no sit-down affair. Those kinds of splashy parties are out of favor these days. A sit-down dinner limits access to the candidate, and they’re “expensive,” notes Wong. “At a cocktail hour, there’s more energy. When the politician speaks, people get closer. . . . The only thing you miss out on by not having a dinner is a mediocre piece of meat or fish.”
Julie Smolyansky, the CEO of Lifeway Foods, is among those bundlers using social media to attract donors to her events. She’s also among the top women fundraisers for Clinton nationwide, having already raised $435,000.
Along with sharing news stories about her candidate, Smolyansky uses Facebook and Twitter to announce affordable fundraising events — from cocktail hours with college students to a documentary-training class. Suggested contributions to the candidate might be as much as $100.
The Chicago businesswoman notices when people “like” her posts on Facebook and often follows up with a private message asking about supporting Clinton’s campaign.
Smolyansky has been a Hillary Clinton fan since she was a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“I remember her speech at the Women’s Conference in Beijing [in 1995],” she says. “She said that women’s rights are human rights. It inspired me.”
Smolyansky wasn’t in a place financially to raise money for Clinton eight years ago, but she is now. “When I watched her as secretary of state, I thought, ‘If she runs again, I’m going to do everything in my power to help her win.'”
Smolyansky, who immigrated to the United States as a refugee in 1976 with her parents, says her life has come full-circle in fundraising for Clinton.
“We were [among] the first immigrants from the Soviet Union,” she says of her family. “People who followed asked us how to rent an apartment, how to find a car, how to build a resume. They were always coming to our doorstep for advice and support. Now, I’m asking for help for a candidate I believe in strongly.”
A bundler’s work doesn’t go unnoticed. Consider President Barack Obama’s top fundraisers. Retired investment banker Louis Susman became ambassador to England, and Bruce Heyman, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker, is ambassador to Canada. Each raised close to $1 million for the president.
The Clinton bundlers I talked to say they’re not doing this for a title.
“I’ve got a daytime job,” says Joe Power, founding partner of Power, Rogers & Smith, a Chicago personal-injury law firm.
They do enjoy the intimate access they’ve got during the campaign.
Smita Shah, the CEO of Chicago-based Spaan Tech engineering firm, opened her home to a noontime gathering at her Lake Shore Drive home in September that featured Bill Clinton. She’s known him since her days interning in the White House during his administration.
The former president talked with passion about his wife-now-candidate, and he offered some trademark humor. Hillary Clinton, he said, “will be the only president not to go gray in the White House.” It was a funny line that women in the audience ate up. (Note: Donald Trump, with his own hair transformations, had yet to become a force on the campaign.)