Obama’s Money Pump for 2012 Re-Election Bid Primed by Chicago

U.S. President Barack Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama. Photographer: Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool via Bloomberg

Les Coney, an executive vice president at Chicago-based Mesirow Financial, will take a seat at two of three hometown events Barack Obama is scheduled to headline today as the president kicks off fundraising for a re-election bid that might cost as much as $1 billion.

Raising money may be tougher than four years ago, Coney said, partly because Obama was mostly a blank slate then, engaged in a historic quest to become the first black president.

“There was a certain type of excitement that went around the first go-around,” said Coney, who was one of Obama’s top 2008 fundraisers and has collected money for him for more than a decade. “He’s never going to be able to capture that again.”

Coney, 52, and other Obama supporters in the third-most-populous U.S. city say they feel the pressure to raise more early money, as Republican governors weaken the president’s allies in organized labor and the U.S. Supreme Court has eased restrictions on campaign spending.

Jim Messina, a former White House deputy chief of staff who is running the re-election campaign, has asked its top fundraisers to collect at least $350,000 this year alone. Four years ago, members of Obama’s national finance committee were asked to raise $250,000 for the entire election cycle.

The higher bar has been set in part because Democrats don’t know whether Obama will be helped or hurt by the top court’s Citizens United decision and efforts by governors to make it harder for unions to collect membership dues.

Democratic Counterattack

Illinois dollars are central to the campaign’s counterattack. “I think Chicago will be right there,” Coney said. “Not just in the African-American community, but I’m talking about the entire community. He’s our favorite son.”

Obama For America will need the help, especially if Wall Street donors are less generous than in 2008 because of last year’s passage of the financial regulatory overhaul and Obama’s “fat-cat” rhetoric toward bankers. The securities and investment sector was his fifth-largest source of contributions in 2008, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics.

Today’s Chicago events could raise more than $2 million for Obama and the Democratic National Committee, said a party official not authorized to share the information.

Obama, 49, has fundraisers scheduled this month in California and New York as his campaign tries to balance partisanship with the presidency at a time when the nation faces 8.8 percent unemployment, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and military action in Libya.

Illinois Bundlers

In the 2008 campaign, Illinois was second only to California for the total number of Obama “bundlers,” a team of people who solicit money from wide circles of donors, according to the center’s data. There were 97 from California, 86 from Illinois and 82 from New York.

Chicago’s 60614 Zip code, which includes the city’s Lincoln Park neighborhood on the north side, was Obama’s second-highest-grossing fundraising Zip code in 2008, netting $2.5 million, according to the center’s data. Only an Upper West Side Zip code in Manhattan, 10024, accounted for more, at $2.8 million.

All candidates, political parties and outside groups spent a total of $2 billion in the 2008 presidential campaign, according to the Federal Election Commission. Obama raised a record $745 million in 2007-08, and was the first major-party nominee to reject public financing for the general election.

Messina rejected “pie-in-the-sky speculation” that Obama’s campaign will raise $1 billion for 2012.

“We’ll raise enough funds to compete and win, and that will take a significant amount given the vast amounts GOP-allied groups are already raising,” he said in a statement.

Business Ire

While Obama has drawn the ire of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and been accused of being anti-business, his supporters say that sentiment doesn’t extend to his hometown.

“I see more energy from the CEO community and the business-leader community than I have ever seen,” said John Rogers, 53, chairman of Chicago-based Ariel Investments LLC and someone who raised more than $500,000 for Obama’s 2008 campaign. “The support here is really, really deep.”

Ariel, which provided Obama with office space the first three days after his election, employs another Obama friend and fundraiser, Mellody Hobson. She’s the company’s president, a personal finance contributor on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and filmmaker George Lucas’s girlfriend.

Seed Money

Hobson, Rogers and Coney are among black professionals in Chicago who provided Obama with some of his earliest political seed money and have continued to sustain his campaigns.

With about three dozen people now working in the Chicago headquarters, Obama For America is already spending money and soon will open offices in competitive states.

The campaign will have a new source of potential fundraisers that it didn’t have four years ago: those who had backed other Democrats, such as former Senator Hillary Clinton of New York and former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina.

“There has been a conscious effort to make all of those supporters, whether they were Hillary supporters or Edwards supporters, feel welcome,” Coney said.

In Chicago, that includes people such as entrepreneur and philanthropist Fred Eychaner, who supported Clinton in 2008 and is one of the nation’s top Democratic donors. In September, Obama named Eychaner, who has hosted Bill Clinton at his Chicago home at least three times, as a trustee to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.

Social Secretaries

The president’s fundraising operation will be run by Rufus Gifford, who raised money in California for the 2008 campaign. His former partner, Jeremy Bernard, was named the White House’s social secretary in February. Gifford will have help from Julianna Smoot, the top staff person for Obama’s 2008 fundraising effort, a former White House social secretary and one of two deputy campaign managers for 2012.

The Chicago events will include two at downtown restaurants for bigger donors, including one with an admission of $35,800.

Chicago donors are likely to be involved in one last major fundraising push for him -- to pay for a presidential library. Obama hasn’t spoken on the topic, though the president of the University of Chicago said in 2009 that the school was studying the possibility of hosting a presidential archive and museum.

“There’s going to be a whole another new energy around a library,” Coney said. “You will see a whole new window of opportunity to be supportive. It will be a big deal.”

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