Fred Eychaner was first invited to President Barack Obama’s White House in June 2009. He was back in June 2010 for a meeting with senior adviser David Axelrod and in March of this year as a guest at a state dinner honoring U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron.
In the past four years, Eychaner visited the White House seven times, and the president named him a trustee for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, a reflection of his interest in and philanthropy for the arts, especially ballet.
It’s a lot of attention for a man who backed then-Senator Hillary Clinton over Obama in the 2008 primary campaign, and it paid off this year when the reclusive Chicago printer, radio station owner and investor became the top individual Democratic campaign donor -- including $4.5 million given to a pro-Obama super political action committee. There’s also potential for future dividends if he continues to write large checks to Democratic super-PACs in the 2014 midterm elections and beyond.
“It was gutsy for him to stick with and be such a significant supporter of Senator Clinton at a time when most of the Chicago people were really swung around to support Senator Obama,” said John Podesta, who ran Obama’s transition team in 2008 and was a White House chief of staff to Bill Clinton. “They were smart in trying to cultivate his support. He’s now close to this White House and this political team.”
The courtship of Eychaner offers insight into how Obama’s team began laying the foundation for re-election less than a year after winning the White House. It also illustrates how they employed the advantages of incumbency to close the deal with a major new player on a transformed political field.
The soft-spoken Eychaner, 68, is an out-lier in an era of high-profile political donors who become household names.
He gave more money in 2012 than the Service Employees International Union or Goldman Sachs employees, yet few outside Democratic fundraising circles have ever heard the multimillionaire’s name.
The $14 million Eychaner contributed was enough to rank him the top 10 among individuals and organizations from both political parties, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics. Among individuals, he was fifth, behind a quartet of Republican donors: casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, billionaire Harold Simmons, Texas builder Bob Perry and TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts.
Energy billionaires David and Charles Koch, who invested millions in an effort to oust Obama, don’t appear in the rankings because much of their giving was to nonprofits, including one they formed, Americans for Prosperity, which doesn’t disclose donors. While Eychaner holds political views countering those of the Koch brothers, he does share their preference for privacy.
Several of Eychaner’s friends and fellow Democratic donors declined to be interviewed for this story. He also declined an interview request.
The political contributions Eychaner made in 2011 and 2012 include at least $4.5 million to Priorities USA Action, a super-PAC formed by former Obama aides that raised and spent about $67 million on advertising to try to influence the election. The House Majority PAC and Majority PAC, which aided Democratic House and Senate candidates, received $8 million from Eychaner, Federal Election Commission records show.
Besides helping finance 2014 super-PACs, Eychaner is likely to support a 2016 presidential bid by Clinton, who is finishing her term as secretary of state, should she decide to run. He contributed between $10 million and $25 million to her husband’s presidential library and non-profit foundation.
His Democratic giving comes with some irony that isn’t lost on his friends, who joke that a sizable proportion of his wealth came from the 2002 sale of a Chicago television station for $425 million in cash to Republican billionaire Rupert Murdoch, who runs News Corp., the media company that includes Fox News and the Wall Street Journal.
Eychaner (pronounced Eye-can-er) had earlier made millions through newspaper stock ownership when the Des Moines Register and Detroit Evening News were sold in the 1980s to Gannett Co.
Podesta, chairman of the Center for American Progress, a research center in Washington often aligned with Democrats, said Eychaner is a “significant donor” to his own group. The two men have known each other for more than a decade.
“He’s an extremely quiet and unassuming guy,” Podesta said. “If you go visit him in his office, it kind of physically reflects that. You don’t go to the 98th floor of some high-rise. You go to a building on the Northwest side of Chicago and it’s very unassuming.”
Podesta said he’s “just what you want” in a donor. “He’s not going to tell you how to do your job, but he wants to know that the job is getting done,” he said.
Eychaner and the president were not strangers when Obama extended his first White House invitation. After Obama secured the nomination in 2008, Eychaner contributed money to the president’s campaign and hosted a fundraiser at his home featuring future first lady Michelle Obama, which targeted donors from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-gender community. He’s an openly gay man who has advocated on civil rights issues for the community.
They stayed in touch through White House visits from 2009 through 2012 that are mostly ceremonial or social in their nature, White House visitor logs show. The one exception is a June 2010 visit with Axelrod, then the president’s top political adviser.
“They may have wooed him, but Fred is a very self-effacing and private guy. Why shouldn’t he accept an invitation?” said William Singer, a Chicago lawyer who has been active in Democratic fundraising for decades, including as deputy national finance chairman for Senator John Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid. “The distinction here is that Fred would never ask.”
As a donor, Eychaner isn’t alone in enjoying some White House perks. Big-dollar contributors are often invited to state dinners and other White House events, sometimes asked for their views on policy matters and often win postings to ambassadorships or advisory panels.
“He wants nothing out of it for himself,” Singer said of Eychaner, who he’s known for about two decades as a donor and also neighbor. “This world is filled with egomaniacs and Fred is the exact opposite. There are very few people like him.”
In the 2012 campaign, Eychaner raised at least $500,000 for Obama as a bundler, someone who solicits campaign contributions from their personal networks and communities. That placed him in the top tier of fundraisers disclosed by the campaign. He also hosted two separate fundraising events at his home, one featuring the president and the other the first lady.
Fundraisers at Eychaner’s home in Chicago’s upscale Lincoln Park neighborhood typically sell out because other donors are curious about his home. The 5,600-square-foot glass and concrete home, built by prominent Japanese architect Tadao Ando, has also hosted President Clinton at least three times.
While he’s mostly maintained his philanthropic anonymity, Eychaner’s role in national politics has grown more prominent in recent years.
He’s routinely ranked among such Democratic donors as billionaire investor George Soros and billionaire movie producer Steve Bing. When Democrats were searching for money to rebuild after losing the White House in 2000, former party chairman Terry McAuliffe traveled to Chicago to meet personally with Eychaner, who responded with checks totaling $4 million.
Rarely interviewed or photographed, Eychaner lives an apparently frugal life, with the notable exception of his multimillion-dollar home. In the mid-2000s, he was driving a Ford Escort and has since upgraded to a Ford Escape.
Raised by Republican parents, Eychaner grew up in DeKalb, Illinois. As a teenager, he worked for his family’s moving company, flattening packing paper for reuse. Although he stuttered as a child, Eychaner went on to win school speech contests and earn his Eagle Scout award.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is among those who have long courted Eychaner. Their donor-fundraiser relationship dates back to at least 2005, when Emanuel was working to raise money as the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Emanuel, who studied ballet in college, shares a love for the dance with Eychaner, who was instrumental in bringing the Joffrey Ballet to Chicago. Eychaner gave $100,000 to Emanuel’s mayoral campaign in November 2010, state records show.
John Lapp, a Democratic strategist based in Washington, called Eychaner “among the savviest Democratic donors around” because he thoroughly studies races before sending checks.
“He is so strategic in his spending. He follows the races,” said Lapp, who was Emanuel’s chief strategist in 2006 when they were running the Democratic campaign committee. “He’s become a real national player.”