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Louis Susman has lived and worked in Chicago for 20 years, but his roots go back to Missouri. The son of a successful industrial cloth maker who founded Susman Wiping Materials Company in 1930, Lou grew up in the St. Louis suburb of Clayton. Later, he and Margie raised their daughter and son in the exclusive suburb of Ladue. For 27 years, Susman practiced law in St. Louis, boasting clients such as Bear, Stearns & Co. and August A. Busch Jr., the patriarch of the Anheuser-Busch companies and the owner of the St. Louis Cardinals. (Susman served as a member of the Cardinals’ board and management committee.) Susman’s hometown colleagues were not surprised in 1989 when he accepted an offer from Salomon Brothers to head its Chicago office. “He’s all investment banker,” one lawyer told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at the time, “full sails, glad hands, deals—he’s always got his eye on the big picture.”
Lou and Margie bought an Astor Street condo, and he got to work making deals. In 1996 Salomon promoted him to vice chairman of the investment banking division in New York, but he kept his office in Chicago. After Salomon Brothers became part of Citigroup in 1998, Susman worked his way up to the position of vice chairman of Citigroup’s corporate and investment banking. Two of the deals Susman worked on here would not win him the “Mr. Chicago” title. In 1990, Susman negotiated the sale of Marshall Field’s to his client, Dayton Hudson, for $1.04 billion. In 1995, his client LG, a Korean company, took over another local institution, Zenith Electronics.
His close friend of 35 years, the Chicago businessman Andrew McKenna, attributes Susman’s success as a banker to his “very, very good instincts” and “understanding of human nature, so he’s able to build on interpersonal relationships”—qualities, says McKenna, that will translate well to his new job.
Since his early days as a lawyer in Missouri, Susman had kept a hand in politics. “He just kind of appeared one day [in 1968] and said that he’d like to work on [Tom Eagleton’s Senate] campaign,” recalls Barbara Eagleton. The candidate stuck the young lawyer with the job nobody wanted—putting the arm on others to write checks. Eagleton won that race and went on to win two more, always with Susman raising the money.
Presidential hopefuls soon came calling—Ted Kennedy in 1980, Dick Gephardt in 1988, Bill Bradley in 2000, John Kerry in 2004. Susman got to know Barack Obama in 2002, at a time when hardly anyone outside Chicago had heard of him. That year, Susman introduced Obama to John Kerry—the introduction, says Susman, that led to Obama’s keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 and “launched Barack Obama into the national spotlight.”
While Susman thought Obama would run for president some day, he did not expect it in 2008. But by late summer 2006, expectations had shifted. William Singer recalls Susman at that time as being “wildly enthusiastic. He thought [Obama] was the right guy at the right time.”
The title of national finance chair went to the Chicago billionaire Penny Pritzker, a close personal friend of the Obamas and today a member of the administration’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board. Susman became a key player, serving on the National Finance Committee and bringing in many vets of the 2004 Kerry race.
Much has been made of Obama’s touch in raising small sums from millions of ordinary people via the Internet. But winning the presidency in this political era would be impossible without the Susmans of the country, the big players who have the business and social contacts to bundle—the campaign term for gathering up individual contributions, which are limited to $2,300 per election. Susman moves at the apex of Chicago’s social world—his friends include major players such as the Manilows and the Crowns—and he has immersed himself in the tiptop of Chicago philanthropy, serving as a trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago, a board member of the Lyric Opera, a governing member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a trustee of Children’s Memorial Hospital, a trustee of the Lincoln Park Zoo, vice chairman of the Economic Club, and a member of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago.
Still, were Susman only a bundler, the London job might have proved elusive. William Singer points out that Susman “was involved at different levels, well beyond fundraising.” Without that game-changing 2004 keynote speech that Susman helped finesse, Obama today would likely be finishing his first term as a U.S. senator. Susman earned a reputation in 2004 for “‘strong-arming’ prominent Missouri Democrats to endorse . . . Kerry,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. He repeated that performance for Obama. “Nobody bird-dogged me more trying to get me to endorse Barack Obama,” Senator McCaskill recalls, “than Lou Susman.” She was not an easy sell. “[A] lot of . . . my supporters were very much in the Clinton camp. As a woman, I had obviously mixed emotions about not supporting the first viable woman candidate for president.” Early in 2008, McCaskill endorsed Obama.
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