It’s common knowledge that two of Chicago’s wealthiest families—the Crowns and the Pritzkers—are staunch Obama supporters, so it surprised me to read earlier this year that Susan Crown, 53, was supporting Mitt Romney for president. I wondered: Why isn’t she in the Obama camp like her older brother, Jim, president of Henry Crown & Co.? I called her to find out, and she told me that she has always been an independent and voted for Obama in ’08—but has been “profoundly disappointed” in the president’s performance.
A Yale graduate (’80) and longtime head of family philanthropy, Crown’s interests range from educational reform, healthcare, and the Middle East to helping women and girls in developing countries and her Susan Crown Exchange (“a social investment organization that connects talent and innovation with market forces to drive social change”). She has held two fundraisers for Romney—one at her home with Romney in attendance—and is set to introduce Ann Romney, who will introduce her husband at what they hope will be a victory rally tonight at the Renaissance Hotel in Schaumburg. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.
CF: How did you get involved in the Romney campaign?
SC: I have really never been involved in politics. I’ve been on the fringes most of my life. I’m an independent. I probably only cast a few Republican votes, but taking a look at circumstances in the world today, I am very concerned. I feel we’re at a critical historic juncture, and I feel that Mitt is the only candidate out there with the credentials and credibility and capability to lead us out of where we’re at today. I want three things to happen: I want a reboot of a fragile and faltering economy; I want a more secure, less volatile world; and I want the United States to reestablish its credibility and respect on the global stage, and I’ve seen all those things disintegrate over the past three years.
CF: Did you support Obama in ’08 beyond voting for him?
SC: Yes, I gave some money. That was the extent of my support. I think he is well-intended, and I think he lacks the skills he needs to get the job done. He’s inexperienced. He has never worked in the commercial sector. He has been the most anti-business president we’ve ever had. I don’t think he surrounded himself with people with professional experience; they tend to be more academic, and the day that really made a difference for me was the day he suggested that Israel go back to 1967 borders. That infuriated me. That was the day I switched candidates.
CF: Obama insists that there’s no change—that that has always been U.S. policy.
SC: He can spin this any way he wants to, but for the thousands of families in Israel who sacrificed brothers and husbands and sisters to that war, I’m wondering what he’s planning to say to them. There’s a tension that has not existed before, and it has a lot to do with how challenging the conflicts are, but I think it’s also a reflection of interpersonal issues. He and [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu don’t seem to get along very well. I watched President Obama on Super Tuesday in the [White House] press room talking about Iran, and he did not make me feel safe or confident as a citizen; he actually made me feel much less confident.
CF: Did you know Barack Obama before he ran for President?
SC: I was on the Annenberg Challenge Board with him years ago. I don’t know him well, but Chicago’s a small town.
CF: That’s the board that Bill Ayers was on. Did you notice any particular friendship between the two of them?
SC: Not at all.
CF: Was Obama a good board member?
SC: Yes, quiet, thoughtful, constructive.
CF: Did you know Romney before this campaign?
SC: I did not; however, my Yale classmate Josh Bekenstein, who was also my campaign cochair for the Yale Tomorrow Campaign [Crown served on the Yale Corporation or 12 years], was Mitt’s partner in starting Bain capital. I found when I went to Yale the curve was so far to the right that I was immediately rendered mediocre and Josh was on the far right on the curve—one of the smartest guys anywhere—and I figured if Josh could start a business with this guy he was worth knowing.
CF: I noticed in checking the White House state dinner list for British Prime Minster David Cameron that your brother was on it. Do you two argue politics over Thanksgiving dinner?
SC: No, no. I have a big family (three sisters and three brothers), and there are lots of independent thinkers. There are family members on both sides of the fence in this election. My husband [William Kunkler III] is a lifelong Republican, and this is the first time the two of us have really have been on the same side of the fence and worked together politically, so he was the one who alerted folks that I would be willing. Actually he arranged for me to meet Mitt. [Kunkler is a fellow Yale graduate and Executive VP of CC Industries, a private equity firm and an affiliate of Henry Crown & Co,; the couple has two children, one at Northwestern and the other living in Colorado.]
CF: You think of people supporting Republicans as living out in the suburbs and especially in the Collar Counties. Are there other city dwellers working with you for Romney?
SC: There are many, and I would say members of the business community who have been traditionally tied with one party or another have gone independent and are going with the candidate they think is best. There are a lot of very unexpected names.
CF: Such as?
SC: John Rowe, Miles White, Chris Reyes, Henry Paulson.
CF: I can’t imagine that Romney’s statement that he’d cut off federal funds to Planned Parenthood is going to help him with women.
SC: Fifty-one percent of the voters are women, and there’s only one [Republican] candidate there who acknowledges that women won the right to vote in 1919. I really don’t think Mitt wants to monkey with social issues. He has enough on his plate with the massive economic issues, the national debt, the federal budget, the unemployment rate, and what’s going on internationally.
CF: I know you have to go [“I have the whole Rush transformation team coming out in a couple of hours,” she told me earlier, referring to her work as Vice-Chair of Rush University Medical Center.], but tell me about your philanthropic work in the digital area. Your rating system is launching on March 29?
SC: It’s absolutely been a blast—the most interesting intellectual challenge I’ve taken on in my adult life. We’re working with several different organizations, but I suppose the most advanced one is Common Sense Media. We’re working on building a rating system for …digital media of every kind…. And we’re using a blue ribbon team of experts to take digital products and rate them on their learning potential, and also on what kind of skills they build. No one has ever done that before. Parents go into Best Buy, right now; any digital media producer can write, “Baby Einstein,” or “will make your kid smarter or great for math,” or “great for math disabilities.” There’s no standard of any kind. Some people think that everything that’s on the computer is a distraction or a negative. The simple fact of the matter is the average kid spends more than seven hours a day interacting with some sort of digital media, and we can either see that as a problem or as an incredible opportunity. We have chosen to see it as an opportunity. What we’re trying to do is make sure that what’s out there isn’t Cheetos, but is a Whole Foods offering. Let’s say there’s a math game and Common Sense Media rates it as great for 3rd graders and an excellent way to get positive reinforcement to a not-so-confident mathematician. Parents can give feedback, say, “I have a kid with Asperger’s who stays focused on this for 30-40 minutes at a time.” Or, “I have a first grader who’s very advanced at math but in a lousy public school.” There will be real feedback for parents.
CF: Back to politics for a second. Whatever one thinks of Romney’s politics, why so much ridicule on the personal side [with his looks and style]?
SC: He is the eHarmony date of the Republican Party. [The ridicule] is baffling to me. I have really gotten to know him pretty well over the last six months and the more time I spend with him, the more impressive he is to me as a candidate and as a human being. It is not very comfortable for him to wear his emotions on his sleeve. His son told me a story that I used when I introduced Mitt [at the fundraiser]. [Mitt] was visiting his mother in Michigan and they had an old cabin that was structurally unsound. The floor collapsed, and Mitt and his mother fell through the floor. The son told me that Mitt had one hand under her neck comforting her and the other hand dialing 911. He’s the real deal.
Photograph: Steven E. Gross/Courtesy of Susan Crown Exchange