Photograph: Audrey Cho
SOMETHING IS MISSING from this election season in Chicago: the presence of David Wilhelm, the veteran Democratic strategist. Wilhelm, who managed the 1992 presidential campaign of Bill Clinton before heading the Democratic National Committee in the early nineties, was a political operative here for most of the next decade. He chaired the 2002 Rod Blagojevich for governor campaign, the Blagojevich governmental transition team, and the 2004 John Kerry for president campaign in Illinois.
But in August 2005, Wilhelm sold his house in Lake View and moved near his hometown of Athens in the Appalachian hills and hollows of Ohio, where he is putting together bundles of venture capital. “Chicago was the base and I would come here frequently,” he said recently, during a tour of investment projects in Ohio. “Now it’s just the reverse. I get back to Chicago about once a week. I still have Bears season tickets.”
Wilhelm, 50, is informally advising Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, a likely candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. In September, Wilhelm launched FaithfulDemocrats.com, an Internet site meant to rally socially moderate evangelicals and other Christians. Mostly, though, he spends his time making investment deals in areas that don’t get their share of them-Appalachia in particular (through his firm Adena Ventures) and the Midwest, including Chicago (Hopewell Ventures). Illinois, for example, gets only 2 percent of the nation’s venture capital investments despite having 6 percent of the population, according to Maura O’Hara, executive director of the Illinois Venture Capital Association.
Wilhelm recalls marching for economic development with the Rev. Jesse Jackson in Nelsonville, Ohio, in 1998. “People said, We could do X or Y if only we had access to capital. That’s when I decided to become a venture capitalist.” Then, in January 2004, Wilhelm’s brother-in-law, James Pollock, was killed in a car wreck and his sister, Diana, was severely injured. Meanwhile, Wilhelm’s father was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. “But I don’t want to overdo that,” Wilhelm says of family considerations in his move to Ohio. “I love it here. I have a sense of mission about the work that we do.”
Some political observers speculated that Wilhelm’s motives for folding his tent in Chicago might not be quite that pure. The move came just about the time Blagojevich’s pal Joseph Cari was indicted for extortion involving investments in the state Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS) and the hammer was coming down on other state government figures. The U.S. attorney in Chicago subpoenaed TRS records, including those concerning a $10-million TRS investment in one of Wilhelm’s firms, Hopewell Ventures. Rumors surfaced that Wilhelm would be connected to the Blagojevich administration’s troubles.
No way, says Wilhelm. He says the TRS members who in 2003 approved the $10-million deal all had been appointed by former governor George Ryan. What’s more, “I have never heard from the U.S. attorney at all, nor has anybody in my firm. Nothing could be more absurd than the idea that I fled Chicago. That is just silliness.”
But the venture capitalist hasn’t completely turned his back on politics. At his house in a suburb of Columbus, Wilhelm recently held a fundraiser for Sherrod Brown, the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate in Ohio. In true Democratic fashion, the rock star Stephen Stills warmed up the crowd.