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First, Wendy Abrams got political.
And sometimes that got awkward.
Like the time she got a little too lavish in her praise of Bill Clinton at a business dinner hosted by her husband. Or when she first parked her Prius next to a North Shore neighbor’s Hummer-occasioning a long discussion with her kids about greenhouse gases and their consequences, a discussion the kids then continued with the neighbor.
Then, Wendy Abrams tried to get apolitical. And that’s had its awkward moments, too. Like when Abrams, the driving force behind this summer’s Cool Globes project-a Cows on Parade–esque exhibition of six-foot-tall globes adorned with environmental themes-sat down with the project’s public relations team to talk strategy. After discussing Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Al Gore, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as possible speakers for the Cool Globes gala launch party, Abrams said with a quiet laugh, “And I guess we should get some Republicans, too.” The team from Jasculca Terman & Associates, led by former Carter and Clinton advance man Rick Jasculca, responded with silent nods and then moved on to the next topic.
Either way-political or not-Abrams will have to get used to the spotlight this summer, as she makes her public début with the Cool Globes project. An intensely private person (not to be confused with another local Wendy Abrams, spokesperson for the City of Chicago Department of Aviation), this Highland Park mother of four has spent much of the past decade working behind the scenes to promote awareness of global warming and other environmental causes. “When people nationally are coming through Chicago, she’s one of the must-see people,” says U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and a close friend of Abrams and her husband, Jim.
Princeton University professor Michael Oppenheimer, an expert on global warming, accompanied Abrams on two lobbying trips to Washington. “You walk down the halls of the Capitol with her, and every member, especially on the Democratic side, greets her warmly and stops to chat,” he says.
The members have good reason to pay attention, since Abrams is smart-and generous to her causes and her candidates. She is the daughter of a founder of the medical equipment manufacturer Medline Industries, the largest privately held company in its business. With $2 billion in annual sales, Medline is still family owned and managed. Abrams’s brother, Andy Mills, is the company president. Her cousin Charlie Mills is chairman. And Abrams’s husband is the chief operating officer.
Before leaving to raise her children, Wendy Abrams herself had served as the company’s director of corporate communications. With Cool Globes, however, Abrams, 42, knows she has to emerge from the background and mute the partisan debate around climate change-so not only is she taking her campaign directly to the masses, but she has signed up corporate sponsors not usually associated with environmental causes. (Big business may be backing the project, but the environmental organizations we contacted were unanimously behind it, too.) In keeping with the corporate-friendly tone, Abrams prefers to downplay her influence in the political arena, instead characterizing herself as “just a mom who cares about the planet.” Mostly, she talks about her crusade in very personal terms. She recalls the moment, six years ago-the youngest of her children, twins Katie and Jacob, were almost one-when she read an article about global climate change and its potentially catastrophic effects. “I remember turning to my husband and crying,” she says.
Not long after, Abrams called the New York office of the advocacy group Environmental Defense and asked what she could do. “I have an MBA,” Abrams remembers telling a staffer. “I’m not working. I have a background in advertising. I think I could be helpful.
“They basically hung up on me,” she says.
But Abrams, who had done charitable work before and whose family has long been involved in philanthropy, was undeterred. When she called back, she made sure she was transferred to the fundraising department. “I said, ‘I’ll write a check, but I also want to do something.’”
She has made good on both fronts.