A Brief Who's Who of Early Donors
by James L. Merriner
Barack Obama's loss to Bobby Rush eight years ago in a race for Congress is usually seen as a thorough drubbing, but in fact Obama laid the groundwork that year for spectacular fundraising successes in his later campaigns—notably, as of March 31st, Obama's presidential campaign had raised a record $234 million. By contrast, Obama raised a modest $509,000 to run against Rush, but along the way he picked up contributors and fundraisers such as Penny Pritzker, heiress of the Hyatt Hotels chain.
Financial disclosure forms for Obama's campaigns for the state senate in 1996 and 1998 list few well-known names in Democratic Party fundraising circles, aside from Lewis Manilow, the developer and arts patron, and Antoin "Tony" Rezko, the low-income housing developer later indicted on charges of influence peddling. For the 2000 primary, Congressman Rush outraised Obama by nearly $300,000. Perhaps more significant is the fact that Obama's finance chair was his longtime friend Martin Nesbitt, president of an off-airport parking company partly owned by the Pritzker family. Nesbitt also is vice president of the Pritzker Realty Group, headed by Penny Pritzker.
Pritzker gave $1,000 to Obama's 2000 campaign, the legal maximum at the time. In 2002, Nesbitt arranged for Pritzker to meet with Obama and his wife, Michelle, at Pritzker's vacation home in Michigan. Soon, Pritzker chaired the finance committee for Obama's 2004 campaign for the U.S. Senate, which raised nearly $15 million. She now is the finance chair of Obama's presidential campaign. (Her brother Jay Robert "J. B." Pritzker is national chair of Citizens for Hillary.)
Another significant supporter enlisted by Obama in the 2000 campaign was Bettylu Saltzman, who has been a fundraiser for liberal politics since she backed Bill Singer's successful campaign for alderman in 1969. She is the daughter of the late developer Philip M. Klutznick, former U.S. secretary of commerce.
It was in 2000 also that Obama first parlayed his Harvard and legal connections into considerable campaign underwriting. His contributors included Laurence H. Tribe, the noted Harvard law professor; Scott Turow, the Chicago attorney and author of legal thrillers; Douglas R. Baird, former dean of the University of Chicago Law School; Robert W. Bennett, former dean of the Northwestern University Law School; and Judson Miner, who had given Obama his first full-time job as a lawyer.