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.
In her lakefront Highland Park neighborhood, where a quiet social liberalism mixes comfortably with the trappings of serious Republicanism, Abrams was half-jokingly referred to as an "eco-terrorist" for expressing concern about the possible effects of the pesticide treatment on her neighbor's lawn. In the early years of her activism, around the time of the 2000 election, Abrams was careful to keep her head down-"It was more of an individual thing," she says-and to avoid political debates. Still, she sometimes couldn't help herself. There were all those neighborhood SUVs to contend with, all those things she was privately teaching her children, then glossing over with a joke-"I'm sure your next car will be something more environmentally responsible," she would tell the Hummer owners. And, of course, there was that dinner for some of Medline's biggest customers, when she launched into a passionate defense of her political hero, Bill Clinton. With a rueful smile, she recalls the tension that hung over the room, as, slowly, like in one of those old E. F. Hutton commercials, all other conversations stopped, and she could hear only her own, slightly shrill voice. "Not my proudest moment as a Medline spouse," she says now.
The transition from being a corporate wife-whose environmentalism was expected to be just another charity-to being a powerful activist was far smoother and quicker than Abrams might have expected. In the space of two years, she went from quietly coaching her kids about environmental responsibility to holding positions of influence with nearly all of the major national environmental organizations. She has been a member of Environmental Defense's National Council since 2002 and sits on boards for the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Sierra Club. Her lobbying efforts have edged Congress closer to legislation that will limit greenhouse gas emissions. And, by setting up a meeting for Oppenheimer with Senator Barack Obama at just the right moment, she has had a major impact on the presidential candidate's environmental platform.
Abrams insists she doesn't consider herself a political activist: "I did not get involved with the environmental movement to promote a political agenda; on the contrary, I got involved with politics to promote a nonpartisan environmental agenda," she says. Nonetheless, her status as a political mover and shaker is undeniable-and it has allowed her to make Cool Globes happen.
The project grew out of a commitment Abrams offered up while attending a 2006 conference held by the Clinton Global Initiative. Sponsored by the former president's nonprofit foundation, the New York City gathering brought together current and former heads of state, business leaders, academicians, and other bigwigs.
The aim was to come up with programs in several key areas, including combating climate change. Each participant was asked to commit in writing to a personal action plan.
Abrams, whose name appeared on the conference guest list between Jordan's King Abdullah and Northern Ireland's Gerry Adams, jokes that she was "the token nobody." But she took her commitment seriously and began sketching out the details for what would become Cool Globes.
The premise is similar to that of the much-loved 1999 Cows on Parade exhibition: Various artists begin with the same object-in this case, a six-foot-tall white plaster globe-and then paint, decorate, and otherwise modify it to express an individual theme or style. Sponsors pair up with artists to cover the cost of production. Beginning June 1st, the globes-more than 100 of them-will be displayed for the summer along the lakefront, from the Museum Campus to Navy Pier.
While the cows were meant to be cute and fun, though, these sculptures aspire to more: they've got a message. Each represents a solution or strategy for addressing global warming. High-profile creative types, including pop artist Jim Dine and architect Stanley Tigerman, worked with Abrams and her team of volunteers to come up with environmentally helpful themes or actions; for example, bike instead of driving. The artists, mostly Chicagoans, will then decide how best to portray those ideas on the sculptures. For the suggestion to people: "Use your feet" by walking instead of driving, Eric W. Stephenson will cover a globe in athletic shoes donated by professional sports teams. To promote wind energy, Lisa Fedich will insert pinwheels into a globe.
Most of the messages promoted will be essentially nonconfrontational. Still, the globe that suggests voting as a means for addressing climate change doesn't explicitly say, "Vote against conservative Republicans," but it doesn't really have to.
In crafting a publicity campaign for Cool Globes, there was some concern that people might be put off by the environmentalist message of the project, which stands in contrast to the quirky charm of Cows on Parade. But at a moment when the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth, produced by Abrams's good friend Laurie David, has just won an Oscar, Rick Jasculca says, "we believe that bridge has already been crossed."
Abrams and her team did temper some of the messages, however. "Eat a vegan diet" was a no-go (McDonald's is a major project sponsor). And Abrams personally worked on matching globes to sponsors to make sure that the more staid corporate entities would not be paired with the edgiest works of art. When approaching a potential sponsor, Abrams stressed that attaching itself to the project is a way to promote itself as "green." She says she was more successful pitching the project to marketing departments than to the corporate foundations that would usually give money to a public art project.
Similarly, the city's involvement is more political than cultural. Rather than being run through the Mayor's Office of Special Events, as past displays have been, Cool Globes is attached to the City of Chicago Department of Environment.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmental activist, will be the keynote speaker on June 2nd at the Field Museum to launch the exhibition (tickets for the event are available at coolglobes.com/gala). In September, after the globes are removed from their outdoor displays, each will be auctioned off, with proceeds going to fund afterschool environmental clubs in Chicago public schools.
With an impressive list of corporate sponsors, including, very prominently, ComEd's parent company, Exelon, as well as BP, Toyota, McDonald's, and Pepsi, the project aims to strike a mostly nonpolitical and business-friendly tone, while educating the public about global warming. "I'm sure I'll get criticism saying, you know, ‘How could you have BP as a sponsor?'" Abrams says, but adds the oil company is making strides on finding alternative energy sources. "I'm not suggesting everyone stop driving and stop flying." Some matters of principle do stand in bedrock, however. "If Exxon had come to me, I wouldn't take their sponsorship. They've been spending money to say that global warming doesn't exist."
Rahm Emanuel says Abrams has a gift for finding a way to blend practicality with principle, a key to her success in influencing powerful people. The congressman adds: She's someone who "knows how to take yes for an answer."
Randy Mehrberg, the Exelon executive overseeing the company's sponsorship of the project, puts it another way: "Often when people come with an agenda, they're burdened by their agenda." Abrams, on the other hand, "makes us feel good and is genuinely interested in our input."
Asked if he considered Abrams to be an environmentalist, Mehrberg demurred, saying, "I think of her as a humanist."
Global Ambitions: Artists prep their globes.
Abrams is rich-the kind of rich that prompts Cool Globes volunteers to ask one another in awed tones, "Have you seen her house?" But driving around in her Prius, and carrying a Medline-giveaway canvas laptop case and a large purse printed with a color photo of her children, Abrams is a picture of understatement.
A close friend, Susie Borovsky, of Deerfield, met Abrams while studying abroad in London but later learned they were both alumnae of Camp Agawak in Wisconsin. She says Abrams (who has degrees from Brown University and Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management) has always had a knack for keeping things low key and making sure her wealth did not become a focus. "She's not a bragger or a showoff," Borovsky says. "She comes from a very successful family business, but you would never know that."
Still, with Abrams's money, it's hard to stay consistently low key. In addition to that Prius, the Abrams family own several other vehicles, including a large SUV, kept at their Montana vacation home; Abrams says she is eager to replace it with a hybrid model. Two years ago, her husband threw her a lavish 40th birthday party at the Park West, featuring a performance by Bruce Hornsby. And her family's recent purchase of the mansion on the grounds of the Highland Park estate formerly owned by the disgraced insurance mogul Michael Segal places Abrams squarely in the middle of a community debate about how the estate's grounds will be redeveloped.
As much as she hates to talk about it, Abrams's wealth shapes both her personal life and her emerging public persona. "This is not about what some rich person is doing," she says. "That makes it sound like no one else can make a difference. And that's totally not it."
She adds, "Yes, I'm writing checks, but the checks that I'm writing are not in the stratosphere." She gave $25,000 to the Democratic National Committee during the 2004 election season and continues to donate to candidates on a national level, particularly to Senator Obama. "I'd like to think I'm contributing in a lot of other ways as well."
Professor Oppenheimer says the experience of lobbying with Abrams bears that out. "You meet a lot of people who are influential or wealthy and can put you in the right setting," he says, "and that's always nice. But she's bothered to learn about the issue. I've seen people who had contact and influence, and waste them. In my experience, [Abrams] has a broader reach and has put that reach to better use than anyone else I know."
Cathy Stein, the volunteer handling logistics for Cool Globes, says: "In most philanthropic endeavors that I've been involved with, you're always begging people for things. But with Wendy, she has people calling up and begging to do things, asking, ‘What else can I do?'"
Project volunteers have a name for this seemingly magical effect: They call it "being Wendyized."
On a cool Monday morning in March, Abrams strides into the River North office of the Jasculca Terman PR agency, stopping briefly to chat with Cook County commissioner Forrest Claypool, who is just then walking out. This sort of thing happens to Wendy Abrams all the time. Her life story includes at least half a dozen anecdotes that begin with her bumping into someone by chance and end with her learning that the person is, say, Barbara Boxer's husband. "I know this sounds like ‘Wendy is hobnobby,'" she says, self-consciously, when asked about all of her connections. "But, really, that's so not me."
As she talks media strategy with the PR team, she mentions that the president of production at Columbia Pictures, Doug Belgrad, happens to be a close friend from her days at Highland Park High. "He's totally willing to help us out," she tells the team earnestly, scribbling a note in the gold-embossed Clinton Global Initiative notebook she carries with her at all times.
Belgrad, whose family now regularly vacations with Abrams and her husband and children, says Abrams "has always been incredibly social, without being at all cliquish. She just has these highly developed social skills that enable her to connect with people in all different areas."
After her meeting with Jasculca and his team, Abrams heads to the Field Museum, where museum president John McCarter welcomes her by hopping behind the wheel of a golf cart and offering to drive her around the Museum Campus to review the planned placement of the Cool Globes. They wind up in an SUV instead, sheltered from the lake breeze; as Bob Doepel, from Chicago Scenic Studios, the company handling the physical installation of the globes, drives along the pedestrian-only paths, McCarter points out where each sculpture will rest. Abrams, meanwhile, is in the back seat, fielding cell phone calls, including one from her 14-year-old son, David, who would like her to know, in advance of any other calls that might be coming, that, yes, he was at the party, but, no, he didn't participate in making any crank calls.
Abrams is interested in the big picture of where the globes will go-and, what's most important, how visible they will be from Lake Shore Drive-but leaves the details to McCarter and the two staff members he has brought along to consult. She moves on to a conversation with a volunteer who has heard that Fox News might be interested in doing a feature on the project. The volunteer seems to be hesitating about whether it's a good idea to pursue the possibility, given the Fox network's supposed conservative tilt. Abrams has no doubts.
"Fox News talking about climate change?" she exclaims. "That's awesome. I love it!"
* * *
Later that week, waiting for Jacob's Saturday afternoon gymnastics class to let out, Abrams sits in a Glenview Starbucks and taps away at the keys of her ever-present laptop, firing off e-mails and worrying that the perception of her as "the heavy hitter political figure" will turn people off from Cool Globes. "This is not a political issue," she says. "It's a moral issue."
Wearing the jeans, ski jacket, and sunglasses uniform of the well-heeled suburban mom, she adds, "I'm hoping we're past the point of debating whether global warming is real, so my hope is that this [Cool Globes] is something that will inspire people, rather than just creating debate." As a second thought, she adds, "By the way, I've supported my Republican congressman, Mark Kirk, since 2000."
Almost as soon as she offers up this piece of information, Abrams starts to hedge. Her support of Kirk in 2006, against challenger Dan Seals, was a source of contention with many Democratic friends, and she'd rather not reopen those wounds. Still, she wants to emphasize that Cool Globes has no political agenda. She knows that if she is perceived as a Democratic die-hard, the project loses credibility. Suddenly, Abrams looks tired.
While she might be eager to slip back into her private life, disappearing from public view may prove more difficult. Asked what she will do after the Cool Globes exhibition shuts down, she says she plans to start educating herself about environmentally friendly "green" architecture. She and her husband are looking into purchasing a home that they plan to renovate in an ecologically efficient way, a particular challenge since many of the features of the 1920 structure are architecturally significant and, therefore, cannot be changed.
Abrams offers this up so casually, in the same tone another person might use to describe repainting a spare bedroom, that it's easy to miss the scope of her ambition for the house, which could serve as a model for homeowners of older structures. She also doesn't mention that the home is actually the Howard Van Doren Shaw–designed mansion that sits on the 17-acre estate once owned by Mickey Segal, now serving a ten-year sentence for racketeering, fraud, and embezzlement.
Also unmentioned: Highland Park neighbors are up in arms about developer Orren Pickell's plans for the Jens Jensen–designed grounds of the estate, which could be rezoned to make room for more homes. Although even critics of the development are pleased that someone with Abrams's commitment will be tending the Shaw mansion, still, repairing the home's karma, as well as its interior, would seem a daunting task. For Abrams, though, it sounds like just another project to work on while her kids are at gymnastics.
There's one other thing Abrams neglects to mention when she describes her summer plans: she has recently agreed to serve on the finance committee of Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign.
Wendy Abrams tried to get apolitical. But it didn't take.
Photography: (Image 2) Courtesy of Wendy Abrams; (Image 3 & 4) Courtesy of Jim Krantz