White House meeting doesn’t win over Chicago banker

By Becky Yerak

Matt Gambs, chief executive of Schaumburg-based Diamond Bank, was part of a group of community bankers who met with President Obama in December 2009 at the White House.

His federal campaign contributions have historically gone overwhelmingly to Republicans, and, indeed, his brush with the president wasn’t enough to win him over in the upcoming presidential race.

Gambs is among dozens of Chicago-area business people helping to raise money for Republican primary candidate Mitt Romney at a fundraiser Thursday at Chicago’s Tree Studios.

“We’re at a point where leaders from all walks of life and business need to get involved in the process of government,” said Gambs, whose federal campaign donations have gone overwhelmingly to Republicans.

Romney “has the right mix of business and public service and will focus on issues that can unite us,” instead of “wedge social issues that only divide us,” Gambs said.

The Tree Studios event, which Romney will attend, will be co-chaired by Crown heiress Susan Crown and her husband, William Kunkler, “together with” a couple dozen other business leaders, according to the invitation.

Madison Dearborn Chairman John Canning is backing Romney, a former private equity executive himself, this time. He also gave to Romney in the 2008 race, but he lost the GOP nomination to McCain.

Canning had also donated to Obama for the 2008 election because he found himself disagreeing with the Republicans’ increasingly conservative social agenda.

But he quickly became disenchanted with Obama when, during the 2008 campaign, the Illinois legislator changed his mind about accepting public financing for the historic race, as Republican John McCain did. Doing so would have limited Obama’s fundraising – and spending. Canning, a former director and chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, said he also doesn’t like Obama’s income redistribution impulses and “government control of all aspects of everyday life.”

Last spring, Canning made a donation to former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. But, in August, Pawlenty dropped out of the Republican primary race.

Since then, Canning had been sitting on the sidelines.

For this election cycle, “my backing of Romney is recent because I was waiting for Chris Christie to decide whether to seek the Republican nomination,” Canning said of the New Jersey governor, who has announced that he won’t run.

Canning said Christie is a “better communicator than Romney,” but he’s glad to back Romney.

Romney “has run a business, he has invested in businesses, and he knows what it takes to be successful,” Canning said. “He knows what government can do negatively to business. He has government experience.”

Christie’s recent endorsement of Romney “will unleash a torrent of support for Romney,” Canning predicted. “Everyone had been sitting on the sidelines, and now they’re all going to Romney.”

It’s not unusual for well-to-do people to play both sides of the fence, said William Brandt, a self-described “strident” Democrat and chief executive of turnaround consulting firm Development Specialists Inc.

“If they don’t, then they can’t call someone up when the other party is in power,” he said. “If you have significant business interests, such a call may be occasionally necessary to make.”

Brandt said he’s a “fervent” believer in the two-party system but is “appalled” at the orientation of today’s Republican party.

He’s committed to helping Obama get re-elected but acknowledges that it’ll be a tough race.

For one thing, many people “think that he has vilified Wall Street and business people in general,” Brandt said of Obama.

Also, “with his current favorability rating, he doesn’t look like a shoo-in, and smart people play the house,” he said of business leaders hedging their bets if not switching sides.

Lastly, “as has been chronicled in a number of circles, there’s some rumbling in the Jewish community about his policies toward Israel,” Brandt said.

Indeed, among Romney’s backers is Robert Asher, a Chicago businessman who is active in causes for Israel. He has supported candidates in both parties, but didn’t support Obama in the 2008 race nor will he do so this time.

“I’m disappointed in the current administration,” said Asher, who gave $2,500 to Romney on June 1.

Of the Republican candidates, Romney stands out as “someone who is experienced, not only in the areas where we need so much help, like the economy and job creation, but also in foreign policy,” where his positions are “spot on,” Asher said. “Our foreign policy needs to be firm and decisive, and both our allies and people who aren’t our friends should know where we stand.”

Romney’s position on Iran is “very clear, and his positions in the Middle East are more to my liking,” Asher said.

Also helping to raise money for Romney is Robert McCormack, of venture firm Trident Capital. He has supported Romney, whom he has known since 1985, in both of his presidential efforts. He will have supported Obama in neither of his.

Obama “has done a great job with national security issues, but that’s it,” said McCormack, former assistant secretary of the Navy.

Romney, in contrast, “has the business experience, the political experience and the moral experience to be a fantastic chief executive officer,” he said.

Besides Crown, Canning, Gambs, Asher and McCormack, other Romney backers listed on the invitation include: Ty Fahner, of law firm Mayer Brown; Richard Porter of law firm Kirkland & Ellis; Exelon’s John Rowe; Blue Cross CEO Scott Serota; Abbott Laboratories Chairman and CEO Miles White; Merrick Ventures CEO Michael Ferro; Richard Jaffee of Oil Dri Corp.; Stephen Quazzo, of real estate firm Pearlmark; Morgan Stanley’s William Strong, who previously backed Pawlenty; Ariel Investments’ Charlie Bobrinskoy; Molex’s Fred Krehbiel; Andy McKenna Jr.; food distributor Christopher Reyes; Muneer Satter and David Hoese, both of Goldman Sachs; Tim Larsen., a vice president with investment banking firm Houlihan Lokey; and Alexander Stuart of North Star Investments.

The ticket price is $1,000 a person, or $100 for those under 30, or $2,500 for two people wanting a photo with Romney, the invitation says.

Also, those who commit to raising $10,000 or $25,000 will be invited to a private dinner afterwards with Romney. It’ll be held at Crown and Kunkler’s residence. Kunkler, who declined to comment, has spread his support around to both parties, including donating to both Obama and Romney in 2007.

So far in 2011, he has given $1,000 to GOP candidate Jon Huntsman on June 30 and $2,500 to Romney on Sept. 29. Susan Crown didn’t return calls.

Contact Becky Yerak at byerak@tribune.com or 312-222-4283. Or follow her on Twitter: @beckyyerak