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updated 9/30/2007 11:51:09 PM ET 2007-10-01T03:51:09

In 2000, after losing a Congressional race, Barack Obama was looking to revive his political fortunes. And he soon found a springboard — a group of black entrepreneurs also trying to break out.

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Month after month, Mr. Obama, then an Illinois state senator, showed up at the Chicago group’s meetings, listening to members’ concerns about the difficulties they faced in getting government and corporate business, and asking them what he could do to help.

And help them he did. Members of the group, the Alliance of Business Leaders and Entrepreneurs, say Mr. Obama checked into their problems and helped start a drive that enabled minority investment executives to win millions of dollars in business from the state’s giant pension funds.

If Mr. Obama was able to deliver by helping the executives overcome some of the historical barriers facing minority-owned companies, he also would subsequently benefit from his ties to the group. Several of the businessmen or their wives would help clear the debts from his Congressional race, and six of the group’s members are now among the top fund-raisers for his presidential campaign, according to campaign finance records.

All told, employees at more than 30 of the 42 companies listed on the group’s Web site and their relatives donated more than $300,000 to help Mr. Obama win his seat in the United States Senate in 2004 and set fund-raising records early in the 2008 presidential race.

In his presidential campaign, Mr. Obama has been running on a platform of reducing the influence of money in politics. But with Mr. Obama, as with every politician, money has been the blood flow of his campaigns. And at a critical point in his career, he greatly expanded an early pillar of his fund-raising network while trying to help the black entrepreneurs secure work with the state.

The senator’s courtship of the Chicago group and its members is a little-known chapter in his political development that shows the inextricable link between money and politics and the different interpretations people attach to it.

Special-interest politics?
Jay Stewart, executive director of an Illinois watchdog group known as the Better Government Association, said that in helping these and other executives as a state senator, Mr. Obama also benefited from the kind of special-interest-driven politics he now decries.

“Raising large chunks from special interests was common in Illinois,” Mr. Stewart said. “Obama did that too. Now he’s talking about chasing away special interests; that’s great. But that doesn’t change the past.”

Mr. Obama says his involvement with the alliance reflects his longtime passion for ensuring that minority businesses are treated fairly, and there is no indication that he helped the businessmen simply to secure their donations.

“The suggestion that these pioneering leaders would need my help or anyone’s help in order to succeed is troubling, to say the least,” Mr. Obama said in a statement. “I’m proud that I’ve spent my career fighting to ensure that minority-owned businesses would have a chance to compete, and I will continue to do so as president.”

Mr. Obama also recently pointed to his work on the Illinois pension issue as a model for what he would do as president to promote minority-owned companies.

In that push, Mr. Obama met with three state pension boards and introduced a bill on the executives’ behalf. He also worked closely with the state’s top legislative leaders to encourage the pension funds to increase the share of their investment portfolios managed by minority-owned firms. That share has risen to 12 to 20 percent now from 1 to 3 percent in 2000.

Other alliance members said Mr. Obama also looked into whether they could get state business in other areas, including legal work on bond issues and the printing of official notices. As Stephen H. Pugh, a lawyer who belongs to the group, said, “He wanted to understand what our needs were and how government could help.”

Mr. Obama, Mr. Pugh said, “would be our representative — our advocate — to bring our views back to state government.”

The alliance was founded in 1992 to help Chicago’s top black executives and entrepreneurs share business tips and push for greater opportunities. According to the group’s Web site, the companies — which also include architecture, engineering, transportation and communications firms — average 65 full-time employees and annual revenues of $19 million.

‘Open up doors’
The goal was always “to open up doors,” said John W. Rogers Jr., the chief executive of Ariel Capital Management, one of the investment firms that received state business. “It was, as the Rev. Jesse Jackson has eloquently put it, to force other industries to have their ‘Jackie Robinson’ moment.”

Slideshow: Obama cartoons During its early years, the group’s main political patron was State Senator Emil Jones Jr., who later became the State Senate president and one of Mr. Obama’s chief mentors. In 1993, Mr. Jones took the first crack at opening up the pension business, persuading the Legislature to pass a bill encouraging the multibillion-dollar funds to use minority-owned firms “to the greatest extent feasible.”

But by the time Mr. Obama, then a junior state senator, began meeting regularly with the group in 2000, little progress had been made. As a result, said Hermene Hartman, the alliance president, the pension issues got “a lot of attention” in the discussions with Mr. Obama.

The investment firms were also among the largest and most prominent companies in the group, and some of their executives were among Mr. Obama’s closest friends.

Mr. Rogers, who also sits on the boards of the McDonald’s Corporation and other major companies, played basketball at Princeton University with Mr. Obama’s brother-in-law. James Reynolds Jr., the chief executive of Loop Capital, a brokerage firm, had been a top fund-raiser for Mr. Obama’s Congressional race.

Mr. Rogers said the investment managers also solicited support from Michael J. Madigan, the powerful Democratic speaker of the Illinois House. In 2001 and 2002, Mr. Madigan and Mr. Obama — at times joined by the investment executives — made formal pitches before three of the state pension boards.

And after Mr. Jones became the State Senate president in 2003, he assigned Mr. Obama to a committee looking into the pension questions to help raise his political profile.

During this period, campaign finance records show, executives from Ariel, Loop and two other leading Chicago investment firms, Holland Capital Management and Capri Capital, sharply increased their donations to Mr. Obama’s State Senate campaign fund. And once he began his campaign for the United States Senate, they quickly became a fund-raising core that has carried over into the presidential race.

Mr. Rogers, who is one of three people at his company who have each bundled at least $50,000 in donations for Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign, said that his financial support for the senator had “no connection” to his company’s efforts to win state contracts, but that it reflected the broader excitement over what Mr. Obama’s success meant for blacks in America.

Pointing to his parents’ struggles to break into the legal business in Chicago, Mr. Rogers said that pushing for greater opportunities was “in your blood, and when you have a peer come along like Barack, who is your own age and lives in your neighborhood, you can’t wait to help him.”

Mr. Reynolds of Loop Capital, who is also one of the bundlers in Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign, did not return calls for comment.

In the end, Mr. Obama dropped off the State Senate committee in late 2003 as his United States Senate race heated up, and just as the panel began a series of hearings that produced the most substantial changes.

‘How are we doing?’
Still, William Atwood, the director of the Illinois State Board of Investment, said Mr. Obama regularly asked about minority participation in the pension funds when their paths crossed. “He would ask: ‘How are we doing? Are we making progress?’” Mr. Atwood recalled.

The changes have generated several million dollars in fees for some of the investment firms, although the complete totals could not be obtained. Loop Capital, for instance, saw its brokerage fees related to one of the pension funds shoot up to $2.4 million last year from just $5,700 in 2001. All told, Loop Capital received $5 million in fees from managers for that fund over those six years.

Still, things have not worked out as well for some of the investment managers. Both Ariel and Holland were given several hundred million dollars to invest. But one of the funds dropped Ariel and two dropped Holland last year after their investment returns lagged behind those of other firms.

Mr. Rogers, the Ariel chief executive, said his firm’s value-oriented stocks tended to lag in fast-rising markets, and other state funds say they are sticking with Ariel for now because it has produced impressive long-term returns. Officials at Holland declined to comment.

But Mr. Rogers also complained that the Illinois funds, which are free to hire minority managers from anywhere in the country, have given much of their business to out-of-state firms owned by women and Asian-Americans.

And while Mr. Obama recently told the Urban League that if he was elected president he would use the same model in helping black-owned businesses nationwide as he did on the pension issue, Mr. Rogers said, “Actually, it is a model of how hard it is to get sustained traction.”

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times

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