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Who’s the most magnetic — U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) or Jorge Posada, the New York Yankee catcher? Both were swarmed by an overflowing, starstruck crowd of 600 at Monday evening’s benefit for Kids in Distressed Situations and Fashion Delivers at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in New York, an event that raised $700,000.

“We need you,” was the gist of fawning comments directed at Obama, but both men got a workout signing autographs, Obama signing his book, “The Audacity of Hope,” and Posada patiently autographing just about anything handed to him, from a teddy bear to baseballs to the evening’s program.

This story first appeared in the December 6, 2006 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“Although I’m a White Sox fan,” said Obama, “thank you for seating me next to Jorge. I do like that man. He knows how to play.”

Obama was extremely relaxed as the center of attention, while Posada admitted speaking in public isn’t really his thing. Posada received the first KIDS mentor award, for founding The Jorge Posada Foundation in honor of his son, who has undergone five surgeries for craniosynostosis, a birth defect of the skull.

In his keynote address, Obama, an unabashed liberal, took a centrist detour at one point, conveying favorable anecdotes about Bobby Kennedy’s 1967 trip to the Mississippi Delta to witness real poverty, and Ronald Reagan’s support for the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income people. Obama’s strongest theme, on the nation’s “empathy deficit” for its 12 million impoverished children, seemed nonpartisan. However, he sarcastically relayed how the Department of Agriculture recently declared there are “zero” hungry people in America. “Where did all the hungry people go, I wondered….If you read the fine print you see they’re now calling them people with ‘food insecurity.'” He called for an increase in the EITC, noting, “Give people an extra dollar or two and they can buy the coat they need,” and took a dicier path when he called for an increase in the federal minimum wage: “If you make the minimum wage, you could spend your entire income and not be able to afford a health care plan.”

After his address, Obama held a brief press conference made even shorter by a blackout that was quickly corrected. Taking a question on the minimum wage, he said he wants it “somewhere above $7 an hour” from the current $5.15, although he feels “sympathetic for retailers and small businesses” that would assume greater costs as a result. He also paraphrased Henry Ford, who once said he felt it necessary to pay his workers a salary high enough so that they could afford to buy cars, thinking that would be good for business and his company’s future. “That is still true today,” the U.S. senator said.

Asked about Sen. Hillary Clinton (D., N.Y.), potentially his biggest competitor in a presidential campaign, Obama described her as “tough, disciplined and smart … My own decision to run would not be based on an assessment of her.” Then he dashed off for more photos with guests.

The evening also recognized Anthony Buccina, vice chairman of Bon-Ton Stores; Fred Rowan and Joe Pacifico, chief executive officer and president, respectively, of The William Carter Co., and Rick Markee, former Toys ‘R’ Us vice chairman.

Since 1985, KIDS has distributed more than $500 million of donated new products to more than 60 million needy children. Last year, Fashion Delivers was formed by the apparel and home furnishings industries in response to Hurricane Katrina. The two organizations have partnered to donate $12 million in products to Gulf Coast survivors, and continue to help families around the country. Co-chairs included Allan Ellinger of MMG Inc.; Haresh Tharani, chairman of Bill Blass; Kevin Burke, president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association; Abbey Doneger of Doneger Group; Robert Skinner, Kellwood ceo, and Richard Darling, president of Li & Fung USA.

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