WASHINGTON — Six months into the Obama administration, it’s clear there are several kinds of people working for the new agenda: the newcomers, the longtime Democrats and several unexpected Republican allies. The veteran Democrats are falling over themselves to make nice to newcomers with lots of Chicago connections. But what’s surprising is the Obama crowd’s penchant for recruiting talent from the second-tier ranks of the loyal opposition to help them maneuver the maze of the nation’s capital.
That’s where the low-profile but high-powered North Carolina publishing tycoon Bonnie McElveen-Hunter fits in. She first popped onto the national scene about 10 years ago as George W. Bush’s ambassador to Finland, but these days she has an even more important role: unofficial cultural ambassador for Desirée Rogers, the Obama White House’s social secretary who has rapidly gained national attention as the new administration’s bridge to the worlds of culture, society and fashion.
This story first appeared in the June 12, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“We needed someone to introduce us to all the different aspects of Washington,” Joe Reinstein, a Rogers deputy, says of McElveen-Hunter. “She’s a friend of Desirée’s.”
McElveen-Hunter’s outreach program to the capital’s arts organizations has been broad-based, generous and well-researched. And the cultural community is nothing if not grateful. An invitation to her elegant O Street home in Georgetown can prove invaluable to anyone interested in reaching out to Rogers — and, more importantly, to her boss.
So how many parties has McElveen-Hunter hosted for Rogers, the glamorous Harvard Business School graduate who ran a social networking company for The Allstate Corp. in Chicago before becoming White House social secretary?
“Lots,” concedes McElveen-Hunter, founder of Pace Communications, the largest U.S. custom publishing house with a client list that includes Southwest Airlines, US Airways, Bluetooth, Carlson Travel Group, Wachovia, Toyota, Verizon and Four Seasons.
“Desirée is such a close friend of the Obamas,” adds McElveen-Hunter, a member of the Kennedy Center International Committee on the Arts, and chairman of Washington National Opera’s Global Advisory Board. Recalling precisely how she decided to start organizing parties for her new friend, she explains, “We talked. She asked if I would participate, especially with the arts people and help identify all of them.”
The Rogers/McElveen-Hunter collaboration has nothing to do with shared politics or longtime friendship. To this day, neither Rogers nor McElveen-Hunter is exactly sure just how they met.
Rogers remembers meeting McElveen-Hunter about five years ago at the annual get-together of the Business Leadership Council, made up of 60 women from across the country who all, like Rogers, graduated from Wellesley College. But McElveen-Hunter, 10 years Rogers’ senior, shakes her head.
“I graduated from Stephens College,” she explains. “We could have met at the Harvard’s Forum on Women and Philanthropy” in 1998, where McElveen-Hunter spoke. “Or maybe at Fortune Magazine’s 50 Most Powerful Women in Business annual summit,’’ which began that same year. However they met, they’re both members of the fast-growing, loosely federated sorority of women business leaders who share a knack for synthesizing political, economic and philanthropic power.
And McElveen-Hunter is seemingly willing to do anything she can for either political party. Her commitment to helping other women went national in June 1999 when she cold-called Elizabeth Dole’s struggling Republican presidential campaign and volunteered to host a fund-raising lunch.
“I recognized she couldn’t raise money and wondered when would women ever help other women. I was successful,’’ says McElveen-Hunter, whose luncheon raised $115,000. “Five days later, she asked me to chair her presidential campaign finance committee.”
Five months after that, when Dole pulled out of the race, McElveen-Hunter volunteered her services to the decidedly better-organized Bush campaign. That year, her business had racked up revenues of $80 million, and boasted a 28 percent projected annual growth rate. She owned 100 percent of the company’s stock.
In March 2001, McElveen-Hunter was invited to a White House luncheon for 25 top business leaders. “Hank Greenberg [then chairman of AIG] was there, and Jack Welch [then chairman of General Electric],” recalls McElveen-Hunter, originally the only female guest invited. Before the event, she called the White House social office, this time volunteering to bring along two other women: Muriel Siebert, the first female to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, and Linnet Deily of Charles Schwab & Co.
It was clearly a successful networking lunch: Bush subsequently asked McElveen-Hunter to be his ambassador to Finland before naming her chairman of the Red Cross in 2004, and reappointing her in 2007. He also tapped Deily to serve from 2001 to 2005 as deputy U.S. Trade Representative and U.S. ambassador to the World Trade Organization in Geneva.
But it’s a new team in town now, and McElveen-Hunter is doing her best to boost the Obama administration — or at least its profile in Washington’s cultural communities.
“I have this wonderful gift of this house, and it’s my privilege to share it,” she says, elegantly clad in a Peggy Jennings cream silk suit with hand-painted, grapefruit-size peach flowers. Sitting in her green-sponged dining room, she talks about that special relationship as guests drift home after her party for the Harmon Center for the Arts’ “Welcome to Washington” event and to honor designer Steven Stolman, who started the Ovation Society to raise funds for the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival, which started June 5 and runs until Monday. This year’s festival honors New Orleans, where Rogers’ late father served as city councilman.
And while Rogers wasn’t present at that event, clearly McElveen-Hunter is able to work her ways with the new administration: the festival concludes Monday with a concert at the Kennedy Center honoring Ellis Marsalis and New Orleans Jazz, with performances by sons Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason, along with Harry Connick Jr. and Dr. Billy Taylor. That morning, as part of the festival, the President and First Lady are planning to host a private performance at the White House by Cuban Grammy winner Paquito D’Rivera.
It wasn’t the first time McElveen-Hunter worked her magic either. The reception in her home took place only a week before for the “Welcome to Washington” show, which was organized by Shakespeare Theatre artistic director Michael Kahn and featured performances by 10 local theatrical companies. Rogers liked the idea, and with a few days to go, word arrived that the First Lady would attend.
And not all of McElveen-Hunter’s efforts are so high profile. After the reception for “Welcome to Washington” and the jazz festival, she held a dinner party for eight people to meet with Rogers and hear her views on the Obama administration and the arts. Charlie Fishman, chairman of the jazz festival and the former manager for the late Dizzy Gillespie, describes the dinner as “the start of something new. The beautiful thing of what Bonnie did at Desirée’s request was to have a reception at her house, where Desirée addressed the arts community. That was the first time in my memory, and I’ve lived in D.C. since 1976, that an administration reached out to the arts community. That was a very uplifting signal.”
Rebecca Medrano, co-founder with her husband of the 33-year-old GALA Hispanic Theatre, agrees. Medrano received her invitation to the dinner via McElveen-Hunter’s North Carolina office, where her assistants pitch in to help with her D.C. political efforts. “Michael Kaiser [president of the Kennedy Center] was there and so was Septime Webre [creative director of the Washington Ballet],” recalls Medrano. “Desirée was very eloquent. She’s trying to do new things — understanding that Washington is a very tradition-bound city.”