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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.
“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.