Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Exploring Citadel Chief's Senate Prospects

From the desk of Andy McKenna, head of the Illinois Republican Party: Make lunch date with Citadel Investment Group hedge fund chief Kenneth C. Griffin. Topic: Running for the U.S. Senate.
OK, I have no proof that such a memo exists. Or even if these two men know each other. But it wouldn't be a shock if McKenna rings up billionaire and Republican Party backer Griffin to explore his interest in being a candidate in the next Illinois' U.S. Senate election. Word is already seeping out about a possible "Griffin for Senate" run. Last Friday, such speculation appeared in a blurb in the Chicago Tribune's business section, which was alluding to a similar mention in the new national business magazine Conde Naste Portfolio.
Will Griffin run? I doubt it. But you can't blame state Republicans for asking Griffin to come to the aid of their party.
The Illinois GOP is a mess, having been frozen out of every major statewide office in the last election. Moreover, it has no major candidates in the wings and needs a savior. Proof of that shortfall is yet another round of desperate talk that former Governor and GOP elder-statesman Jim Edgar will run for the U.S. Senate.
Edgar is a good man and public servant. And if central casting was called to produce someone who looked like a senator, they'd serve up the tall, lean, well-coiffed Edgar in a split-second. But with the exception of a few remaining pangs of political ambition, Edgar seems content with his private life.
It's time to move on.
A Griffin Senate candidacy could be a tonic for the Illinois GOP. For one thing, he's already a Republican (that helps). Griffin and his wife, Anne Dias, donated $256,343 in 2004 political races nationally, and 79 percent of that bounty supported Republican candidates, according to Opensecrets.org., which tracks political contributions.
However, Griffin is not an ultra-conservative--a fact that could help win moderates who have recently turned away from the state GOP's hard line conservative views. For example, in the current presidential race he's rooting for the home team (sort of) by supporting Barack Obama. But, Griffin hasn't committed to voting for Obama in the general election, if he gets the Democratic Party's nomination for the White House.
He's loaded and doesn't need many financial backers. Last year, Griffin made over $1 billion, according to Institutional Investors Alpha Magazine. If he wanted, Griffin could finance his own race--like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg did -- and not lose a wink of sleep.
And he's scary-smart. Chicago-based Citadel is one of the most successful hedge funds in the world with $13.5 billion in investments in key industries such as energy and countries, including China and the former Soviet Union. It employs about 1,000 people (including some traders from the defunct Enron Corp., which I'm sure we all remember.) Lately, he's been trying to remake Citadel into more of an investment or merchant bank, taking equity positions in companies or helping finance transactions.
All this from a middle-class guy who started his business from his college dorm room.
Despite his many accomplishments, Griffin is not a natural politician and a far cry from your typical slap-on-the-back, glad-handing vote-getter. Like many CEOs, Griffin tends to be reclusive, secretive and bluntly impatient with those who disagree with his views.
Take, for example, the Citadel culture. Even among close-mouthed hedge funds, Griffin's Citadel has a reputation for being unusually circumspect when dealing with regulators, lawmakers and the pesky news media. They are viewed as annoyances or, worse yet, threats to the firm's deal-making prowess.
Griffin rarely talks to reporters. And when he does, its only after they have done some intense lobbying to get an audience.
A few years ago, I interviewed Griffin at his headquarters for Chicago Magazine. He didn't duck questions about his lofty compensation or the veil of secrecy that detractors argue surrounds the hedge fund industry. Instead, he argued that his compensation was based on merit and that cries for greater regulation of the hedge fund industry was ill-informed and could cripple the industry, if allowed to mushroom.
What struck me was his impatience toward those who criticized the hedge fund business. At one point, I swear his face turned red when talking about how Congress doesn't understand his industry and global competition.
That's not the type of conciliatory approach we've come to expect from our politicians, nor is it a tact that wears well over the course of an election contest.
And then there is the question of his massive wealth. He's the 204Th richest American, according to Forbes, with a net worth of $1.7 billion. How will having all that loot wash with a population that's increasingly vexed by the rising costs of health care, education and taxation?
Can a billionaire, even a self-made one like Griffin, relate to the vast majority of Illinois voters? John Kennedy did it, but Mr. Griffin you're no John Kennedy.
In recent years, Griffin has pushed himself toward the limelight. He and wife Anne Dias (who is also a financial powerhouse and runs her own hedge fund) are emerging as part of the next generation of local civic and cultural leaders. They increasingly play significant roles in charitable and civic fund raisers. The duo are also art lovers and serious collectors.
In the Chicago Magazine interview, Griffin said he expects to give a sizable portion of his wealth away to charity. He doesn't have to be a senator to accomplish that goal.
Yes, Ken Griffin may go to lunch with the state's GOP and talk about running for the U.S. Senate. But I doubt he's buying.

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