Living-room politics

  • Article by: KIM PALMER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 3, 2008 - 12:17 PM

Political action begins at home for Minnesotans who host campaign fundraisers and other grass-roots events.

If the thought of hosting a huge party gives you high blood pressure, try this on for stress: You have no clue how many people will show up. Many of your guests will be complete strangers. A few will be famous. Oh, and you might have to worry about whether your menu is legal -- or whether protesters will try to crash the party.

Those are some of the challenges faced by those who open their homes for political fundraisers and other partisan gatherings.

"Some people wouldn't want strangers in their house," said Sylvia Kaplan, who, with her husband, Sam, hosts dozens of DFL events.

But the Kaplans thrive on the energy and the satisfaction of supporting candidates and issues that are important to them. "We have no private places," she said. "I'm nosy. I figure other people are, too."

Roger and Shari Wilsey's gracious century-old house in St. Paul couldn't be more different from the Kaplans' ultra-modern downtown Minneapolis dwelling, but the couples have the same openness in sharing their home with their party, in the Wilseys' case, the GOP.

"People are welcome to be indoors, outdoors -- there are no off-limits spaces," said Shari, who often opens up their carriage-house guest apartment so visitors can check that out, as well. "People enjoy looking at the house."

But whether the guest of honor is Republican Sen. Norm Coleman (the Wilseys' neighbor) or Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama (whom the Kaplans hosted last year), entertaining the political elite is just like hosting Joe Six-Pack in one respect: "Everybody congregates in the kitchen," Shari Wilsey said.

Traditional, with 'flavor'

Party hosts: Roger and Shari Wilsey average three political events a year in their St. Paul home, most recently a fundraiser for Sen. Norm Coleman during the Republican National Convention (RNC) in August. Highlights of that event, for the Wilseys, included meeting political thriller author Vince Flynn and conservative radio talk-show host Dennis Prager, who gave an uplifting introduction. "It was very inspirational," Roger said. "We hear so much hatred, but he talked about how we're all Americans, how we all have the same goal."

Style points: The Wilseys bought their 1904 Jacobean-Revival home, designed by prominent St. Paul architect Clarence Johnston, nine years ago. "The bones of the house were good," said Shari, an interior designer, who redid the kitchen, the lower level and the carriage house, and gave the whole house a complete cosmetic overhaul. "My aesthetic is traditional -- with the Shari flavor."

The Palin effect: The day of the recent fundraiser was also the day John McCain announced Sarah Palin as his running mate. "Everyone was buzzing about that," Shari recalled. "It was very unexpected. I just said, 'You need to relax. I think it's going to be great.' ... Do I relate to her? Sure. We all juggle." (Wilsey is a fellow hockey mom; the Wilseys have seven kids, six of whom have played hockey.)

Watching Palin give her speech at the RNC was the high point of this election season for Shari. [They got credentials after Roger befriended some Montana delegates who stopped to take pictures of the Wilseys' flowers.] "We'd never been to a convention before," Shari said. "Being part of that, in your own city, was a once-in-a-lifetime thing."

Occupational hazards: Political gatherings pose unique hostess challenges. At a fundraiser several years ago, the Wilseys had protesters in front of their house. At a recent fundraiser for Ed Matthews, who is running for Congress in the Fourth District, a Democratic infiltrator tried to crash the party. And at this year's event during the RNC, Shari had to make sure her menu was in compliance with the new ethics rules for party conventions, which allow members of Congress to have free snacks but not free meals.

"Now with the rule changes, you can't have a buffet," she said. "You can't put the food on the dining-room table, and people can't sit down and have a plate. You have to have little tables and pass hors d'oeuvres while people stand."

Neighborhood ties: The Wilseys' connection to Coleman goes beyond politics. The senator lives nearby, and Shari has known his wife, Laurie, since high school. "I helped them with their house and landscaping," Shari said. "The other day I got a call from him: 'Shari? Norm. I'm on the road, and I'm seeing all these beautiful mums. Do we have room in our yard for some mums.' ... If people knew Norm, the way we know Norm; he's a really big-hearted person. ... He says, 'I love it when the Wilseys have a fundraiser because I only have to go a few blocks. It feels like home.' "

Division of labor: "Whatever she tells me to do," Roger said with a laugh. "That's the division of labor. Cleanup is probably my forte."

"Roger is the best husband in the world," Shari said. "He doesn't need to be told. He's the king of garbage and dishwashing. I do the organizing and the details. We're such a good team. We can be cleaning, down and dirty, 20 minutes before the event starts, then we clean up and greet. We have no help. We're the help."

A house 'designed for fundraisers'

Party hosts: Sam and Sylvia Kaplan, who estimate they've hosted 100 DFL events since moving into their house on the edge of downtown Minneapolis six years ago.

The Kaplans built the house with political fundraisers in mind, Sam said. "There aren't enough Democratic venues around."

They spent two years planning the house, "obsessing about every detail," Sylvia said. Unlike their previous home, a 1917 Colonial with a traditional center-hall floor plan, the new house has huge rooms with soaring ceilings and an open staircase, the better to accommodate large crowds. The home's speaker system allows a cordless microphone to be used anywhere it might be needed, Sam noted. And the kitchen cabinets were done restaurant-style, with no doors to conceal their contents. "So you know what you've got," Sylvia said.

Style points: The Kaplans have filled their 10,000-square-foot home with an eclectic mix of antique and modern pieces, ranging from a 16th-century Qin table from China, complete with storage space for scrolls, to a series of ceramic wall sculptures created by Aldo Moroni as a post-9/11 ode to skyscrapers. And believe it or not, no one has yet stained their white living-room couches, Sylvia said. "[Rep.] Barney Frank said, 'This is the nicest house I've been in where they served red wine.'"

Brush with fame: The Kaplans' living room moonlighted as a concert hall in 2004 when singer Bette Midler brought in a grand piano and performed at a $1,000-per-person fundraiser for America Coming Together (ACT, a liberal political action group). Right before showtime, steaks sizzling on the grill set off the smoke detectors. "Luckily, our contractor was here and could shut them off," Sam recalled. Later, "Bette was singing 'Wind Beneath My Wings' and two women, who were kind of tipsy, started singing along. Bette said, 'If you want to sing with me, come up here, and it will cost you $10,000.' So they did," Sam said. "It was $1,000," Sylvia interjected.

Secrets of success: Do your advance work. "If only 10 people show up, that means you didn't do the work," Sam said. "You have to make calls, lean on friendships, ask people to come." And once they're there, you have to work the room. "Even when they're paying money to come, they still have to feel like guests."

Division of labor: While Sam handles the crowd, Sylvia handles the refreshments. "Sam is more gracious; he's the front of the house, and I'm the back of the house," Sylvia said.

"I'm not allowed to say or do anything with the food," Sam said. "Sylvia is a fabulous cook. We never use caterers."

Overwhelmed: Shortly after moving into their home in 2002, the Kaplans hosted a last-minute fundraiser for Walter Mondale, who had entered the Senate race on Paul Wellstone's behalf after the senator died in a plane crash two weeks before the election. "We had the [Wellstone] green bus in the driveway," Sam said. The event drew 800 people, the biggest crowd the Kaplans have ever hosted. "That was the only time we've ever run out of food," Sylvia said. "That was the Outward Bound of entertaining."

Most memorable event: Hosting an Obama fundraiser in 2007. "Barack was the most exciting. It was magical," Sylvia said. "He's just an extraordinary human being. You know you're in the presence of greatness, yet he's down-to-earth at the same time." But she'd like to fatten him up with more spicy dumplings. "He's not eating well. He's losing weight."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784

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