CINCINNATI - She’s an heiress to a publishing fortune. He’s the president of a frozen-food company. But it took George W. Bush to turn Jennie and Allan Berliant into champion fundraisers for the Democratic party.
“We’d really done nothing at all until George Bush was in office,” Allan Berliant said. “We got into the Iraq war. Dick Cheney was vice president. We couldn’t stand what was going on. I remember the day … I was reading the New York Times. I can’t remember the specifics (of the story) but it just made me mad and I threw the paper on the table and said, ‘I’m going to do something.’ And Jennie said, ‘Me too.’”
Next came a series of Democratic fundraising events for John Kerry, Barack Obama, Sherrod Brown, Al Franken, P.G. Sittenfeld and – starting at 2 p.m. Thursday - Hillary Clinton, who will speak to donors that pay $2,700 per ticket to the event at Berliant’s East Walnut Hills home.
“We think she’s the best candidate and we’re doing everything we can to help her win,” Allan Berliant said.
Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Tim Burke said it’s a badge of honor for the couple to be hosting the first major fundraiser of the 2016 presidential campaign.
“They are recognized for how successful they have been as organizers and how successful they have been as donors in the last several presidential cycles,” Burke said. “If wasn’t for that, this would not be happening.”
Burke said the Berliants are known as “disciplined fundraisers” who expect their guests to give to the max to be part of their events. Berliant wouldn’t say how much will be raised. Neither would Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
“Stan Chesley, when he had events at his home, would frequently comp a few people,” Burke said. “And you do see people getting comped at various events. But the Berliants run a pretty disciplined effort. They want to make sure people who donate at that level get the attention they deserve for being willing to donate at the levels they’re asking.”
Meet the Berliants
Jennie Berliant is the daughter of Richard and Lois Rosenthal, former owners of F&W Publications, a specialty-publishing company that was sold to private equity investors for $111 million in 1999.
That turned the Rosenthal family into big-time local philanthropists. Jennie is an officer of a family foundation started by her parents. Its tax returns show $8.7 million in assets at the end of 2013. Jennie and Allan Berliant also have a family foundation, which donated to the Contemporary Arts Center and Seven Hills School in 2007, tax records show. Burke said the Berliants are important donors to the Ohio Innocence Project at the University of Cincinnati. Jennie Berliant led a $2.2 million campaign to renovate Owl’s Nest Park in O’Bryonville.
She was a team leader in charge of 90 polling locations for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, the first in a long line of campaigns in which the Berliants engaged.
“My wife is much more on the grassroots side,” Allan Berliant said. “Before the world was so technologically savvy she had 20 phone lines installed in our basement. They ran phone banking out of our basement, which she oversaw for months. It’s fun but it’s work. The fundraising is only half of it.”
They met at UC, when Allan was in law school and Jennie pursued her bachelor’s degree in English. During their 25-year marriage, they have raised two children, Liz, 22, and Andrew, 20. Jennie worked for the family business. Allan was a sales executive at Pierre Frozen Foods before joining with a group of industry veterans to start Best Express Foods in 1998. The company sells frozen pizza and sandwiches for school lunch programs nationwide. It has a factory in Michigan and a sales office in Cincinnati.
Frampton Comes Alive
But none of that seemed to matter to the Democratic Party official Berliant met in 2004, when his rising frustration with the Bush administration made him want to get involved in political fundraising. Berliant recalls the meeting in Stan Chesley’s office Downtown. Berliant volunteered to help. The “finance guy” in the Kerry campaign asked, “How much can you commit to?” Berliant said he’d never raised money before, so he didn’t know.
“The conversation was pretty much over at that point,” he said. “He was polite, but said, ‘If something comes up we’ll let you know. Goodbye.’”
So, Berliant organized his own fundraiser. Through a friend, he contacted rock star Peter Frampton, who was then living in Indian Hill. His letter began: “Do you feel like we do?” Frampton did. That led to a private concert that raised $50,000 for the Kerry campaign.
“Suddenly I was their new best friend,” Berliant said. “I had some guy assigned to me and he was calling me every week. Once you do it and you get on the list and start going, it just kind of perpetuates itself.”
After that came “all sorts of crazy events,” including a Carole King performance for Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown and a “Vote Early. Rock Late” event for Barack Obama in 2008 that drew 5,000 people and actress Natalie Portman to Fountain Square. The couple hosted numerous events for President Obama and served on his national finance committee.
“My daughter at 14 I think was the youngest team leader in the Kerry campaign,” Berliant said. “She was training people on how to canvass and knock on doors and getting people to the polls. It was quite the family effort.”
Liz Berliant is now a political science major at UC. Her father takes some pride in that and another fact: Hamilton County voted Democratic in the last two presidential elections, ending a 44-year drought. He’s hoping to keep the streak going for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“She’s by far the most qualified, the most experienced,” Berliant said. “She’s extremely smart. She’s a fighter and I think she will fight for middle class values and for the working folks of America. Not just cater to the one percent like I think the GOP does.”