Wealthy independent challenges veteran GOP senator

AP News
Posted: Oct 04, 2014 4:28 AM
Wealthy independent challenges veteran GOP senator

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Greg Orman likes to say as he runs for the U.S. Senate in Kansas that he knows about working with others. He grew up in a house with five siblings and one bathroom — close quarters and a modest upbringing far removed from the wealth and political influence he now wields in his home state.

A driving work ethic helped Orman, the 45-year-old co-founder of a private equity firm, make a fortune big enough to buy multiple, million-dollar homes — and then to turn a long-shot independent candidacy into a threat to veteran Sen. Pat Roberts and the GOP's hopes of winning the Senate majority.

A month before Election Day, Orman is pitching himself as a centrist with experience creating jobs and working well with others — skills that he says could help move the Senate past its partisanship and gridlock.

"I've been able to work with people to really understand genuinely what they're trying to get accomplished, so that we can figure out how to get to a negotiated solution," Orman said recently in Topeka. "It's truly the only way that we're going to be able to solve problems."

Beating Roberts has seemed more possible since Democrats nudged their own candidate from the race to help Orman. Nationally known Republicans have streamed into the state in an effort to help the three-term senator, making Kansas the surprise battleground of the 2014 elections. Republicans must gain six seats to grab the majority.

But for all his drive and purpose, Orman's positions on issues can seem unclear. He favors building the Keystone XL pipeline "if it truly has no net environmental impact." He has said he wouldn't have voted for the federal health care overhaul — but also called the GOP push to repeal it "a hollow political promise." He has called for stronger border security but also for allowing immigrants to stay if they register with the government, pay fines and hold down jobs.

Orman says that if he wins, he'll caucus with whichever party is in the majority. If the Nov. 4 election produces no clear majority in the Senate, Orman expects — even as a freshman — to be wooed, to obtain good committee assignments and to help broker deals on bills.

The Roberts campaign paints Orman as a liberal Democrat in disguise. And on ethics, the GOP points to Orman's personal and business relationship with Rajat K. Gupta, a former Goldman Sachs board member sentenced to prison in 2012 for insider trading.

Orman calls Gupta a friend. They are part owners of Exemplar Wealth Management, an Olathe company. Tax records available online show that Exemplar handled the books of the Gupta Family Foundation for at least three years, and in a 2011 court document, a New York federal prosecutor said the company "managed Gupta's money."

After Gupta's conviction, Orman spent 11 months as his representative on the two-member board of a partnership connected to a $1 billion-plus investment fund.

For some voters, Orman's business background is a big selling point. His campaign biography emphasizes his role as co-founder in 2004 of Denali Partners, the equity firm, which buys controlling shares of small companies with the goal of helping them grow.

"It is incredibly important, because it shows that he has been adequately exposed to every class of people," said Alexis Simmons, an 18-year-old college student from Wichita. She's a registered Republican who considers herself an independent.

But a complete picture of Orman's wealth— and exactly how he accumulated it— can be hard to track. In a recent Senate disclosure report, he reported that his assets are worth between $21.5 million and $86 million.

His 4,200-square-foot home in Olathe is appraised for tax purposes at $1.1 million. The condo unit in Idaho is for sale at $3.8 million.

As for his interests and sources of income, Orman listed himself as an active director, board member, manager or managing member for 15 firms with interests in investing, real estate, lending, digital printing and medical research. He sued movie legend Debbie Reynolds in 2008 over an unpaid loan for a memorabilia museum. The case was settled amicably for $5 million.

Orman was working at his first post-college job — at the worldwide business consulting firm McKinsey & Company — when a call from his father about more energy-efficient lighting for the furniture store prompted Orman to start Environmental Lighting Concepts with two partners.

They sank $30,000 into the project and, Orman said, made it profitable in less than a year. Four years later, it had 120 employees and $10 million in annual revenue; Kansas City Power & Light Co. purchased a controlling interest in 1996.

The utility, later Great Plains Energy Inc., hired Orman to run its portfolio of unregulated business interests. Orman still was working for Great Plains when he started a company to invest in Kansas City-area real estate. He left the utility to start Denali Partners.


Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .