CHICAGO — Chicago injection molder Stefan Edlis has given a lot of money to Democratic causes lately — $10,000 to President Clinton's legal defense fund and $10,000 to the Democratic National Committee.
So much money, in fact, that just after Labor Day he got a personal call from Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., one of the two most powerful Democrats in Congress.
Gephardt called out of the blue, introduced himself as ``Dick Gephardt'' and said he wanted a $1,000 campaign contribution.
``I said, `Only if you support the president. Stop taking pot shots at the president,''' Edlis said. ``He said, `You got it.'
``So when I sent him the check, it said, `Remember the promise,''' Edlis recalled.
There's no sign of that political activity at his company, Apollo Plastics Corp., however. Instead what dominates is his other passion — art.
A pop-art painting of a shrieking woman sits in the background of an assembly area. A painting of a mythical hunt or battle towers over molding machines, and whimsical artwork that mimics file drawers or a bin of potatoes hangs in his private office.
Edlis, 73, is an accomplished art collector who serves as vice chairman of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. He was named to Art & Antiques magazine's 1996 list of the top 100 collectors in America.
It's a long way to come for a man who, as a teenager and a young Jew, fled Austria and Nazi persecution with his family and came to the United States in 1941.
His mother spent more than two years arranging paperwork, including dealing with strict quotas on immigration set by the U.S. government that ``did not make it easier,'' he said. She finally got herself and her three children out just before Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union closed off many of those escape routes.
Edlis became a sailor in World War II, got a job as a toolmaker after the war and taught himself about plastics, running a plastics firm in Chicago in the mid-1950s and 1960s before starting Apollo in 1965. The firm logs yearly sales of roughly $25 million, in automotive, telecommunications and home entertainment.
``He taught himself that business, just like he taught himself art collecting,'' said Rebecca Donelson, a friend who vacations with Edlis and his wife and is a Chicago art dealer. ``The basic quality that sets him apart and rules him is his curiosity.''
It's not curiousity, but anger that has garnered him some minor political attention, though.
Edlis said anger at independent counsel Kenneth Starr for running what Edlis considers a biased investigation prompted him to seek out Clinton's legal defense fund and send it $10,000 — the maximum donation and an amount that puts him in the company of Tom Hanks, Barbra Streisand and Steven Spielberg.
``There's been an extraordinary amount of time placed on this — it is incredibly disproportionate to the depth and the gravity,'' Edlis said. ``I was very concerned at the time, when I realized that Ken Starr's background was such that he was not likely to be an unbiased observer and he would not rest until he found something out.''
After the Clinton donation, Edlis stepped up his pace of contributions and gave $10,000 to the Democratic National Committee at a Colorado fund-raiser, earning Edlis a picture with Clinton.
In spite of those donations, Edlis probably does not qualify as a ``big-time'' political contributor.
Federal campaign records indicate he has given $30,000 in the past three elections, not counting the two $10,000 donations. Most of his donations go to federal candidates, including President Clinton and Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; John Kerry, D-Mass.; and Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
Generally, he said he pretty freely writes checks to candidates who share his philosophies — those who are pro-choice and willing to use government to help disadvantaged people.
``It's a simple rule: If a letter comes in asking for money and it's a political person I know is worthy, I will send them a couple hundred bucks,'' he said. ``I don't want to be petty about it.''
The Gephardt conversation was the first time he was called directly by a high-ranking political figure. All other donations were the result of mail solicitations or fund-raisers who called to say a candidate was going to be in Chicago for an event.
Edlis said he does not look for favors for himself or his firm because Apollo does not bid for government contracts. A record check for violations at the Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration turned up only routine permits.
He does not think he is influencing anyone with the ``paltry amounts'' he gives, and does not expect Gephardt to change his positions, he said. Gephardt initially talked about impeaching Clinton, and the Missouri Demo- crat is a critic of free trade, an issue Edlis supports.
``I can't believe I gave money to Gephardt. I must have been out of my mind,'' Edlis said.
If Edlis is outspoken politically — he recently sent Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., a check but told her to return it if she could not support Clinton — he brings that same independence to the art world, Donelson said.
``A lot of collectors buy art with their ears, because other people tell them to,''' she said. ``Stefan makes his own decision.''
Edlis' art collection includes pop-art icons like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, and lesser-knowns like Richard Artschwager. His pieces range from silly to serious, from goofy sailors to sculptures of surgical instruments that explore issues of life and death.
He made a ``cold start'' of collecting in the late 1960s without any formal training and with the help of a friend, initially acquiring art made out of plastic. After several months he stopped, when he realized dealers were telling artists to make things out of plastic because Edlis would buy it. He also raced cars for a time, and collected watches and furniture.
Over time, though, he has honed his art skills to the point that he now is mentioned in magazines. Helyn Goldenberg, chairman of Sotheby's Midwest in Chicago, said Edlis is considered one of the country's important art collectors. It's an honor that Edlis isn't sure how to take.
``I find it interesting,'' he said. ``It doesn't matter to me. ... I know there are a number of collectors who are far, far more important.''