State senator's wife balancing business, family, politics

State senator's wife balancing business, family, politics

CHAMPAIGN – When Laura Frerichs was given the chance in 1998 to volunteer for her future husband's campaign for state representative, she didn't do so.

At the time, Mike Frerichs was a 24-year-old Yale University graduate trying to unseat longtime representative Tim Johnson. Laura Appenzeller was a senior at the University of Illinois, active in school politics and finishing a bachelor's degree in advertising.

Today, Mike Frerichs, 35, has been state senator a little more than two years, and Laura Frerichs, 31, is vice president of marketing and business development for Fox Development.

But in 1998, Mike's political future took a back seat to Laura's interest in federal races, her involvement in student affairs and her desire to enjoy life on campus.

After graduation, she became media strategy supervisor for an advertising company in Chicago. Later, she returned to Champaign County, married Frerichs, briefly took a job with the state and then joined Fox Development to promote and build the UI Research Park.

Her job responsibilities include marketing the park to Fortune 500 companies, working with tenants and planning construction of new buildings.

Last Oct. 22, her responsibilities broadened when she and Mike became the parents of their first child, Ella Grace.

It makes for a busy life. Laura works full-time three days a week and part-time from home two days.

Taking care of Ella is a team effort. Mike stays with her some days when the Senate's not in session. Mike's mother, who retired from the UI, looks after her other days. And some days, Ella goes to the Chesterbrook Academy child-care center in the research park where Laura works.

From 6:30 p.m. to 1 a.m., Mike is the primary caregiver, allowing Laura time to cook and take care of other things. Laura is the primary caregiver for the early morning hours.

Laura said she had to prioritize more when Ella came along, making lists of what needs to be done today, tomorrow, this week and beyond. She also got good at one-handed e-mailing.

In May, the Frerichses will have been married six years. The match paired a woman who grew up in big-city suburbs with a guy who was reared in small-town Gifford.

Both came from families of five – Laura was one of three girls, Mike one of three boys – but Laura's family moved around from Newport Beach, Calif., to the greater Washington, D.C., area, to Barrington. She had few cousins around, unlike Mike, who was surrounded by relatives in northern Champaign County.

Laura's father handled regulatory affairs for phone companies, and her mother was a stay-at-home mom. They were conservative Republicans – and still are, Laura said. In fact, while Laura was in high school, she volunteered for U.S. Rep. Phil Crane, a Republican from Illinois.

Laura said her parents claim Mike was the reason she became a Democrat. But she said her migration to the Democratic Party began during her sophomore and junior years in college – when, as Illinois Student Government president, she realized her views on higher education spending were shared more by Democrats than by Republicans.

Though she didn't volunteer for Frerichs on his first campaign, she did run into him at a State of the Union party and at an Al Gore event in Springfield. She began dating Frerichs the spring of her senior year, and they continued to date long distance while she worked in Chicago. She'd take the train to Champaign every other weekend.

Among the campaigns she volunteered for was Barack Obama's unsuccessful run for Congress in 2000, when he ran against Bobby Rush. She did policy research for Obama.

In 2004, she and Mike backed Obama in his quest for the Democratic nomination for U.S. senator, when he faced opposition from Dan Hynes and Blair Hull. Laura had volunteered for Hynes before, but opted for Obama, seeing him as a "transformative" figure.

Laura said she has met Michelle Obama "three or four times," but she knows Barack Obama better. After he was elected U.S. senator and had been on "Meet the Press," she remembers the excitement she felt when he recognized her in a hotel lobby in Springfield, greeted her by name and gave her a hug.

Her professional career began at Starcom Worldwide, a division of Leo Burnett in Chicago. There she handled the Green Giant and Old El Paso accounts for Pillsbury and also handled accounts for Allstate and the U.S. Army.

After she and Mike married in 2003, they lived in Gifford in the house that once belonged to Mike's great-grandmother. They moved to their current home on Champaign's Greencroft Drive in 2007.

Laura Frerichs said she wouldn't recommend anyone running for state senate unless their spouse likes politics.

"I started off political. Before Mike met me, I was student government president and I had gotten involved in political campaigns," she said. "If you don't have a passion for it, then it's probably not a good thing to be married to (a politician)."

It's sometimes hard to separate her career and Mike's political career, she said.

"People ask about political things all the time and want to know what's our opinion, or how Mike can help on this or that," she said.

People who have worked closely with her say she's a quick study.

"My advice is not to play Trivial Pursuit with her and Mike – or at least not have them on the same side; split them up," said Paul Faraci, who worked with Laura as regional representative for the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. "They're like sponges. They absorb information. It comes through their skin or something."

Lesley Millar, director of the UI's Office of Technology Management, calls her "a virtual oracle" because she has assimilated so much knowledge about the areas she works in. She understands the priorities of the different parties she works with and "really seems to enjoy bringing people together," Millar said.

Mark Laufenberg, whose company, PowerWorld, moved from EnterpriseWorks to its own quarters in the UI Research Park, said Laura was the "point person" for Fox Development in arranging the move.

"She goes above and beyond what one would expect from a landlord/tenant relationship," he said. "She has even helped companies who are not Fox Development tenants in the interest of furthering entrepreneurial development in the community."

She said the work atmosphere at Fox Development can be difficult, but Peter Fox, the chairman and founder, pushes hard, sets goals high and drives for excellence.

She said Fox has allowed her a lot of autonomy and has been supportive of her family life. He allowed her a three-month leave of absence to work on Mike's campaign and permitted the three-days-in-the-office, two-days-at-home arrangement after Ella's birth.

Laura said her 4 1/2-month-old daughter "pays attention really well.

"When she smiles and laughs, she sounds like a little monkey," she said. "She's a complete joy in our life."

At Chesterbrook, Laura said, Ella is called "the sucker baby," meaning "she's so good, she sucks you into having a second child."

Meet Laura Frerichs

Job: Vice president of marketing and business development for Fox Development.

Civic activities: Junior League of Champaign-Urbana, Executive Club of Champaign County, Champaign County Economic Development Corp. board, Korean Cultural Center board.

Leisure interests: Travel; cooking and trying new recipes, especially Italian cuisine; shopping; music and concerts; celebrity gossip.


1998: 24-year-old Mike Frerichs challenges state Rep. Timothy Johnson for seat Johnson had held for 22 years; Frerichs seeks support on UI campus, but student Laura Appenzeller does not volunteer to work on his campaign. Johnson wins.

2000: While working in marketing for Starcom Worldwide in Chicago, Appenzeller volunteers for state Sen. Barack Obama's campaign for Congress. Obama is defeated by incumbent U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush.

2002: Mike Frerichs, elected to Champaign County Board in 2000 and re-elected in 2002, is appointed a few weeks later to succeed Gerrie Parr as county auditor.

2003: Appenzeller marries Frerichs on May 24.

2004: Obama runs for U.S. Senate. Mike Frerichs is co-chair of Obama's campaign in Champaign County.

2004: Laura Frerichs hired as regional senior account manager for Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

2005: She joins Fox Development in her current capacity.

2006: Mike Frerichs runs for state Senate to succeed Rick Winkel. Frerichs defeats Judy Myers in general election.

2008: Ella Grace Frerichs is born Oct. 22.