Profile: Agnes Varis (with Karl Leichtman)

President, Agvar Chemicals
New York, NY

| Mon Apr. 5, 2004 3:00 AM EDT

Agnes Varis may be the most important woman in New York area Democratic politics. True, the 73-year-old founder and president of Agvar Chemicals doesn't exactly look the part. The New York Times described Varis as looking “more like a quirky great aunt than a political powerhouse.” But looks can be deceiving.

Varis founded Agvar, a supplier of bulk pharmaceutical ingredients, more than 30 years ago. But her political activity has, for the most part, little to do with the pharmaceutical industry. True, when Hillary Clinton's health care initiative prompted a bitter backlash, Varis gave signed copies of Clinton's book, “It Takes a Village,” to 200 drug industry executives as a party favor. And Varis has emerged as an important point figure in just about every Democratic bid to control drug pricing -- the only Republican to ever receive campaign money from Varis is Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz), the sponsor of a bill to speed approval of generic drugs and eliminate loopholes that extend drug patents.

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Still, in Democratic circles, Varis is probably better known as an outspoken feminist and generous supporter of female candidates. A member of the Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy Committee, which works to elect Democratic women to local and state offices in New York, Varis underwrote a women's campaign school run by the group. And Varis is a fierce and loyal friend of Hillary Clinton. Despite that loyalty, Varis told the Times that she voted for Ralph Nader in 2000, and she has been a critic of both the Party and the Democratic Leadership Council -- which she contends is unwelcoming to progressives and many of the party's traditional constituency groups.

"People in Peoria have different interests and values than me, sure," she told the Times. "But since when did we all have to be the same?"

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