Effort to get Obama library draws Chicago-style suspicions

AP News
Posted: Jan 23, 2015 2:29 PM
Effort to get Obama library draws Chicago-style suspicions

CHICAGO (AP) — Chicago's rush to secure space in a public park for Barack Obama's presidential library has unleashed a tussle typical of the president's hometown — loud, contentious and full of suspicions about backroom deals and personal politics as tangled as the ivy at Wrigley Field.

Most Chicagoans would be shocked if Obama didn't bring his library to the city where his political career began. But it has been equally shocking to some that the University of Chicago proposed building it on park land that the school did not control and had not secured until the Obama Foundation recently raised concerns.

Faced with an approaching deadline for the Obamas to make a decision, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama's former chief of staff, this week proposed an ordinance that would allow the library to be built on the land if the foundation chooses the University of Chicago proposal over rival bids by the University of Illinois-Chicago, Columbia University in New York and the University of Hawaii.

The strong ties between City Hall, the Obama administration and the school where the president once taught and his wife once worked have raised suspicions that the selection has long been a done deal.

"The big guys — the mayor, the university and the president — they're all together," said Robin Kaufman, an opponent of the plan who showed up at a public hearing on the park land transfer.

At the center of the issue are two specks of land — just 20 acres in either Washington Park or Jackson Park, which together encompass nearly 1,000 acres on the South Side. But, as Star Wars' creator George Lucas learned after he proposed building a museum on the lakefront, this city has cherished and protected its open space a lot longer than it's been bragging about Obama. Lucas' project triggered a legal war that is now in federal court.

When the Obama foundation's concerns became public, city officials and the university scrambled to hold emergency hearings. Some critics suspected that those meetings were orchestrated. They wondered why, for example, it seemed more supporters of the land transfer were heard at the beginning, when the television cameras were rolling, and most opponents didn't come to the microphone until the news crews had left.

Opponents also worry about opening the door for more land acquisitions that could chop away at precious park district space in the future.

"This is a slippery slope that none of us can go down because this is Chicago, and we all know how Chicago works," said Delmarie Cobb, a political consultant and frequent critic of Emanuel who opposes using park land for the library.

To some, the meetings recalled previous deals in which City Hall appeared to engineer the success of large, hotly debated plans that the mayor supported, such as the expansion of Wrigley Field and the closure of dozens of schools.

The park district board is appointed by the mayor. The board's chairman, Bryan Traubert, recused himself from the library land matter because he is the husband of Penny Pritzker, a friend of Obama and now the U.S. commerce secretary.

"Does anyone really think the park district won't do exactly what the mayor wants?" Cobb asked.

The mayor wants — and needs — the library. He's up for re-election next month, and his support on the predominantly black South Side has wavered amid doubts that he hasn't done enough to improve education and reduce crime. The library would be an economic and cultural boon to the area.

Further, if Emanuel's friend and former boss chooses another city — especially New York — it could be Emanuel's greatest political embarrassment.

The mayor clearly understands the stakes.

"It is essential that the president's library is here in the city of Chicago and not in New York, and I will do what is necessary ... to move heaven and earth to make this happen," he told reporters this week.

Some wonder if he and the university deliberately waited until the last minute to create a crisis that would limit the time for public comment and give the mayor a chance to come to the "rescue," as one newspaper headline put it.

Cassandra Francis, president of Chicago's Friends of the Parks, said she cannot imagine that the city hasn't been holding discussions with the foundation "for a long time."

For his part, Emanuel said he is simply reacting to recent reports that the foundation had reservations about the university's bid. The university dismisses any suggestion that it was involved in any effort to manipulate the process.

"We were always clear about the fact that some of the options included park land," said Susan Sher, who returned to the university after serving as first lady Michelle Obama's chief of staff and is leading the school's bid.

Further, she said, the university did not "out of the blue" propose the two sites, but rather the foundation expressed an interest in them.

Francis contends that supporters of the bid have done a masterful job of framing the debate in their favor. When opponents suggest that the university look for another site, she said, the other side casts it as opposition to a project that would attract millions of dollars in development and new jobs and create a symbol of hope to children who live there.

"I have this feeling," she said, "like they are saying that you have to pick trees or children."