Barack Obama launched his political career in Chicago — but another Illinois city was crucial in his quick rise to power.
It was in Springfield that the former community organizer cut his teeth, learning the ins and outs of Illinois politics.
Former state Senate staffer Dan Shomon says the state capital is where Obama first found his footing.
“He matured from a nerdy professor to a flourishing politician,” Shomon said. “He learned the power of being a bipartisan person.”
Obama returned to Chicago Tuesday to deliver his farewell speech, but he has never forgotten the role Springfield played in his journey.
He kicked off his presidential bid at the Old State Capitol in 2007 and returned for a speech to the General Assembly last year.
And in late September, as a nail biter of an election consumed his thoughts, Obama invited those in Illinois who helped jumpstart his political career to a White House reunion.
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Known as Obama’s political godfather, former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones Jr. was among those invited to the White House, as well. He said the president has a good memory:
“A lot of my former colleagues, staffers and legislators who worked with him were there. He remembers them all. It was a really close family group in Springfield when he was there and when he made the run for U.S. Senate, he had a very broad-based support.”
Also attending was Beverly Helm-Renfro, Obama’s first legislative assistant — who would constantly tell him to keep pushing forward: “You’re not done yet,” she recalled telling Obama when he pondered a run for U.S. Senate.
The guest list was arranged by Shomon, who managed Obama’s 2000 House race, advised his Senate bid and staffed him in the state Senate.
“He called and said ‘I want you to thank the people that helped me the most. I want you to thank them as much as you can,'” Shomon said. “He said he wanted to get the staff and everyone from Springfield so they can really know much they really meant to him.”
The elite group of those who knew him then reflected on Obama’s legacy as he prepared to bid farewell in his homecoming speech Tuesday night. Many aren’t attending the Chicago event — as inaugural events and the budget impasse are keeping them close to the Capitol.
To Shomon, now a lobbyist, Obama’s legacy is simple: “He brought people together with a positive message. I think he’s going to be the change maker, that people will realize we will long for the day that we had him.”
State Sen. Terry Link, D-Gurnee, is among Obama’s famed poker and golf buddies in Springfield. Link said the presidency hasn’t changed Obama: “He didn’t turn into this pompous individual saying ‘I can’t talk to you. You’re too low.’ He’s the same person.”
And of Obama’s legacy, Link said it will represent his accomplishments, like national healthcare and taking down Osama bin Laden. But also his ability to remain a loving father and husband while in such an intense spotlight, he said.
“National healthcare, as controversial as that could have been, his comments were that he wouldn’t be the first one to do it but the last. I think he wasn’t afraid to do things. They weren’t politically correct things but he did it because it was the right thing to do,” Link said.
Jones said the eight years of Obama’s presidency have “gone by fast.” He said Obama’s quick rise to the top was “rare.”
“We’ll never seen anything like that again,” Jones said.
Mike Hoffmann, who served as chief of staff under Jones, was also invited to the September reunion, where he said the president made time to speak with everyone.
“It’s an end of an era. He’s a Chicago guy. He’s an Illinois guy. He kept those ties and you can tell it means something to him,” Hoffmann said.
Nia Odeoti-Hassan still works as a policy and budget analyst for the Illinois Senate. It was her decision to nix a move to Chicago in 1997 to work for Obama as an up and coming junior senator, per the recommendation of Jones. And that decision has tied her to presidential history.
She wasn’t able to make the reunion due to a health issue. But she gets wind of the president’s memory of her: “People from different organizations who go to the White House, he’ll ask ‘How’s Nia doing in Springfield?'”