WASHINGTON – On a frigid Chicago day – Feb. 19, 2015 – President Barack Obama was back in his adopted hometown, bringing a gift, the long hoped for designation of the historic Pullman district as a National Monument.
The location of the announcement, at the Gwendolyn Brooks Prep Academy, 250 E. 111th St., had enormous sentimental value to the president, who moved to Chicago as a young man to start a career as a community organizer on the far South Side.
“Now, it’s always fun coming home. But this is special for me,” Obama said.
“This exit right over here, either 111th or 115th — depending on what was going on that day — I took that just about every day for about three years. I drove by this site every day on my way to Holy Rosary Church – where my first office of my first job in Chicago was. Right across from the park. This was Mendel then,” Obama said, a reference to a former occupant of the building, Mendel Catholic High School.
“This is the neighborhood where I made lifelong friends. This is the area where I became a man. I learned so much about love and work and loyalty and friendship.
“And to be able to come back here today, a place where I cut my teeth in getting involved in politics and organizing; a place where my mother-in-law worked at what was then Heritage/Pullman Bank — that means a lot.”
Besides the National Park Service Pullman National Monument at 11141 S. Cottage Grove Ave., Chicago and parts of the rest of Illinois scored major projects during Obama’s two terms.
The Obama White House has always been nervous about being accused of favoring the president’s adopted home state, so Illinois contenders for federal funds, loans or other aid felt pressure to over-perform in their bids for grants or loans or other help.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first chief of staff; Sen. Dick Durbin D-Ill., a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee; and Obama’s first Transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, a former Republican House member from Central Illinois, became an extraordinarily powerful combo, excavating money from Washington and sending it back to Chicago and Illinois.
“The White House constantly held us to a higher standard,” Durbin said. “We had to be able to defend an Illinois selection to national critics.”
Obama “gave us the opening, but we had to make the case,” he said.
When it came to Chicago, Emanuel knew where a lot of federal money was buried — because he dug the hole himself while Obama’s chief of staff.
Indeed, much of Emanuel’s own legacy is intertwined with Obama’s. Emanuel wielded extraordinary access to the Obama administration.
According to a City Hall snapshot provided to the Sun-Times, between May, 2011 when Emanuel was sworn in for his first term as mayor and Jan. 14, 2014, Emanuel made 27 trips to Washington. Since then, he’s had a dozen more. During those visits he had 76 meetings, 36 with various cabinet secretaries and the rest with White House and other officials.
In February, 2009, when Emanuel was still in the White House, Congress — then controlled by Democrats — approved Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the $787 billion economic stimulus package aimed at digging the U.S. out of the 2008 recession.
A big chunk of that money went to the Transportation Department.
“We were able to make sure that Illinois and Chicago and the entire state was well taken care of in terms of transportation infrastructure,” LaHood said. “All good projects.”
Following his 2011 election, Emanuel brought his team to DOT for a meeting, LaHood recalled.
“We walked through all the things, whether it was the Red Line, or a new train station, or making sure we finished Wacker Drive, whether it was O’Hare modernization, he went through his whole list and we had our team there,” LaHood said.
Notable big federal projects for the area landed during these past eight Obama years:
• The Digital Manufacturing And Design Innovation Institute, a public-private collaboration to develop digital technology announced by Obama at the White House on Feb. 25, 2014.
The Institute, said Obama, “is going to be headquartered not far from downtown Chicago, on Goose Island, where there’s also a very superior beer in case you are — I’m just letting you know. A little home town plug there. Feel free to use that, Goose Island,” Obama said.
• Chicago closed on a variety of Transportation Infrastructure Finance Innovation Act (TIFIA) loans from DOT including financing to develop a major Emanuel legacy project, the river walk along the Chicago River.
• DOT also green lighted hundreds of millions of dollars through the years refurbishing CTA facilities. With just a few days left to the Obama presidency, last week DOT’s Federal Transit Administration announced federal grants of about $1.07 billion in federal grant funds to the CTA for the $2.067 billion project to reconstruct portions of the Red and Purple lines.
• In 2012, the Obama White House and former Gov. Pat Quinn made a deal for Illinois to sell the mothballed Thomson Correctional Center to the federal government. Thomson never fully opened as a state prison because Illinois did not have the money for staff.
Obama pledged to close the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba during his 2008 campaign and in 2009 the White House launched plans to purchase Thomson to house Gitmo detainees, triggering a controversy.
While Quinn, Durbin and Illinois Democrats raised no objections — a reason the White House looked favorably on Thomson, in northwestern Illinois — congressional Republicans blocked its use for Guantanamo prisoners.
The purchase finally went through and today Thomson is a federal prison facility.
• Developing high speed rail lines has been an Obama priority. Illinois got more than $1 billion from the 2009 Stimulus package for a high-speed rail corridor between Chicago and St. Louis, which is still in the works. When GOP governors in Wisconsin and Florida rejected federal high speed rail money in 2011, LaHood used his discretion to redirect tens of millions of that cash to Illinois.
Even with a president from Illinois, a big Illinois push failed for a new National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency facility near Scott Air Force Base, located about 25 miles from St. Louis.
Last June, the spy agency instead chose St. Louis for the billion-dollar plus project.
The Obama White House unabashedly went all out for Chicago in 2009 in what turned out to be an ill-fated high-profile drive to win 2016 summer Olympics for Chicago. Before becoming a White House senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett was vice chair of Chicago 2016, Mayor Richard Daley’s group promoting the Olympic bid.
In a run-up to the International Olympic Committee vote in Copenhagen, Obama and Mrs. Obama hosted an Olympics event at the White House on Sept. 16, 2009 to rally support for Chicago’s bid. The first lady, a native South Sider, was particularly involved.
Obama, first lady Michelle, Jarrett and Oprah Winfrey traveled to Denmark to pitch Chicago to the IOC. They were stunned when Chicago didn’t even make the first cut. It was an embarrassing loss for the Obama White House.
Obama also revived the FutureGen project, with $1 billion set aside for a central Illinois clean coal energy plant; the project stalled for a variety of reasons.
ODE TO CHICAGO
Obama’s remarks to the International Olympic Committee members about Chicago on Oct. 2, 2009, while in Copenhagen is an ode to the city the president adopted as his home, now more than 30 years ago.
That’s when a young Obama took that Pullman exit — either 111th or 115th — depending on where he was going on that day — on a ride that led to his becoming the 44th president of the United States.
Said Obama to the IOC, “You see, growing up, my family moved around a lot. I was born in Hawaii. I lived in Indonesia for a time. I never really had roots in any one place or culture or ethnic group. And then I came to Chicago.
“And on those Chicago streets, I worked alongside men and women who were black and white; Latino and Asian; people of every class and nationality and religion. I came to discover that Chicago is that most American of American cities, but one where citizens from more than 130 nations inhabit a rich tapestry of distinctive neighborhoods.
“Each one of those neighborhoods — from Greektown to the Ukrainian Village; from Devon to Pilsen to Washington Park — has its own unique character, its own unique history, its songs, its language. But each is also part of our city — one city — a city where I finally found a home.”Tweets by @lynnsweet