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Sweet: Obama to ask Illinois lawmakers to end gerrymandering

WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama speaks to Illinois lawmakers on Wednesday, he will call for an end to gerrymandering and for working across party lines — though the GOP members who represent Springfield in Congress were not invited to ride with him on Air Force One while other House Democrats were.

In his speech to a joint session of the Illinois General Assembly, “without endorsing a specific path forward,” Obama will “talk about the need to address gerrymandering, including in his home state of Illinois,” the White House said Tuesday.

Obama’s visit comes nine years to the day he officially kicked off his presidential bid on the steps of the Old State Capitol.

In 2007, Springfield was selected as much as for its association with Abraham Lincoln as the role the city played in Obama’s political life. Obama spent years under the state Capitol dome, first elected as a state senator from the South Side of Chicago in 1996, and leaving the chamber after winning a U.S. Senate seat in 2004.

The Chicago Sun-Times has learned that Illinois Republican Reps. Rodney Davis and Darin LaHood — whose districts take in parts of Springfield — were asked by the White House to greet Obama on the tarmac of Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport in Springfield — but not fly out with him on Air Force One.

Because Congress is in session, however, they would have had to scramble back from Washington for the arrival ceremony, flying commercial, while Democratic Illinois Reps. Mike Quigley, Robin Kelly and Tammy Duckworth got the lift on the president’s plane.

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According to an email examined by the Sun-Times, Davis’ chief of staff asked the White House congressional affairs staffer who extended the tarmac greeting offer if Davis was “invited to travel with the President form [sic] DC with Senator Durbin as well,” the staffer wrote back, “Unfortunately, we are not able to offer travel for this. Thanks for checking in.”

“It’s just unfortunate,” said Davis spokesman Ashley Phelps. “. . . Unfortunately, politics took over.”

Quigley is a White House favorite; Kelly’s stint as a state representative overlapped briefly with Obama’s time in the state Senate. Senate hopeful Duckworth, who wants to unseat Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., gets the Obama ride as she heads into a March 15 Democratic primary against attorney Andrea Zopp and state Sen. Napoleon Harris, D-Harvey.

Davis and LaHood will remain in Washington on Wednesday, where they have votes. Kirk was asked to accompany Obama on Air Force One, but he declined because of Senate votes, said his spokesman, Kevin Artl.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., one of the first to urge Obama to run for president, and who introduced him at the Springfield launch in 2007, will fly out to Springfield on Air Force One.

A White House official, asked for reaction, said: “Legislators from both parties have been invited to accompany the President in Illinois and attend his address to the Illinois General Assembly.”

THE SPRINGFIELD SPEECH

Obama intends for this Springfield speech to be personal far more than policy oriented, because the state capital is a place where he has an emotional connection.

The White House said Tuesday that Obama, in his speech “will build on his State of the Union by talking about his time in the State Senate working in good faith across party lines with Democrats, Republicans and Independents to effectively govern as an example of proof that a better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything.”

In his State of the Union address in January, Obama said, “if we want a better politics . . . We have to change the system to reflect our better selves. I think we’ve got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around. Let a bipartisan group do it.”

Redistricting in Illinois is a partisan exercise, done by Democrats because they control the state House and Senate.

When districts are spread out all over a meandering geographic area, it’s called gerrymandering. As the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza wrote in a 2008 article that after the 2000 Census, Obama crafted an “ideal map” for his state Senate district.

In Illinois, a group called Independent Maps, a nonpartisan statewide coalition, is backing a petition drive to put an Independent Map Amendment before voters in November 2016.

Follow Lynn Sweet on Twitter: @LynnSweet

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Obama in Springfield