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Sweet: Obama hosts nostalgic Illinois reunion at White House

President Barack Obama and former president Bill Clinton walk off Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base on Friday after attending the funeral of former Israeli president and prime minister Shimon Peres in Jerusalem. | Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — With only a few months left to get everyone into the White House, President Barack Obama on Friday night hosted a deeply nostalgic reunion of people from Illinois who were with him early in his political career.

The reception was bumped up a few hours because Obama was returning from Israel, where he attended the funeral of Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Impatient to return, Obama, standing in the door of Air Force One, shouted out to a schmoozing former President Clinton to get on board: “Bill, let’s go.”

“Getting back in time for the party definitely was a priority for him,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who made the round trip to Israel with Obama on AF1, told me.

The Obama team is cramming as much as possible into Obama’s final weeks.


Through the years, some of the 200 or so at the Illinois reception on Friday have been invited to White House events. This homecoming was special. It was not for the big donors, who have been invited to the White House through the two Obama terms. Before he left, Obama wanted to bring together in the White House people from Illinois who had helped him at the start.

“It was a terrific moment for all the early supporters who earned their way in with sweat equity,” John Corrigan told me. He was Obama’s issues director for his ill-fated 2000 House bid and worked with him when he was a state senator.

“It was awesome to see so many great friends, especially those from the early Barack days — back before any thought of a US Senate bid, much less Presidential run — when we were simply a handful of young politicos just trying to help a smart, young State Senator,” Laura Hunter posted on Facebook.

Hunter was a “Women for Obama” organizer for his 2000 campaign.

There was a large contingent of past and present members of the Illinois Senate. Obama returned to Springfield last February and saw a lot of his former colleagues, but the point was to do it one last time in the White House.

Senate President John Cullerton told me Obama “walked around and talked to just about everybody.”

Dan Shoman, who managed Obama’s 2000 House race, advised his Senate bid, and staffed him in the state Senate, helped organize the reunion. So did Anita Decker Breckenridge, the Kenilworth native who met Obama when he was a state senator. She is now a White House deputy chief of staff and oversees the Obama post-presidential portfolio.

The vibe was full of “nostalgia and a little melancholy,” said Ald. Joe Moore, “with people realizing that his term was winding down.”

The private reception was not on Obama’s schedule. The menu included Chicago-inspired deep dish pizza squares. First lady Michelle Obama did not attend.

Folks were asked to check their cellphones at the door.

“I think he wanted to, and this is what he said, invite people who had helped him early in his political career and who he had worked with during that period of time, to a reception in the White House before his term was up,” John Bouman, the president of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, told me.

Bouman worked with Obama on poverty issues when he was a state senator in Springfield and a U.S. senator in Washington.

UFCW political director Zach Koutsky met Obama “by chance” 13 years ago “at a small DuPage Dems meeting,” he reflected on Facebook after the reception.

“Fast forward to last night where Steph and I were at the WH with POTUS and a few hundred of his earliest supporters from across Illinois, celebrating his historic Presidency.”

Chicagoans Valerie Jarrett, the White House senior adviser has been with Obama and Michelle from the start — and who will remain until the last day of the Obama presidency — also was there, along with Tina Tchen, the first lady’s chief of staff.

Among those present (if you were there and want your name added, please email me: lsweet@suntimes.com): Former Senate President Emil Jones, who gave Obama a boost early in his career; state Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie; former state Sen. Kirk Dillard, the Republican who cut an ad for Obama during the presidential primary; state Sen. Jacqueline Collins; state Sen. Mattie Hunter; state Rep. Will Davis; state Sen. Terry Link; former state Sen. Denny Jacobs; Ald. Leslie Hairston; Ald. Brendan Reilly; former Ald. Will Burns.

And more: State Sen. Omar Aquino; state Sen. James Clayborne; state Sen. William Haine; state Sen. Don Harmon; state Sen. Emil Jones III; state Sen. Iris Martinez; state Sen. Chris Nybo, the lone incumbent Republican.

Also: longtime Obama fundraiser Jordan Kaplan; Tom Bowen, a 2004 Senate campaign press office staffer; Aviva Bowen, a volunteer; David Spielfogel and Audra Wilson, also campaign alums; former state Rep. Julie Hamos; activist Marilyn Katz; U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly; House candidate Raja Krishnamoorthi; and former Rep. Debbie Halvorson, who served in the state Senate with Obama.