NY leaders make tepid push for Obama library

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WASHINGTON — New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo are lending support — tepid and unspecific so far — to Columbia University’s expected bid for the Obama presidential library and museum, a contrast to the gung-ho push coming from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and officials in Hawaii.

I write this as the first round of bids are due to the Chicago-based Barack Obama Foundation on June 16. Columbia, I bet by design — and in a vastly different approach than that of the University of Chicago and the Hawaii players—is deliberately flying under the radar.

A de Blasio aide in New York’s City Hall told me she will “confirm that the city will issue a letter of support for Columbia’s bid and will continue to offer support to them as their proposal moves forward.”

A spokesman for Cuomo, the New York governor, told me, “we are expecting to review a proposal from Columbia University.”

Columbia is in the Manhattan congressional district represented by Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., and a spokesman for his office told me Rangel will “provide any support we can to Columbia’s efforts.”

If that’s the best they got, it doesn’t seem like much.

But I am guessing Columbia is not looking to kick up a big public fuss at this stage since it can whip it up, if need be later on, in a New York minute.

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The foundation created a two-step process. The goal of all the parties who will submit proposals by June 16 is to make the foundation first cut — and be invited to prepare a more detailed “request for proposal” later this summer. After sifting through all the ideas in the proposals, the foundation, I anticipate, will also offer guidance about what it wants.

The final decision is up to President Barack Obama, who picked up his undergrad degree from Columbia in 1983 and First Lady Michelle.

Columbia’s low-profile strategy comes in part because it has enormous internal expertise to put together a bid and rally its elected officials; has no New York rivals to deal with and there is no mystery or controversy about the site, bordered between Broadway and 12th Avenue and 125th to 132nd.

The U of C, the frontrunner, is expected to submit several South Side Chicago sites in its bid: near 55th and King; around Hyde Park High School on Stony Island Avenue and the South Shore Cultural Center. The school faces competition from sites proposed by the University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago State University, a Bronzeville community group and developer Dan McCaffery, offering acres on the Southeast Side.

I recently interviewed Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in his Hart Building Senate office here about Hawaii’s bid.

The idea to go after an Obama presidential library in Hawaii, where Obama was born, started with a discussion in Schatz’s garage during the 2008 primaries with the University of Hawaii’s Robert Perkinson and grew to become the University of Hawaii Presidential Center Initiative steered by Perkinson.

I previously reported that Hawaii will submit a bid for the entire library and museum in Honolulu and, in the alternative, propose a presidential center in Honolulu.

“We are also prepared to collaborate, if that is what the foundation asks us to do,” Schatz told me.

With Hawaii already a tourism magnet, “We think Honolulu would be an ideal base of operations for a center that is leaning in to the Asia Pacific century, looking out to the world rather than inward and focusing on issues that we know [are] important to the president in terms of public service and education and possibly climate change,” Schatz said.

“But again, the foundation is going to give us guidance and I think help us iterate a proposal that will give us the best chance of success.”

The signal Schatz said Hawaii is getting from the Obama team is this:

They are indicating “to us that this was likely not to be a zero sum game. That this was not going to be necessarily a binary choice. Now, if somebody comes in and knocks the foundations’ socks off, so be it.

“But I think there is a fair amount of enthusiasm for the idea that different cities and different universities offer different advantages and we might as well take advantage of them rather than having to choose between them.”

And that’s binary, I asked?

Said Schatz, “that is actually consistent with our way of operating in Hawaii, which is not to assume that in order for us to win, someone has got to lose.”

Indeed, I see a scenario emerging — and I know I am jumping ahead here — where Chicago lands the main Obama library and museum with an Obama presidential center in Hawaii — and in New York.

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