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Obama's White House team roots in Daley's City Hall

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WASHINGTON -- It's a Tuesday in June, and I am in one of the high-ceiling big rooms of the old office building next to the White House.

As I look around the room at the players assembled here -- including this scribe -- I'm thinking that with a few twists of fate, this all-Chicago gang could be huddling in Mayor Daley's City Hall.

In front of me is Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Obama who today is chairing a roundtable marking the 37th anniversary of Title IX, the sports equity law. Across the room is Arne Duncan, the education secretary.

Seated in the first row is Tina Tchen, director of the White House public engagement office. Leaning against a wall is Susan Sher, chief of staff for Michelle Obama. In back of me in the vestibule is Daniel Hornung, a graduate of the University of Chicago Lab School who is working this summer for Jarrett. He is a friend of the daughter of Desiree Rogers, the White House social secretary. Marilyn Katz, a public affairs consultant visiting from Chicago, is also at the Title IX event.

Jarrett, Sher, Duncan and Tchen were all Daley appointees on boards or in top posts at City Hall, as was Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. David Axelrod was Daley's political adviser. First lady Michelle Obama worked a stint at City Hall.

The Chicagoans have replaced the Texans in the White House.

In Washington, the relationships among the key players in government are subject to speculation and fascination over whether there is a "Chicago way" in the six-month-old Obama White House. There is a romanticized notion of Machine politics in the air here, though only remnants of it still exist in Chicago.

I've wisecracked that there are so many Chicagoans in the Obama administration, it's like covering the 51st Ward. Obama has swept into office with him dozens of Chicagoans, in all kinds of jobs.

Evanston's Jon Samuels is in the White House legislative affairs office and Ben LaBolt, a LaGrange native, is a White House spokesman. Ellie Schaefer, from Lincolnwood, runs the White House visitors office. They worked on the Obama presidential campaign.

The late, great Chicago political scientist Milton Rakove titled one of his books We Don't Want Nobody Nobody Sent, and that's what I see so far: concentric circles of interlocking social, personal and political relationships that go back years. The University of Chicago is one focal point; City Hall is another.

Think Muckety, not machine. (Muckety.com is a Web site that pulls together a person's interlocking relationships.)

Jarrett disagrees with my 51st Ward metaphor. The Chicagoans, after all, are now operating on a national and international stage.

But I brought up the analogy because I wanted to figure out if there is a Chicago sensibility in the Obama White House.

What was exported from Chicago to Washington, Jarrett said, was "personal relationships that we have that creates a foundation of trust. . . . Some of my closest friends today are people who have been at City Hall," she said, referring to Sher, Mrs. Obama and Axelrod.

The Chicagoans at the top tier of the Obama White House have actually known each other longer than they have known the Obamas.

"We shared a common history in that so many of us did have ties back to City Hall and had relationships that grew out of that experience, and we have grown up in a sense together,'' Jarrett told me. "And then to come here together, it would have been much harder without each other."

Duncan, the former Chicago Public Schools chief, also brought a contingent with him to Washington.

"There is a Chicago crowd of people here, and a lot of us learned our politics from some pros," said Peter Cunningham, who worked for Duncan at CPS. Cunningham, a former speechwriter in Daley's City Hall, is now assistant secretary for communications and outreach in the Education Department.

Obama named three Chicagoans -- all major fund-raisers -- to be ambassadors: Lou Susman to Great Britain, David Jacobson to Canada and Fay Hartog-Levin to the Netherlands. Hartog-Levin's husband, Daniel Levin, is the chairman of the Habitat Co. Jarrett is the former president and CEO of Habitat.

Chicago lawyer Ertharin Cousin -- who worked on the Obama campaign and is a veteran of city, state and national politics -- was nominated last month to be U.S. ambassador to the Rome-based United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture.

Cindy Moelis was tapped by Obama last April to be the director of the President's Commission on White House Fellowships. Moelis is a friend of Mrs. Obama and worked with her at City Hall. Moelis later became the executive director of the Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation.

That's Pritzker as in Penny Pritzker -- the Obama presidential campaign finance chairwoman. Obama headlined a Democratic National Committee fund-raiser at her Lincoln Park home Thursday. Moelis' husband is Robert Rivkin, who wound up in the Obama administration as general counsel to the Transportation Department. Rivkin is a former CTA general counsel. Jarrett formerly chaired the CTA Board.

Rivkin's boss is Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the former Illinois congressman who worked closely with Emanuel while they were both in the House. (Chicago author Carol Felsenthal, writing for the Huffington Post, noted that Rivkin's brother Charles, also an Obama fund-raiser, was picked to be ambassador to France.)

Last month, Obama named Bryan Traubert, Pritzker's husband, as a member of the commission Moelis now runs. The president also named to the commission Eleanor Kaye Wilson, a former DePaul University official and a friend of Marian Robinson, Mrs. Obama's mother. Wilson is godmother to Obama daughters Malia and Sasha.

Last December, Obama said he would try to get back home every four to six weeks. While Obama stopped at his Kenwood home briefly Thursday night, more-regular visits haven't been possible.

"The world is a busy place," Jarrett said.

Even with all the Chicagoans in Washington, "we're all a little homesick. Everyone misses Chicago," Jarrett said.

Published in the print Chicago Sun-Times on July 26, 2009

2 Comments

you been there...covered this. being 'green' does not require recycling articles. why not cover weight gain of white house staffers? it's on!!!

Just curious, any Honoluluite?

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on August 17, 2009 7:59 PM.

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