Why Chicago's bid for an Obama Library could be a problem for the president

Chicago is bidding for a George Lucas museum and a presidential library. But controversial efforts by the state to borrow money to boost its chances could create an image problem for Obama.

Seth Perlman/AP/File
Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, of Western Springs, talks with House Speaker Michael Madigan (D) of Chicago, during a committee hearing at the Capitol in Springfield, Ill., Dec. 3, 2013. Durkin, the top Republican in the Illinois House is criticizing Democrats for a plan that would put $100 million in taxpayer funds toward a presidential library for Barack Obama.

It’s campaign season in the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago – not just on behalf of any candidate, but for public officials who are bidding to win two world-class museums they say will boost tourism and enrich the state’s cultural cache. Whether they can afford either is another question.

On Wednesday, a task force assigned by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel took public input regarding plans for the city’s bid for the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum, which would house 95,000 square feet of memorabilia from legendary “Star Wars” franchise creator George Lucas.

At the same time in Springfield, the state capital, lawmakers are pushing to borrow nearly $100 million, plus interest, to help build a presidential library for President Obama. The state’s most powerful Democrats – House Speaker Madigan and Mayor Emanuel – are backing the plan, having testified last week on its merits. They say the state money will increase Illinois’ chances of winning the library away from New York and Hawaii, the other two top competitors. The bill is now headed toward a full House vote, which is guaranteed to pass.

The Republican minority in the state says Democrats broke procedural rules by voting on the funding in committee without Republicans present. But the party’s larger contention is over spending priorities: Illinois has the largest underfunded pension obligation in the US at $100 billion, and an estimated $5.4 billion backlog of unpaid bills. Gov. Pat Quinn (D) also announced that a 67 percent hike in state income tax rates, enacted in 2011 and scheduled for rollback in 2015, should remain permanent in order to deal with the financial troubles.

“It’s ironic that Democrats, who have been threatening drastic cuts in education and other state services if the ‘temporary’ income tax is allowed to expire, now want to spend $100 million in public funds on the Obama presidential library. Where is this money going to come from?” Minority Leader Jim Durkin said in a statement. “At this point in time, Democrats should be rounding up private financial support for the project – not promising public funds we can’t afford.”

An editorial in the Chicago Tribune blasted the proposal this week, calling it an exercise in “doubling down on things it can't afford.”

State money for the Obama library would be unprecedented because presidential libraries are always endowed by private fundraising efforts, says Curt Smith, a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush and author of “Windows on the White House: The Story of Presidential Libraries.” Besides, Mr. Smith says, Obama likely doesn’t need the help.

“Between his Hollywood friends and high rollers in the Democratic Party and how he has revolutionized social media giving, of all the presidents who have ever built a presidential library, he should have the least problems raising funds,” he says.

By offering the $100 million, Illinois may actually be thwarting its chances of winning the library because it could create an image problem for the president.

“Obama was assailed by the right for tax and spend, and if he were to take money from Illinois or Chicago, both of whom are basically bankrupt because of tax and spend, that conjures all sorts of associations he doesn’t want,” Smith says.

There is less political heat surrounding the Lucas museum. The filmmaker is opening the bidding to Chicago after his proposed site was rejected by San Francisco. His ties are more recent: Last year he married Mellody Hobson, a Chicago native, and the couple have spent $50 million in educational programming.

“Chicago’s commitment to culture, architecture, innovation and young people’s education is second to none. We’re considering Chicago because of Chicago’s commitment to all those things,” museum spokesman David Perry told the Chicago Sun-Times. “Chicago is George Lucas’ second home.”

The $1 billion museum will house his collection of Norman Rockwell paintings, a scale-model of the fictional Millennium Falcon spacecraft, and other artifacts and memorabilia from throughout his career.

Emanuel says he will submit Chicago’s bid in May; his task force consists of the city’s top authorities from the philanthropic, academic, and architectural communities. Lucas enjoys political clout at City Hall: His wedding last summer along a lakeside park forced the city to bend several rules; he compensated by donating $100,000 to the park district.

On Wednesday, nearly 100 people showed up at the public forum at the Chicago Cultural Center to debate possible locations for the museum. While downtown sites were obvious, many urged the task force to consider sites in large swaths of the city’s West and South Sides that are vacant and are ready to be jumpstarted by economic development.

“For me, this is a call to action to bring the museum to the South Shore community,” said resident Ernest Sanders, saying it would help boost education and high-speed Internet technology to the area.

Emanuel and museum officials have both said the museum will not be built using taxpayer money. However, it is likely that the museum, wherever built, will benefit from subsidies from the Chicago Park District. As it does with other private museums operating on city land for a nominal fee, the city has the power to sell, donate, lease or rent land to the Lucas museum. According to its 2013 budget, 17 percent of the park district’s revenue comes from money it earns from privatized contracts.

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