December 28, 2013

Hawaii pressing hard for Obama library

Chicago is the front-runner to be host to an Obama library.

By Josh Lederman
The Associated Press

HONOLULU — On these pleasant shores, Barack Obama was born and raised, soaking in an island sensibility that is vital to understanding his presidency. Yet in the search for a home for his future presidential library, sunny Hawaii is overshadowed by Chicago’s commanding influence.

click image to enlarge

Robert Perkinson, an associate professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, talks about the possible location in the Kakaako district of Honolulu to be considered for the Barack Obama Presidential Library in Honolulu. The plot of land can be seen to the far right.

The Associated Press

It’s not for lack of trying. A high-level campaign has been underway here since Obama won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 – before it was even clear he’d win his party’s nomination, much less the presidency.

From the governor to the state’s congressional delegation and local university leaders, Hawaii has spared no effort in laying the groundwork for a potential library, gently pressing Obama’s sister and close friends, and setting aside prime oceanfront real estate just in case Hawaii’s favorite son chooses Oahu to host the monument to his legacy.

But as the gears start to turn in the Obama machinery that will eventually develop the library, the focus has increasingly turned to Chicago, where Obama was first elected and came into his own as a national political figure. It is a place many of his advisers and staunchest supporters call home.

Obama’s former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is now Chicago’s mayor. Obama’s wife, Michelle, was born there, and her former chief of staff, Susan Sher, is leading a behind-the-scenes effort to lure the library to University of Chicago from her post in the university president’s office. It’s the same university where Obama once taught law and where his longtime senior adviser, David Axelrod, recently established a political institute.

So Hawaii officials have resigned themselves to the likelihood that the library, which will house Obama’s records and artifacts, will go to Chicago. If that’s the case, Hawaii is hoping for second-best: a presidential center, institute or think tank that can serve as a secondary base of operations for a young, ambitious ex-president.

“We really don’t see it as an either-or proposition,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, who’s assisted the effort for years as a former lieutenant governor and state lawmaker. “We see no reason that the president has to be forced to choose between his two hometowns.”

It’s a model not without precedent: Bill Clinton chose Arkansas for his library but housed his foundation and humanitarian efforts in New York.

For Obama, the process will formally get underway early in 2014, when a nonprofit foundation will be set up and a group formed to raise seed money and evaluate potential sites, said a person involved in the discussions, who wasn’t authorized to discuss the library on the record. The plan is to create a transparent process where supporters advocating for their sites understand the expectations and goals, the person said.

Such clarity will be welcome news to Hawaii Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui, who is coordinating efforts in Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s office and said he doesn’t know what Obama is looking for in a library site.

“I wish I did. It would probably make our jobs a lot easier,” Tsutsui said.

With the governor’s blessing, a University of Hawaii professor, Robert Perkinson, is coordinating the statewide campaign with a small budget granted by the university.

Perkinson has made the case directly to Obama’s sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, who has served as a liaison between Hawaii and Washington, two people briefed on those discussions said. Perkinson’s team has also pressed the case with Bobby Titcomb, Obama’s childhood friend. Titcomb and Obama golfed together four times last week during the president’s annual Hawaiian vacation.

Hawaii’s development authority has set aside numerous parcels that could be given to the library or leased at nominal cost. The showpiece is an 8-acre plot of undeveloped land sandwiched between downtown Honolulu and the hopping Waikiki tourist zone.

(Continued on page 2)

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