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Columbia University pursuing Obama presidential library: Sweet

Updated: February 11, 2014 6:38AM



WASHINGTON — New York’s Columbia University admitted Thursday it is pursuing President Barack Obama’s presidential library and museum, finally coming clean after not being upfront about its interest in November.

“While it is premature to comment on a library selection process that has yet to be initiated, Columbia looks forward to learning more about the objectives that will inform President Obama’s ultimate decision when that information becomes available,” Columbia’s Robert Hornsby, associate vice president for media relations told me.

The university has a 17-acre site that could house an Obama complex near its Upper West Side Manhattan campus, bordered between Broadway and 12th Avenue and 125th to 132nd. Obama received his undergraduate degree in political science from Columbia in 1983 after attending the school for two years.

With formidable fundraising potential from its New York base, Columbia’s owning up changes the dynamic, because Chicago’s primacy as the location of the Obama legacy project is being challenged.

Until now, the main concern of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, was for Chicago to win the project. Columbia’s entree may force Emanuel to take a more active role.

At present, the University of Chicago is the frontrunner, working on its proposal for more than a year, with the effort led by U. of C. executive Susan Sher, the former chief of staff for first lady Michelle Obama. The Obama family, close friends and likely major donors have long-standing and significant ties to the U. of C.

Columbia in the fray will sound an alarm at the U. of C. because “I think New York is going to push hard. There could be real competition out there” a source said.

I reported in November the U. of C. already had been talking to architects and assessing South Side sites.

I can now add that some of the potential parcels are very close to the Hyde Park main campus of the school, including near Washington Park. The U. of C. is working quietly because it is concerned about sparking any opposition to a campus expansion.

In November, a Columbia spokesman, in an artfully worded denial, said the school was not pursuing an Obama library. Columbia dropped the pretense on Thursday after Greg Hinz in Crain’s Chicago Business wrote of the university’s push.

Hawaii, Obama’s native state, also has been waging a campaign to land the library but faces an uphill battle given Chicago’s location, its premier place in Obama’s personal, professional and political history, and the region’s enormous fundraising ability.

The U. of C. already faces crosstown competition.

Pitches are being developed by Chicago State University and the University of Illinois-Chicago, with its drive led by U. of I. Board Chairman Chris Kennedy, the son of Sen. Robert Kennedy and a nephew of President John F. Kennedy.

The White House is expected to announce the formal selection process for the library and museum and the creation of a foundation to house the effort after Obama’s Jan. 28 State of the Union speech. Marty Nesbitt and Julianna Smoot will be leading the foundation.

Nesbitt is Obama’s close friend and campaign treasurer who runs the private equity Vistria Group in Chicago. Nesbitt just vacationed with Obama in Hawaii over the holidays. Smoot, an Obama 2012 deputy campaign manager and the 2008 campaign finance director, is a partner in the political and public affairs consulting firm Smoot Tewes.

Hawaii is looking for some sort of a consolation prize; a potential collaboration with the U. of C. could eventually evolve. Even if the fix is in for the U. of C., playing Columbia off of Chicago and the U. of C. only sweetens the eventual deal for Obama. While the federal government pays for the library and the archives, hundreds of millions of dollars in private funds have to be raised to build the museum.

Email: lsweet@suntimes.com

Twitter: @lynnsweet



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