SOUTH SHORE — Activists pushing for signed commitments on how the Obama Presidential Center is developed will face grim odds when they take the debate to City Council next month.
Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), who will have the center built in her ward in Jackson Park, said at her ward meeting this week that she won’t support a community benefits agreement if the idea comes to the City Council.
Activists at a Sept. 21 rally announced an unnamed alderman would introduce an ordinance to City Council in October that would push the city to address rising property costs for seniors and low-income residents who currently live in Woodlawn and other neighborhoods around the center’s campus, commit the center to local hiring goals during construction and other issues.
“We haven’t even waited to see what unfolds before we come out with demands,” Hairston told activists. “You’re getting caught up in a name instead of what the end product is.”
Without Hairston, the ordinance will have a difficult time getting through the Council, according to Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former alderman.
He said the ordinance when it is introduced will need the support of the local alderman and the most progressive members of the council, a side Hairston has traditionally taken, if it’s to get to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s desk.
“I think Rahm would use his veto if he had to,” Simpson said.
Emanuel said last month that the wants to keep the development of the Obama Center on track and said the costs to the city will be outweighed by the benefits.
But most of the anxiety about the development of the center is not in the 5th Ward, but in the Ald. Willie Cochran’s 20th Ward, which includes most of Woodlawn. Property values have spiked in the neighborhood and there is consistent debate about how to manage rising rents and higher property taxes for seniors and others on a limited budget.
Cochran also does not support any signed commitments from the Obama center or the city.
Simpson said he thinks Cochran is in a particularly weak negotiating position to get many concessions for Woodlawn in City Council because he continues to face extortion charges in federal court and does not have a history in the council of being a deal maker on major pieces of legislation.
“He couldn’t force the mayor or the other aldermen to ask for anything beyond what every ward gets,” Simpson said.
He said he doesn’t think it would be very hard to negotiate an agreement the city, the Obama Center and the community could live with, but getting it through the political process is another issue.
“It just depends on how smart both sides are,” Simpson said.
Part of the political calculation for aldermen will be deciding whether to openly oppose Barack Obama, who has personally come out against a signed agreement and who has shown he wants to remain active in local Chicago politics.
Obama's first act after leaving the White House in January was to endorse Sophia King in a special election race for the 4th Ward alderman seat.
Last year while still president, Obama took the rare step of endorsing Juliana Stratton in her bid for the state representative seat held by Ken Dunkin, who Obama had personally called out in the General Assembly after Dunkin broke with Democrats on a critical vote.