Article — From the June 2010 issue

In the Loop

Obama’s hometown takes Washington

( 2 of 8 )

wonderland

One of the first Chicago transplants I met in Washington was Tim Tuten, a friend of my brother’s who had recently been named to a communications job in the Education Department. Tim, who is forty-nine and co-owns a music club on the North Side of Chicago called the Hideout, belonged to a cadre of ex-campaign workers and junior appointees who were re-creating (and redefining) their Chicago networks in the capital. Staffers from Obama’s U.S. Senate campaign, many of whom were now scattered throughout various departments, told me they had begun to reconnect. Another group—including several graduates of the University of Chicago Lab School, the high-end private school in Hyde Park that the Obama girls attended—was also gathering biweekly in what one member described as a kind of salon. “Anyone passing through from Chicago stops by,” explained Kareem Saleh, a Georgetown University law student who served on the economic transition team after the election. As for Tim, he had been a teacher and administrator in the Chicago public-school system; now he was one of a dozen or so Chicagoans who worked under Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, formerly the Chicago superintendent of schools. In his first weeks in the capital, Tim said, he ran into a friend from home at the White House, fell in with a new circle of Chicagoans at a barbecue in southeast Washington, and attended a rooftop party at the home of Peter Cunningham, who had worked for both Daley and Duncan in Chicago and is himself currently at the Education Department. Other guests at the rooftop party included Duncan, various administration staffers from Chicago, and even members of Wilco, the popular Chicago-based band.

“You might see Valerie Jarrett at the rooftop of the W hotel,” Kareem Saleh said of the senior White House staffers gathering around town. “We’re more punk-rock hipster bars.” On a Tuesday in mid-July, on a night when Charley Pride was a last-minute addition to an “Evening of Country Music” at the White House, I met Tim Tuten at one of these bars, a place called Wonderland, in Washington’s Columbia Heights. We were joined by several other Chicago transplants, including Liz Drew, who was waiting for clearance to start a job at the State Department, and her boyfriend, Dan Lurie, a former official of the Chicago Transit Authority who had landed in Housing and Urban Development. “It hasn’t sunk in that we left home, because we have so many friends here. We still see the same faces,” Liz said. She had attended the Lab School and had worked on Obama’s Senate staff with another Chicagoan at the table, David Le Breton. They counted off numerous friends in the administration—the Lab alumnus who was the politically appointed White House sous-chef; the presidential campaign photographer, another Lab Schooler, now in the Energy Department; Michael Strautmanis, a Michelle Obama protégé in Chicago who had become Valerie Jarrett’s chief of staff. Tim and Dan knew each other not from a campaign or high school but from the Chicago music scene. Back home they never even discussed politics. Unlike in Washington, Tim noted, “people in Chicago are into so many different things: city history, architecture, arts. Being on the North Side, I’m afraid that if I ask about people’s politics I’ll find out that the person I sort of like is a Naperville Republican.”

At the beginning of every new administration, of course, there is a hometown crowd that drafts behind the president into Washington. One wouldn’t wish it any other way; an effective White House must include staffers who know the president’s temperament and principles, people who have long spoken to him as a person rather than as an icon. But just six years ago, Obama was still a state senator, and many of the young Chicagoans in today’s administration were working intimately with him at all hours of the day. Shortly after Liz Drew graduated from college, in 2003, she left a message at Obama’s law office asking if she could serve on his U.S. Senate campaign; Obama phoned back the next day to offer her a position. Tarak Shah, who now holds a post at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, received his personal call from the state senator in his University of Illinois apartment. The candidate took Dan Lurie out to breakfast after the two were introduced on a downtown Chicago street. “I’m still in awe that I had the president’s cell-phone number,” said Juleigh Nowinski, a senate staffer who worked at Health and Human Services until this May. At early fund-raisers, Liz would invite her friends to fill out the sparse crowds, thinking that Obama wouldn’t notice. “Liz, I saw a lot of your friends here again,” he said with concern after one event. “Does that mean we didn’t raise very much money?”

Regardless of where they have ended up in the administration, the junior staffers all said they were in Washington not to work in government but to serve the president. They spoke of Obama’s agenda with an earnestness that, as one of them put it, at times veered into “some cheap West Wing vision of how exciting the job is.” In many ways, they represented the most ardent of the campaign’s rally-goers, the most dedicated of the ground troops, and generally they were to the left of the president politically. Often I heard staffers say they were willing to tolerate Obama’s reliance on political operatives and what seemed like daily concessions to both Republicans and conservative Democrats; they reasoned that these allowed him to accomplish his goals. As several people explained to me, they believed Obama to be a progressive on the inside, even if his outward actions suggested otherwise.

“I can’t be objective about Barack. For a long time he was the most important person in my life. I trust he’ll do the right thing,” Liz said. “People think of him as cool and calculating, but I know his motivations. He thinks tactically, but I never question his motivation.”

is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine. His previous article for the magazine, "End of the Road," appeared in the August 2009 issue.

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