Battle over Obama presidential library takes turn for the absurd


SHE WANTS IT: Shirley Madigan, chairman of the Illinois Arts Council Agency and wife of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, left, appears before an Illinois House committee meeting April 17 in Chicago, regarding a plan to devote $100 million in state funds to help bring President Barack Obama’s presidential museum and library to the Windy City. Lawmakers will vote one more time on the issue.

By Benjamin Yount | Illinois Watchdog

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — The debate over a $100 million Barack Obama Presidential Library has taken a political turn for the absurd.

So says Republican state Rep. Ed Sullivan.

Either one wants to spend the taxpayer dollars — money the state doesn’t have — or one is “wrong” and, thus, a tea party extremist.

“(The House speaker’s spokesman) is trying to polarize the political culture down in Springfield,” Sullivan told Illinois Watchdog. “We had the wrong … procedure on a vote on a somewhat controversial agenda item of the presidential library. But this has taken a turn.”

Sullivan is referring to Steve Brown, spokesman for Democrat Rep. Mike Madigan, who, in part, blamed partisanship for opposition to the Obama library.

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“The tea party gene has blossomed in full bloom in Springfield in 2014,” Brown said. “You attach Obama’s name to anything and this rabid group jumps up.”

Tossing out the tea party tag is a smear tactic, said Sullivan, who says he’s not a tea party member and has a primary challenge from a conservative Republican.

Sullivan said Republicans have been clear as to why they can’t support spending $100 million on the proposed library.

“We have wants and we have needs,” Sullivan said.

GOP lawmakers won’t vote to spend taxpayer dollars on projects that should be paid for privately, he said.

“We’d love to have a presidential library. I have publicly said I’d be the first to contribute to it in a private foundation. But we have needs.”

Second, Sullivan and Republicans in Springfield are upset Democrats used a procedural maneuver to secure a unanimous committee vote for the library money.

Brown has said a new House committee will vote again — April 30 — but the Legislature may not take a final vote on the library this year.

“We see this as an element, maybe even a signature element, of a (statewide construction) plan,” Brown said. “Does this necessarily move this session? No. But that depends on if a (construction plan) moves forward.”

Illinois has a history of spending taxpayer dollars on presidential libraries.

Former Gov. George Ryan helped steer about $100 million toward the construction of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, for instance.

But modern presidents are supposed to use private money to build their libraries. Every president since Herbert Hoover has had a library built with private donations, then administered by the federal government.

Brown said the precedent has been set, and there are other states — Hawaii and New York — vying for an Obama library.

But Sullivan said there is more to this fight than legacy or legislative procedure.

“I think they fear (Bruce) Rauner,” Sullivan said of the aforementioned GOP candidate for governor, who is gaining support with his populist pledge to end business as usual in Springfield. “They don’t have (the millionaires’ tax) wedge issue for class warfare. So they’re going down this alley, and it’s unfortunate.”

Contact Benjamin Yount at and find him on Twitter @BenYount.