By JEFFREY BISHKU-AYKUL
Assistant to the Editor
Obama strategist David Axelrod came to Hyde Park Monday morning to cut the ribbon for his newly opened University of Chicago Institute of Politics, 5707 S. Woodlawn Ave.
Following an a capella performance including the national anthem and the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by six Chicago Children’s Choir alumni, Axelrod gave opening remarks to a small crowd of onlookers populating the three-story brick house’s lawn, some wearing suit jackets or backpacks, and others armed with cameras.
Standing on the institute’s porch, Axelrod told the crowd that he had “high hopes for this project,” with part of the institute’s 15-member senior board of directors behind him, who held a meeting before the ribbon cutting, according to Esther Yoon-Ji Kang, communications manager for the institute. The board includes Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, as well as San Antonio mayor and keynote 2012 Democratic National Convention speaker Julian Castro, who was present.
“It’s exceeded my expectations because of the incredible support we’ve gotten from [Zimmer] and the entire leadership of this university,” said Axelrod, a U. of C. graduate and former columnist for the Hyde Park Herald while studying at the university.
“I know David’s very used to introducing presidents,” joked University of Chicago president Robert Zimmer, who proceeded him.
Calling the day “very important” for the university, Zimmer referred to the Institute as “part of a much larger effort we’re trying to undertake” to engage the school.
After Axelrod singled out his wife, Susan, from the crowd, and praised her for her support, onlookers and institute affiliates attended a reception at the building, where the Hyde Park Herald had a chance to speak with Axelrod and Castro on Hyde Park, politics, and more.
Below are the Herald’s interviews with Axelrod and Castro
Obama strategist, head of the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics
What’s your hope for this institute?
My hope is that through the interactions that young people have here, through the programs in which they participate, the fellows with whom they interact, that they will become leaders. That out of this group of students who are here today, and students who pass through this program, will come not just elected officials, but strategists, policy advisors, journalists, commentators. I want to see some of the great young talent from the University of Chicago in the public arena. And that is how we will measure success, if years from now we look back and say “that young man, that young woman, who is making such a difference today, passed through the Institute of Politics while they were at the University of Chicago.”
You’ve spoken a lot about the influence your time at the University of Chicago has had [on you]. What about your time at the Hyde Park Herald?
The Hyde Park Herald was formative for me. When I was 19-years-old the Hyde Park Herald gave me a job as a political columnist, which was an audacious thing for me to do and an audacious thing for them to do. But that was what got my career going and I would not be here today but for the opportunities like that, that led to a job at the Chicago Tribune, which led me into politics eventually. So it all began at the Hyde Park Herald …
How much time have you been spending in Hyde Park since opening the institute?
I’ve been spending a great deal of time down here, and I am amazed really at some of the growth that I’ve seen, you know all this building on 53rd Street and the caqmpus itself is a different place than when I was a student. You know when I was a student it was kind of a monastic place, you basically traveled between your dorm and the library. And now there’s just so much activity on campus … So it’s just a wonderful, lively place to be.
Do you attribute some of the interest in development in Hyde Park to the rise of Obama’s political career?
“I don’t know whether that’s the case or not, but I do think that the president has inspired a lot of young people to look, to take a second look at engagement in politics, and hopefully some of that will rub off on the IOP, and perhaps one day he’ll come back and spend some time with us here. But without question, he has engaged a lot of young people. We want to engage him – and frankly, across the political spectrum not just Democrats, but Republicans, unaffiliated, we need them all. We need talented young people in the public arena. Hopefully this will be the beginning for a lot of that.
What do you think is the biggest political issue that Chicagoans and Chicago politicians face right now?
Well obviously this is a difficult time in Chicago and the state, because of the tremendous pressures on our budgets that [are] largely related to pension costs that put enormous downward pressure on a lot of other needed programs in the city of Chicago. You know, public education remains a fundamental challenge that we have to meet, and related to that is our high rates of crime in some of our communities. And, so, these are vital issues. We’re going to discuss them here. We gotta work through them as a community.
Do you have anything to say about the closing of some [Chicago] schools, including Canter Middle School?
I think that we are faced with a difficult choice. We have a looming billion dollar deficit for the school system and the question becomes, do you invest in half-empty schools or do you try and aggregate your resources and provide the best possible education for the kids. These are painful choices, but they’re choices that have to be made. And the fundamental yardstick has to be, “Is a child getting the best education they can get?” That’s the obligation we as adults have to these children and in order to do that we have to be as wise as we can with the resources we have.
What’s your favorite Hyde Park eatery?
I spent a lot of time at the Medici when I was here in my last go around. I also spent a lot of time eating Harold’s Chicken. I don’t have that luxury so much anymore, but they’re still two of my favorite places. But I’m trying out all the new places as well, because I’ve been spending a great deal of time down here.
Mayor of San Antonio, Texas
How did you become involved with the Institute of Politics?
In early November David Axelrod reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested in serving on the board and of course I’m excited to do so [and] lend any voice of support and perspective that I can.
What kind of things have you been doing to support [the IOP]? Planning events?
Yeah. Yesterday I had the opportunity actually to meet with students and both speak to them and listen and answer questions and today we had our first board meeting tossing around different ideas, both in terms of strategy for the Institute of Politics and just basic programming ideas on how it can give students a great experience … [inaudible] … and also acquire a level of accomplishment and prestige as Institute[s] of Politics go across the nation.
Have you been affiliated with the University of Chicago in any way before?
No. I even applied to law school here [laughs] …
What do you think Obama says about this neighborhood and the neighborhood says about him?
This neighborhood is fantastically diverse with … ideas, perspectives, and that says a lot to us, not just about him but about the country. This neighborhood is known throughout the nation and the world, of course because of the university, but also because of [the] [inaudible] thinking that happens here, which is great.
Any word on a 2016 run?
[Laughs] Who, I? Me? No, I’m not going to. But it’ll be great to see all of that as it bubbles on.