President Obama greets old friends during Springfield visit
Former state Sen. Dave Sullivan of Park Ridge happened to be walking through downtown Springfield for lunch when he spotted President Barack Obama.
Obama was stopping for lunch at a different spot -- accompanied by a lot more security -- when he saw Sullivan, a former colleague and now Springfield lobbyist.
"When he saw me, he gave me a big hug," said Sullivan, a Republican. "We're old friends."
Obama spent time with more old friends as he came to Springfield a month before Illinois' primary election to speak about bipartisanship in front of a politically fractured state legislature. In his address to the General Assembly, Obama said he regretted his failure to apply to Washington politics the lessons he said he learned about working with lawmakers across the aisle when he was a state senator. Changing the tone is possible, he said, but it "requires citizenship and a sense that we are one."
"Today, that kind of citizenship is threatened by a poisonous political climate that pushes people away from participating in our public life," Obama said. "It turns folks off. It discourages them. It makes them cynical. And when that happens, more powerful and extreme voices fill the void."
Obama met with some of his former state Senate colleagues before the speech, talking about old times and trying to impart that message privately, too.
"It was about these relationships with people all over the state," said state Sen. Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat who was part of that group. State Sen. Terry Link of Vernon Hills, state Sen. Pamela Althoff of McHenry and Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont also were in on the brief meeting with Obama.
The president opened his speech with a memory of James "Pate" Philip, the Wood Dale Republican who presided over the Illinois Senate when Obama was a freshman member and who told Obama his first floor speech didn't change any votes.
Obama called him "so politically incorrect that ... you don't even know how to describe it."
And he called out Regional Transportation Authority Chairman Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale, with whom he worked on legislation. Dillard was asked by the White House to be in Springfield for an event after the speech and rode in Obama's motorcade the few blocks between events. But his history with the president shows how bipartisanship can be tough for politicians come election time.
Dillard appeared in a TV ad for Obama during his U.S. Senate campaign, and Republicans worked to make sure voters remembered he'd worked with the Democrat when Dillard twice ran for governor after that.
The two had a chance to talk after Obama's speech, and Dillard said it was clear Obama was concerned that politics appear to have become more polarized since he took office.
"Springfield's almost a mirror of Washington in terms of polarization," Dillard said.
The speech came at a time when Democratic lawmakers who control the Illinois Capitol and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner are locked in a budget stalemate of historic length.
In his speech, Obama offered a few prescriptions for changing the political climate, including reducing the influence of big money in politics, changing the way congressional districts are drawn and making it easier for people to vote in elections.
Whether Obama's big-picture ideas and his high-profile visit to the state Capitol mean anything to Illinois' own stalemate remains to be seen.
State Rep. Tom Morrison, a Palatine Republican, said he didn't think Obama's speech would break the Springfield logjam.
"He had rhetoric that does not reflect his actions in office," Morrison said. "Much of the speech dwelled on ideals, on how we should treat one another and come to compromise, but I haven't seen his willingness to compromise as president."
Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican, appreciated the president's comments on bipartisanship. While he doesn't think the speech will solve all of the problems in Springfield, he hopes it will help.
"If it can remind everybody that we can try and work a little harder to find common ground and hopefully thaw the chill that's down here and start dialogue here again, it can be helpful in that regard," he said.
Rauner met Obama on the tarmac when Air Force One landed in Springfield, with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Democratic U.S. Reps. Tammy Duckworth of Hoffman Estates, Mike Quigley of Chicago and Robin Kelly of Matteson on board.
Duckworth said it was her first time on the president's plane and thought his message was intended for both the Capitols he's worked in.
"It's a nice little pep talk from the president of the United States," she said.
• The Associated Press contributed to this story.