Checking in with the Chicago Contingent of the Obama White House

MIDWEST WING: Giordano’s pizza ordered from the White House? Goose Island beer at Washington parties? A crew of young Chicagoans has followed Obama to the capital. They are bringing a touch of home to D.C.’s social scene—just as Washington ways are shaping them

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The pepperoni, sausage and veggie pizzas were shrink wrapped, vacuum packed in dry ice, and 600 miles from home. But, man, were they good.

Darienne Page, the pretty 28-year-old White House receptionist, whose face is the first guests see when they enter the West Wing—and who sits mere feet from the Oval Office—got the idea to order Giordano’s last July. Her boyfriend, a fellow Chicago-to-D.C. transplant, had just taken a job with the Department of Transportation and was feeling homesick. Page searched online for a little reminder of the Windy City and found that the Chicago deep-dish landmark—which had been their date-night joint for pizza and wings after long days campaigning—ships nationwide.

“But when I started telling everyone about it, everyone wanted in,” says Page (whom the president has nicknamed ROTUS, for Receptionist of the United States). “So I ended up ordering six.”

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Another junior staffer found a mom-and-pop grocery in northeastern D.C. that sells 312 beer, from Chicago’s Goose Island Brewery, and Page hosted a get-together for appreciative young colleagues at her apartment. Then they did it again, this time at her friend Ian Adams’s pad.

“I tried to cook the pizza, and I think I let it defrost for too long, because it got a little soggy and the bottom ended up falling out of most of it,” says Adams, a 25-year-old native of Geneva, Illinois, who works in the White House as the executive assistant to the director of scheduling and advance. He adds happily: “So I still have some Giordano’s in my oven every time I open it.”

Such is life for the troop of Chicagoans who moved to the nation’s capital to work in President Barack Obama’s administration. (Though no one knows the precise number of Chicago expats in D.C. under Obama, Katie McCormick Lelyveld, the press secretary for the First Lady, says there are about 20 of them in the East Wing and West Wing alone, and many more scattered throughout the agencies.) They are making their way in a transient town that can be tough for newcomers and outsiders, putting their stamp—equal parts Midwest friendliness and hard-charging Chicago politics—on Washington, while Washington quietly shapes them as well. And, of course, they are finding that, like the scent of Giordano’s deep-dish that wafts into Adams’s kitchen each time he uses his oven, a faint thread of Chicago still winds its way through almost everything they do.

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Chicagoans occupy positions of power throughout the administration, from David Axelrod in the West Wing to Arne Duncan in the Department of Education to Susan Sher, Michelle Obama’s chief of staff. The First Family even dines on food prepared by a Chicago native and University of Chicago grad, Sam Kass, who worked as a line cook at Avec before going to Washington with the Obamas.

When the Obama crowd began arriving in town just days after their historic victory in late 2008, they became members of the latest administration to try to fashion some semblance of home in a city best known as the marble-and-monument-flecked backdrop to a massive bureaucracy. Every new president sets his own tone, and every group of eager staffers takes to Washington with varying degrees of success.

Jimmy Carter rolled in from Plains, Georgia, and his circle’s small-town style was initially exotic. He was a peanut farmer, an aloof and moralistic figure, but his young staff quickly keened to the city’s social scene and began popping up in the gossip pages of The Washington Post. Ronald Reagan rode in from the West, the first president to imbue Washington with a sheen of Hollywood glamour.

Bill Clinton and his rascally brigade had a more difficult time. The blue-blooded Washington establishment viewed the baby-boomer president and his young hands from Arkansas as lowbrow riffraff; Bill and his wife, Hillary, in turn, scoffed at what they viewed as the establishment’s elitist Georgetown salons. George H. W. Bush was a Washington longtimer, while his son, George W., wanted nothing to do with the city and behaved accordingly. He went to bed early and rarely ventured out, and his staff followed suit—a loyal cadre of Texans who wore their outsider status as a badge of honor. They holed up in Virginia towns like Alexandria and McLean, preppy suburbs of D.C., and never bothered to make Washington their own.

But the members of the “Chicago mafia,” as this new group is frequently called, are different—both newcomers and yet somehow familiar. Chicago has long had a presence in Washington. The Illinois congressman Dan Rostenkowski headed the powerful Committee on Ways and Means, and when Morton’s of Chicago decided to open its second location, Rosty persuaded his good friend Arnie Morton to bring his steak house to D.C., where it still hosts Washington’s power players. More recently, Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s native son—who has declared his ambition to be mayor of Chicago one day—was on track to become the first Jewish Speaker of the House before Obama tapped him his chief of staff.

“Everyone here is always welcomed by the Washington establishment, because the Washington establishment thrives on change,” says Sally Quinn, a Washington Post writer who is herself an entrenched part of the establishment and a frequent Georgetown hostess. “If people had their own way, every president would have only one term so you could have new blood all the time. And people also love power and access to power, so they’re thrilled to have all these new people in town.”

At least, they are at first—but more on that later.

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Photo Illustration: Sean McCabe

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