Correction to This Article
This article misstated the year of Sen. Barack Obama's election to the Senate. He was elected in 2004, not 2006.

In Obama's Circle, Chicago Remains The Tie That Binds

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 14, 2008

For once, Barack Obama left his iPod and stack of news clips at his seat and worked the front cabin of his campaign's chartered plane, laughing and reminiscing with the people who know him best.

The senator from Illinois does not typically travel with an entourage, instead spending his time on the plane reading, working or listening to music. But this was a special occasion -- the night last month when he was claiming the Democratic presidential nomination. Joining him and his wife, Michelle, for the flight from Chicago to St. Paul, Minn., were half a dozen of their closest friends, a biracial cross section of the city's business and professional elite: Martin Nesbitt, a parking lot magnate; Valerie Jarrett, a prominent businesswoman; Eric Whitaker, an executive at the University of Chicago Medical Center; and John Rogers, the founder of an investment fund.

Some were mainly social friends from Hyde Park, their Chicago neighborhood. Some have played a major role in Obama's campaign, including Penny Pritzker, a billionaire Hyatt hotel heiress and Obama's national fundraising chairman; James Crown, son of Chicago billionaire Lester Crown and another prominent member of the local Jewish community; and David Axelrod, who has been Obama's Chicago-based political adviser and confidant since his U.S. Senate campaign in 2004.

Together they constitute the core of Obama's inner circle, the friends he had before he became a senator and entertained thoughts of the presidency, and who he would bring with him in a sense if he ends up in the White House. "There are a lot of people with shared values," said Nesbitt, whose family vacationed with the Obamas over Easter and whose daughters spend most Saturdays together.

Like Nesbitt, most were present at the creation of Obama's long-shot presidential bid. They have opened important doors for him, given him counsel and bad news, and demonstrated a low-profile loyalty that has set the tone for his campaign. They also have taken to heart the two rules Obama has imposed on everyone associated with his presidential bid, whether old friend or new hire: "no drama" and "no leaks."

"He's going to gravitate toward people like him," said Jarrett, who also serves as a senior campaign adviser and is one of the code's quiet enforcers within Obama's world. "He's going to look for people with similar temperaments."

One campaign aide described Jarrett's loosely defined role as liaison between Obama's private life and campaign life. In meetings, she will weigh in when an idea "doesn't sound authentically Barack," as one campaign aide put it. She also will quietly smooth internal riffs and other disruptions.

Whitaker goes back the furthest with Obama, having met the idealistic community organizer during their student days at Harvard. They shared a drive to reverse troubling patterns in the African American community. A public health specialist, Whitaker founded "Project Brotherhood," a barbershop-based program aimed at improving the health of black men, and served as a senior physician at Chicago's Cook County Hospital, now known as John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital.

Pritzker and Crown have played instrumental roles in building Obama's huge campaign war chest, but their prominence has also provided him a pathway to Jewish voters. Speaking at a synagogue in Boca Raton, Fla., in May, Obama called Pritzker and Crown "dear friends" from "pretty prominent" Jewish families, and told the crowd: "One of the raps on me when I first ran for Congress in the African American community was, 'He's too close to the Jewish community.' You can look this up. 'All his friends are Jews. He's from Hyde Park; he's from the University of Chicago.' "

Nesbitt fits into several circles. As the campaign's treasurer, he plays a lead fundraising role. "Barack said, 'I want to run this like a business,' and I've tried to help do that," he said. Nesbitt also shares Obama's passion for basketball and is a member of a travel team that includes Whitaker; Rogers, who founded Ariel Capital Management, the country's first black-owned investment firm; Alexi Giannoulias, the Illinois state treasurer, who played professional ball in Greece; and Reggie Love, Obama's 26-year-old "body man" and a kind of surrogate son, who played basketball and football at Duke University, and who is one of the few mainstays on the court without Chicago ties.

While Love adds levity, Jarrett and Nesbitt provide a needed reality check from time to time. The two can raise issues with Obama that campaign aides are reluctant to broach, such as, 'You're dragging and people are noticing" or "Don't be so curt."

Last spring, as gasoline prices were beginning another precipitous rise, Nesbitt made sure his friend understood what was happening. "In case you're not living in the real world, being driven around by Secret Service," his e-mail to Obama said, "it just cost me $85 to fill up my tank."

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