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Obama Camp Has Many Ties to Wife's Employer

David Axelrod, right, worked for the University of Chicago Medical Center.
David Axelrod, right, worked for the University of Chicago Medical Center. (By Nancy Stone -- Chicago Tribune)
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"Patients need a source of ongoing care, and this initiative is trying to make that care available in a more appropriate setting and in a more timely way," Peters said.

Axelrod's firm warned hospital executives in its May 2007 presentation that, although many people welcomed the initiative, primary-care doctors opposed it as a break with the center's commitment to the community. Opinion research showed that a small but passionate group of people already considered the hospital to be elitist, arrogant and lacking in "cultural empathy" for the surrounding economically depressed South Side neighborhood, according to a draft report obtained by The Washington Post. Some doctors in focus groups dismissed local health clinics as "wholly inadequate."

One of the suggestions from Axelrod's firm: Change the name of the initiative.

"Internal and external respondents expressed the opinion that the word 'urban' is code for 'black' or 'black and poor,' " according to a report the firm gave the medical center on May 14, 2007. "Based on the research, consideration should be given to re-branding the initiative."

Links to University

Both Barack and Michelle Obama have worked at the University of Chicago, a financial and intellectual powerhouse with 9,500 employees and a legacy of nurturing Nobel laureates.

Barack was a part-time lecturer at the law school for more than a decade, earning as much as $69,000 a year. Michelle was the founding director of the university's community service center, working there for five years before moving to the medical center in 2001.

Shortly after Barack Obama joined the U.S. Senate in 2005, the medical center promoted Michelle Obama to vice president of community and external relations, and more than doubled her salary. She is now on leave from the $317,000-a-year post, in which she sought to bridge the gap between the wealthy institution and its poorer neighbors. The hospital declined to discuss the budget for her program or her input into budgetary decisions.

The vast majority of political contributions from university employees have gone to Democrats, and over the past nine years they have donated at least $373,000 to Barack Obama's campaigns, records show. The university's executive suites are home to a number of the couple's closest friends and financial backers.

The medical center's chairwoman, Valerie Jarrett, is a close friend and top adviser who travels frequently with Barack Obama. One of Barack's best friends, Eric Whitaker, is executive vice president at the center and is now in charge of the Urban Health Initiative. Hospital board member Kelly R. Welsh is executive vice president at Northern Trust Co., which extended the couple a $1.3 million home mortgage shortly after Barack Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate. Dan Shomon, Barack Obama's former campaign manager, is a university lobbyist. Jarrett, Whitaker, Welsh and Shomon all declined to be interviewed or did not respond to requests.

The 600-bed medical center, which has a $1.3 billion budget, has more than 700 attending physicians. The hospital is a leader in such specialties as cancer care and organ transplants, and boasts that patients travel from around the world for treatment. Its facilities feature valet parking, a meditation garden and, in some rooms, 42-inch flat-panel televisions.

Quentin Young, a local physician whose five-doctor medical office lists Barack Obama among its patients, said that in past decades the South Side often viewed the institution as a "citadel of exclusion," more interested in research than the well-being of its neighbors.

The hospital's general counsel, Susan Sher, said she approached Michelle Obama in 2001 and asked her to develop plans to bring the hospital closer to the surrounding neighborhood. Sher is a longtime friend of Michelle Obama; they worked together at Chicago City Hall, where Sher was head of Mayor Richard M. Daley's law department. Michelle Obama "grew up in this community," Sher said, adding that that makes her uniquely qualified.

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