Obamagram: We’ve Been Palling Around with Bill Ayers

The following is an open letter from Charles Lewis of Coach House Capital proudly proclaiming his own Bill Ayers connections and putting the record straight regarding Barack Obama’s.


Hello everyone,


My wife, Penny Sebring, and I have confessions to make.  We’ve been “palling around” with that 1960’s radical from Chicago Bill Ayers for years.


Think of it Penny, my petite, demure, Peace Corps, Northwestern PhD, school-improvement expert, research professor at the University of Chicago, and Grinnell College trustee.  And, me 65 year-old, WASP, investment banker turned philanthropist, Amherst College and University of Chicago trustee, and would-be school reformer.  Palling around with a terrorist!


Well, not exactly palling around unless you use the McCain-Palin definition.


And, we aren’t alone.  It turns out that a large swath of the Chicago and Illinois establishments have been palling around with him, too.

CEO’s, university presidents, Republicans, Democrats, foundation heads, public school leaders, wealthy philanthropists, and the Mayor all palling around with Bill Ayers.


Penny has been deeply involved in the public school reform movement in Chicago for 20 years, and I have been, too, for several years. So has Bill Ayers.  Since that work is central to McCain’s latest attacks, I know first hand how distorted his claims are and want to tell you why.


Barack’s principal “association” with Ayers was through the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC).  In the 1990’s, philanthropist Walter Annenberg’s foundation gave $500 million to public school reform initiatives across the country.  Most of this gift went to urban districts.   Chicago’s grant totaled $49.2 million.  A temporary organization was created to receive and disperse those funds for the benefit of about 210 Chicago public schools; it existed from 1995 to 2001.


The truth is that Barack’s highly-tangential connections to Ayers actually provide insights into Barack’s “character” that are diametrically opposed to those insinuated by McCain-Palin.  Over 15 years ago, fresh out of Harvard Law School, Barack was actually starting to pal around with the establishment not a 1960’s radical.


Anything but radical, Barack’s volunteer leadership of CAC this short-lived not-for-profit endeavor is actually proof that:


Establishment leaders in Illinois recognized that Barack was an exceptional talent and embraced him as one of their own when he was only in his early 30’s, Barack has had a commitment to public school reform in Illinois for a very long time,  and He continued to work for the people of Chicago in this and other cases, for free after returning from law school.


When I first began writing Obamagrams almost 20 months ago, I started by telling you that I first met Barack over 5 years ago at a meeting of the Chicago Public Education Fund.  The Fund, in turn, was an outgrowth of the Annenberg Challenge.  It was also about that time that I went to a totally unrelated gathering at Bill Ayer’s house.

So, by McCain-Palin’s circular reasoning, I’ve been palling around with Bill Ayers, too.  More on that later.


The centerpiece of the McCain-Palin attempts to “Swift Boat” Barack is the Chicago Annenberg Challenge board.  Take a look at that august board hard to find any radicals here.


At its founding in 1995:

Barack Obama   founding Chairman and President of the CAC; civil rights attorney; lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School; already a member of the Board of Directors of the Joyce Foundation (3rd-largest foundation in Illinois); Harvard Law School, 1991; former President of the Harvard Law Review.


Patricia Graham founding Vice Chairman of the CAC; President of the Spencer Foundation (5th largest foundation in Illinois); Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (first female dean at Harvard University).


Susan Crown civic leader; member of one of Chicago’s most prominent and wealthiest business and philanthropic families; her brother, Jim, now co-chairs Barack’s Illinois Finance Committee and is Chair of the University of Chicago’s Board of Trustees.


Stanley Ikenberry President of the University of Illinois; member of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago (the leading business and civic organization in Chicago whose members include all of the CEO’s of the area’s largest corporations.) Handy Lindsey Executive Director of the Field Foundation of Illinois (originally established by the Marshall Field family).


Ray Romero Vice President and General Counsel of Ameritech.

Arnold Weber President of the Civic Committee; former President of Northwestern University and the University of Colorado.

Wanda White former Deputy Commissioner of Economic Development under Chicago Mayors Washington, Sawyer and Daley.


At the end of its existence in 2000:

Barack Obama Chairman.

Patricia Graham Vice Chairman.


Edward Bottum former President and Vice Chairman of Continental Illinois Bank (one of the 10 largest banks in the U.S. at that time).

Victoria Chou Dean of the College of Education, University of Illinois at Chicago.


Connie Evans Founder and President of the Women’s Self-Employment Project.


John McCarter President and CEO of the Field Museum (one of the largest in Illinois).

Susan Noyes former attorney at Sidley & Austin (one of Chicago’s most prestigious law firms Michelle and Barack met while working there); a member of the Eli Lilly family.


Jim Reynolds Co-Founder, Chairman and CEO of Loop Capital Services; now on the Lyric Opera and University of Chicago Hospital boards, among others.


Nancy Searle philanthropist; member of the wealthy G.D. Searle & Company (a major drug company) family (Donald Rumsfeld was once its CEO).


Scott Smith President, CEO and Publisher of the Chicago Tribune.


Bill Ayers never sat on the Annenberg Challenge board.


The presidents of 3 of the 5 largest foundations in Illinois were instrumental in getting the Annenberg grant and forming the CAC board.


Adele Simmons President of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the largest in Illinois and the 9th largest in the U.S.; former President  of Hampshire College; god-daughter of Adlai Stevenson.


Deborah Leff President of the Joyce Foundation.


Patricia Graham (see above).


Penny and I, like Barack, believe that Ayers’ acts 40 years ago were detestable.  He has worked on school reform in Chicago for over 20 years.


Ayers was at the time of the CAC and is still a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago with a doctorate from Columbia University. He is a former Assistant Deputy Mayor for Education for the City of Chicago.  He was even named Chicago Citizen of the Year in 1997 during the term of the Annenberg Challenge.


His father was socially conscious and a major figure in Chicago’s business and civic community for three decades as Chairman and CEO of Commonwealth Edison (Chicago’s largest utility); he was a Vice President of the Chicago School Board in the 1980’s.


Ayers was one of 3 authors of the proposal to the Annenberg Foundation which sought the CAC grant.  The other two were:


Anne Hallett former Executive Director of the Wieboldt Foundation.

Warren Chapman Senior Program Officer for Education at the Joyce Foundation; former Vice President and National Philanthropic Advisor, JP Morgan-Chase; and currently a Vice Chancellor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.


Here’s where Penny’s “association” starts.  As part of the proposal, the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago (which she had co-founded) was named to evaluate the project, and she was one of the 2 people identified by name as representing CCSR.


CCSR has a national reputation for the high quality of the research it conducts on the performance of Chicago public schools.  It is now part of the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute, which has become the focus of a vast amount of Penny’s and my time and philanthropic resources.


John Ayers (Bill’s brother), Victoria Chou (the CAC board member), and Anne Hallett (the CAC proposal co-author) served on CCSR’s steering committee.


In August 2003, CCSR published a 251-page Final Technical Report on Annenberg (cover attached.)  The report concluded “the Challenge had little impact on student outcomes.”  One of the primary reasons for this was that there were “too few resources for too many schools”

(less than $250,000 per school).  There is little evidence that Annenberg “pushed for radicalism in schools” as the headline for an irresponsible op-ed in the Wall Street Journal had it.  In fact, Mayor Daley took control of the Chicago public schools starting in1995, the same year the CAC started to distribute the Annenberg grant.


After the grant was received, Ayers and Chapman (from the Joyce

Foundation) served as co-chairs of the 23-member affiliated group, Chicago School Reform Collaborative, which represented a large cross section of organizations and made recommendations to the CAC board on how the money should be used.


After it appeared that the Annenberg grant would be received, Patricia Graham, the Spencer Foundation head and Harvard dean, was empowered to recruit Barack to serve as board chairman. He was already a member of the Joyce Foundation board and was recommended by Deborah Leff, the Joyce Foundation President, among others.  Ayers had no involvement in the CAC board formation process.


Suffice it to say, the Annenberg effort was led and embraced by the Chicago and Illinois business, civic and philanthropic elite.  It is patently absurd to suggest that the CAC board or the manner in which it distributed the Annenberg grant was radical in any way.


As the CAC was winding up its activities, it used $2 million of its grant to seed a successor organization the Chicago Public Education Fund.  Its Founding Chairman was Scott Smith of the Chicago Tribune who had also been a CAC board member; Penny is also a member of the equally prestigious Fund board.


Barack and I are both long-time members of the Fund’s Leadership Council.  As mentioned earlier, that is where I first met him at a meeting of the Council in 2003.


My first “association” with Bill Ayers was about 5 years ago when he hosted in his home a going-away party for Tony Bryk, the University of Chicago professor with whom Penny partnered to found CCSR.  All manner of Chicago school leaders were there, as I recall.


And, about 3 weeks ago, Penny returned to Ayer’s house to pal around some more this time celebrating the publication of a new book on school reform.


The point of all of this is simple.


Barack was asked to volunteer his time to lead a large group of Chicago notables in distributing a philanthropic grant to Chicago public schools.  Bill Ayers was involved in that effort, along with dozens of others, including Penny.  If that constitutes “palling around with a 1960’s radical”, all of us are guilty.  Including me.


Barack’s other “association” with Ayers was the Woods Funds of Chicago.  This is a low-profile foundation which makes grants of less than $4 million annually.  Its goal is to “increase opportunities for less advantaged people and communities” in the Chicago area.  One of its priorities is to support “community organizing.” In fact, it funded some of Barack’s work before he left for Harvard and before he became aboard member.  Its 8-member board is currently chaired by a DePaul University professor.  In 2001, Barack and Bill Ayres served on the board along with Cynthia Campbell, the President of the McCormick Theological Seminary and Eden Martin, a partner at Sidley & Austin and President of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club (the CEO-dominated organization I described earlier.)  Once again, Barack was associating with Bill Ayers in the company of the Chicago establishment and funding the very same “community organizing” that Sarah Palin has chosen to mock.


It seems like it is time, in the waning days of this campaign, for McCain-Palin to return to discussing serious issues like the crisis in the credit markets and drop its efforts to demean Barack and derivatively Penny and me in frivolous and distorted ways.


As I have said repeatedly, we need an Obama presidency because of his

3 main qualities intellect, temperament and worldview.  The editors of the New Yorker have said it better than I can (see attachment).


To resort to an overused metaphor, we are now on the one-yard line.

We must muster all of our remaining resources intellectual, physical and financial to get in to the end zone.  I exhort you to help in any and every way you can.  Only 21 days to go.


Please pass it on.









Charles A. Lewis

Managing General Partner

Coach House Capital


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