Barack Obama: Careful steps, looking ahead

Tribune staff reporters

Sen. Barack Obama calls himself a strong defender of abortion rights, andthe presidential contender quickly condemned the recent U.S. Supreme Courtruling upholding a ban on a controversial late-term procedure. The decision,he feared, "will embolden state legislatures to enact further measures torestrict a woman's right to choose."

But this is how voted in 1997 when he was new to the Illinoislegislature and got a chance to take a stand against bills to impose a similarstatewide ban on what critics call partial-birth abortion:

"Present," the political equivalent of taking a pass.

Obama's short time in Washington offers a limited guide to his politicalviews and methods, but he spent nearly eight years in the Illinois Senate. "Itwas that experience in the legislature that convinced me that politics can bea noble calling," he said in a recent campaign appearance.

If Springfield is the measure of Obama the politician, a review of histenure is a study in complexity, caution and calculation. In the minorityparty for all but his final two years in the Statehouse, he tempered aprogressive agenda with a cold dash of realism, often forging consensus withconservative Republicans when other liberals wanted to crusade.

The insular world of Springfield also served as a prelude to some of thechallenges confronting Obama on the presidential campaign trail. While someAfrican-American colleagues in the state capital viewed him as a dynamicleader, others were put off by the pedigree of a Harvard-educated lawyerraised in exotic places far from Chicago's West and South Sides. Some in theSenate Black Caucus went out of their way to haze him.

At the same time Obama, who is biracial, bonded with a trio of whitecolleagues from the suburbs and Downstate. They became some of his closestfriends, poker-playing buddies and sounding boards.

He took leadership roles on reform measures dealing with the death penalty,racial profiling, tax credits for the working poor and ethics, issues thatearned him praise from Democratic supporters and even some Republicans.

But Obama wasn't above playing the political angles.

He pushed to get state-run pension funds to open more investmentopportunities for minority money managers who donated to his campaign. Duringhis 2004 U.S. Senate primary bid, Obama sent a newsletter to constituents attaxpayer expense that touted his accomplishments. It went out just days beforethe effective date of a ban on such practices close to election time -- partof a reform package he had championed.

Perhaps nothing illustrated Obama's calculating style more than hisapproach to abortion. The state Senate voted 14 times on various abortionrestrictions during his tenure. Half the time, Obama voted "present."

He said it was a strategy agreed to by abortion-rights advocates toinsulate Democrats from political backlash in more conservative areas. ButObama's Hyde Park district was one of the state's most liberal.

From the moment he arrived in the Illinois Senate, it was clear to manythat Obama didn't plan to stay. Just months into office, he approachedthen-Senate Democratic Chief of Staff Mike Hoffman and offered to buy him abeer. The two adjourned to a hotel bar.

Talk turned to how Obama's name might play with Downstate voters in astatewide race, Hoffman recalled recently. "We talked about in a campaign, ifyou have a strange name, you could have some fun with it."

No specific office came up, Hoffman said, but the legislative freshman'smessage was clear. Obama "wanted me to know that he had other ambitions."

'Hollywood' and the upstart

Obama arrived in Springfield with an important ally. Emil Jones, then theminority leader of the chamber and later its president, fancied himself amentor to Obama. To Jones, Obama represented "the future," someone who"embodies all that I dream and work for."

The two met on a street corner years earlier when Obama's South Sidecommunity group coincidentally convened an outdoor meeting just doors fromJones' house. They have been close ever since.

Obama needed a powerful friend. He had breezed to election in 1996 byforcing all his Democratic opponents off the ballot, including a popularmember of the Senate Black Caucus, incumbent Alice Palmer. That bit ofhardball didn't endear him to many in the caucus.

Before taking office, Obama sought advice from Rep. Art Turner, a veteranWest Side Democrat. Turner warned him not to "come in the door looking likeyou're all-knowing" and to "realize that some aren't ready for reform orchanges."

Obama also reached out to former state Rep. Paul Williams, a longtimelobbyist who once served as legislative aide to Harold Washington when theformer Chicago mayor was in the General Assembly. Williams found himselfhealing relations between Obama and senior lawmakers.

"Let's face it," Williams said in a recent interview. "There's certainAfrican-Americans that the world is more likely to fall [for] than others.Barack fits all of that stuff: educated, smart, good-looking, lean, all ofthese kind of things."

Obama was just months into his first term when Jones began doling outassignments to him befitting a more senior lawmaker. For instance, Jones madeObama the lead Democratic negotiator on a landmark welfare-to-work packageRepublicans were pushing.

His rise caused friction in the Senate's Black Caucus. Some caucus veteransthought Obama hadn't paid his dues and were resentful of the attention Joneswas lavishing on someone they considered an Ivy League upstart.

Among the most put out was Sen. Rickey Hendon, a streetwise West Sidernicknamed "Hollywood" who once hoped to be a movie producer. Another lawmakergiving Obama a hard time was Sen. Donne Trotter, the Democratic point man onbudget issues. In 2000, Trotter and Obama vied to unseat U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush,but didn't come close to toppling the South Side congressman.

In Springfield, Hendon and Trotter would "just give Barack hell" anddisparage him as a know-it-all, said Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood), whowas chairwoman of the chamber's Black Caucus.

In a recent interview, Obama said the tension was particularly intenseduring his push for ethics reforms. "The general perception was, 'Here's thenew guy coming in and he is acting holier than thou,'
" he recalled.

Once, Obama and Hendon nearly came to blows. Obama had voted for budgetcuts that eliminated a child welfare office in Hendon's district. On theSenate floor, Hendon said Obama had "a lot of nerve to talk about beingresponsible" to those in need and then voting to cut services to the poor.

Saying he didn't realize he was voting for the cuts, Obama added: "I wouldappreciate that next time my dear colleague, Sen. Hendon, ask me about a votebefore he names me on the floor."

Microphones off, the two headed to the back of the Senate chamber whereObama tried to put his hand on Hendon's shoulder. Hendon slapped it away.

Asked about the incident recently, Hendon said, "My memory is foggy on thatissue. It's going to remain foggy."

The politics of poker

In many ways, Obama's relations with fellow legislators in Springfieldreflected his lifelong efforts to straddle different worlds, a politicalchallenge that continues to this day.

While his dealings with some top black legislators were icy, he oftenseemed most comfortable among other Democrats. Obama formed tight friendshipswith three white Senate colleagues whose backgrounds and personalitiescouldn't have been more different from his.

There was the blunt-talking Denny Jacobs from the Quad Cities, and LarryWalsh from Elwood, whose "aw-shucks" demeanor belied deft political skills.

Closest to Obama was Terry Link of Waukegan, who also was Lake CountyDemocratic chairman. Both entered the Senate the same year, sat next to eachother on the floor and shared office space. "We were just polar opposites,"said Link. "He won easy, I had a difficult race. He was Harvard Law, and I waslucky to get out of high school. He was backed by the independents and here Iwas, a party leader."

Link served as a conduit to party insiders, coaching Obama to pay heed tothe agendas of organized labor and other old-line Democratic pressure groups.

Nowhere was Obama's ability to navigate Springfield's subcultures on betterdisplay than at The Committee Meeting. That was the code name for Wednesdaynight poker games attended by about a dozen lawmakers and lobbyists.

Obama was a regular, and his stingy betting became a running joke withthose at the table.

"You're a socialist with everybody's money but your own," Sen. Bill Brady(R-Bloomington) complained to Obama.

Some in the legislature treat their long interludes in Springfield as aform of camp, a chance to get away from family obligations and party it up.Obama wasn't one of them. An early riser, he was a regular in the exerciseroom of his downtown hotel. Sometimes he showed up at the local YMCA for adawn pickup basketball game.

An exception to his disciplined routine was the poker game held inside theheadquarters of the Illinois Manufacturers Association, the big business lobbywhose legislative goals often were at odds with those of liberals like Obama.

Handed a cigar and cocktail on the way in, players left a few hundreddollars richer or poorer. Obama played liked he legislated, "slowly,deliberately, cautiously," recalled Jacobs.

Poker was a way to relax and schmooze out of the polarizing glare under theCapitol dome. To Obama, it was also a chance to prove to colleagues that hewas a regular guy.

"When it turned out that I could sit down at [a bar] and have a beer andwatch a game or go out for a round of golf or get a poker game going," Obamasaid, "I probably confounded some of their expectations."

A legislative diplomat

In his first campaign, Obama lashed out at incumbent pols who cut backroomdeals to consolidate their power rather than advance the common good. But oncein the Springfield mosh pit, Obama crafted an image as a bridge-builder.

"He's not dogmatic, he's consensus building," said Jones. He also waspractical. With Republicans controlling the Senate until 2003, fighting themwouldn't accomplish much.

In 1999, Obama spoke so passionately in favor of affirmative action that aRepublican colleague shelved a resolution aimed at undermining the practice atpublic universities.

He had less success with another goal that he now is pushing in hispresidential run: universal health care. He once proposed a stateconstitutional amendment to mandate it. In another echo of criticism Obama hasfaced in his presidential campaign, the proposal lacked detail. He laterwatered down his idea to simply call for a task force to study the issue.

A critic of the state's broken capital punishment system, Obama spent twoyears working with Republicans to broker a series of reforms aimed at makingit more difficult for the innocent to face execution. Still, Obama foundhimself on various sides of the death penalty debate.

Five months into office, he voted to expand the list of capital crimes toinclude the brutal murder of a senior citizen or a disabled person. Four yearslater he opposed adding murders that were part of "gang activity" to the list,saying the term was a "mechanism to target particular neighborhoods [and]particular individuals."

In 2003, with Democrats in control of the General Assembly and Obamareadying his U.S. Senate run, he became a whirlwind of legislative activity.He secured passage of the nation's first law to require police to tape formalinterviews and confessions of murder suspects. He also won passage of a lawrequiring police to record the race of drivers they stop for a study of racialprofiling.

The most awkward moment of Obama's legislative tenure came in 1999.Lawmakers in a special session considered restoring an anti-gun violence lawstruck down in court. The battle stalemated, and Obama flew to Hawaii for Christmas with his family.

Lawmakers were called back Dec. 29 to vote on a compromise, but Obamaremained in Hawaii. The deal narrowly failed. Obama later said his youngdaughter had taken ill and he couldn't leave her, but the incident damaged hisalready-slim hopes of unseating Rush.

Legislators face an array of sensitive topics, but few pack the emotionaland political wallop of abortion. Obama has long publicly promoted his supportfor abortion rights, but his voting record in Springfield is not simple toread.

Obama said he sought compromise with abortion opponents, but they balked.As a fallback, he said he worked out an arrangement with abortion-rightsadvocates to encourage Democrats to vote "present" on some bills if theyfeared a "no"would look insensitive and endanger their re-election.

But few of the other Democrats who voted "present" on abortion bills recallsuch a strategy. And, like Obama, they weren't politically vulnerable.

Obama's friend Link offered another reason for the strategy: to protectthose with plans for higher office. A "present" vote helped "if you haveaspirations of doing something else in politics," Link said, "and I think[Obama] looked at it in that regard."

Illinois has a rich legacy of government scandal, and Obama's campaignresume plays up his role in trying to do something to stop it. Jones early ontapped him as the Senate Democratic point man on ethics reform, an unenviabletask for a rookie lawmaker given that Springfield veterans were reluctant toembrace change and dispense with perks. Many resented him.

Trotter said Obama swooped in "as the knight on the white horse" and madeit sound as though everybody in Springfield, except him, was corrupt. "Itwasn't appreciated."

The ethics bill, Obama said, "was not a favorite of my colleagues."

Obama also was in the thick of negotiations on a 2003 ethics package thatled to restrictions on gifts from lobbyists and the appointment of newinspectors general to hunt corruption in a variety of state agencies.

It also banned lawmakers from sending taxpayer-funded promotional mailingsin the weeks before an election, an attempt to clamp down on an all-too-commonpractice that critics said was tantamount to having the state help bankrollincumbents' campaigns.

Obama wasn't big on sending newsletters to constituents. In his first sevenyears in the Senate, he did it only twice. But in early 2004, as he wasgearing up for his U.S. Senate run, Obama ordered his largest newslettermailing -- 75,000 copies.

Records show they hit the post office Jan. 30, two days before the banObama helped write was to take effect.

Obama said the impact was "nominal" because the mailings only went tovoters in his state legislative district. "We abided by the rules," he said.

'You're a very powerful guy'

Long before maverick Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald decided not to runfor re-election in 2004, Obama approached his mentor, Emil Jones, who waspreparing to lead a new Democratic majority in the state Senate.

"You're a very powerful guy," Obama told Jones.

"I've got the power to do what?" Jones responded.

"You could help elect a U.S. senator," Obama said.

Jones asked his protege if he had anyone in mind.

"Yeah," Obama replied. "Me."

Obama's ambitions for higher office were an open secret in Springfield, buttrying to make the leap to the U.S. Senate seemed a long shot. He was anunknown to most Chicago voters, let alone to those in the rest of the state.His loss to Rush was so lopsided even Obama described it as "a spanking."

He couldn't count on the support of some prominent Black Caucus members,including Hendon. In a recent interview, he said Obama was so ambitious thatif the position were up for a vote, Obama would run for "king of the world."

Obama formally announced his campaign in January 2003, more than a yearahead of the primary. Jones, of course, was there. Link, Walsh and Jacobs alsoattended, illustrating that his support transcended the black community.

Hendon and Trotter were a tougher sell. Jones eventually got them toendorse Obama. Hendon said it took "seven or eight" talks with Jones before hefinally decided to go along. And, Hendon said, he only did it out of loyaltyto Jones.

Obama wasn't expecting the endorsement of either Trotter or Hendon. Heasked Jones how he pulled it off.

"I made them an offer," Jones recalled telling Obama. "And you don't wantto know."

Tribune staff reporters Bob Secter and Monique Garcia contributed to this report.


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