The Great Black Hope

Obama Victory Would Make History, but Election Is Tight

Posted February 11, 2004 at 6:36pm

This is the first in a five-part series on the March 16 Illinois Senate primaries. The series will focus on the personalities, the issues and other factors at play in the crowded Democratic and Republican fields. The first installment looks at the campaign of Democratic state Sen. Barack Obama.

In his quest to become the Democratic Senate nominee in Illinois, state Sen. Barack Obama is battling a free-spending millionaire, a statewide officeholder backed by the powerful Chicago machine, and a quirky, well-known Cook County official.

Then there is this added factor: He’s black.

Obama is trying to become the first black male Democrat ever elected to the Senate, and the third black to serve in the chamber since Reconstruction.

While the potentially historic aspect of Obama’s candidacy is not lost on his campaign, it is not the main focus, either.

“It does come up and I think from our perspective it’s a secondary as opposed to a primary issue,” Obama said in an interview Wednesday. “The argument for my candidacy is based on the fact that I’ve got a track record of fighting on behalf of working families over the last seven years in Springfield. And I’ve got a set of concrete accomplishments that people can look at and give them confidence that I’ll be able to perform well when I get to Washington.”

In a field with five other candidates, Obama’s strategy to hold the black base while also mining votes from Chicago’s white liberals would appear to be an equation for victory when as little as 30 percent of the vote is considered enough to win.

In making the case for Obama, campaign aides point out how black candidates in Illinois have won six out of nine statewide elections they have entered since 1976, and they estimate that 25 percent to 30 percent of the Democratic primary vote in Illinois comes from the black community.

But the other leading Democratic contenders — state Comptroller Dan Hynes and Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas — also have built-in bases and support from black voters, while millionaire securities trader Blair Hull’s deep pockets put him in a position to compete for constituencies across the electorate. He has put almost $19 million into the race so far and vowed to spend up to $40 million.

While other candidates say that Obama’s support among his base is still soft — a Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll last month found that only about half of black voters had heard of Obama — Obama maintains he’s happy with the standing of his candidacy inside and outside of the community. Judging by the response he’s received recently in areas with a limited black population, Obama said he feels like the theory that his support would be largely limited to his base is somewhat outdated.

“I’m rooted in the African-American community, but I’m not limited by it,” he said.

Citing the endorsements of Illinois Democratic Reps. Jan Schakowsky and Lane Evans, Obama said his campaign is putting together a broad-based coalition and talking about issues that cut across racial and ethnic lines.

“I’m not finding it necessary to make two different speeches to a white audience or a black audience or a Latino audience,” he said.

Among the prominent black Chicago Democrats supporting Obama are Reps. Danny Davis and Jesse Jackson Jr. — the co-chairmen of Obama’s campaign. He also has the support of the Rev. Jesse Jackson and state Senate President Emil Jones.

Still, there is the noticeable absence of Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) among Obama supporters. The Southside Chicago Congressman’s decision to take a top role in the campaign of one of his principal opponents goes to the root of a larger problem for Obama, his opponents say.

Obama challenged Rush in a 2000 Democratic primary and lost badly. Now Rush has signed up to be Hull’s campaign co-chairman — although he maintains that the move is not an act of revenge against his former opponent.

Health care consultant Joyce Washington, the only other black Democrat in the Senate race, could further complicate Obama’s efforts to consolidate the black base. While Washington had $438,000 in the bank at the beginning of the year, at this point she barely registers in polling.

“It’s conventional wisdom that says he’s going to get all of the black vote,” said a Democratic consultant affiliated with another campaign. “In reality, African Americans are almost as undecided as the rest of the primary electorate.”

The Tribune/WGN survey showed that 38 percent of Democratic primary voters were uncommitted.

‘Blessed by God’

Obama, 42, is the son of a white Kansas-born mother and a black Kenyan father, after whom he was named. Barack means “blessed by God” in Swahili.

But by his own admission, he was ashamed of his background as a youth, when he was called “Barry.” Even now, he jokes that he could have been “Barry Dunham” had he taken his mother’s last name.

Obama, who is Protestant, attended Muslim and Catholic grade schools in Indonesia, but grew up primarily with his grandparents in Hawaii. Eventually he made it to Harvard Law School, where he was the first black editor of the prestigious Law Review.

While Obama’s profile as a young, Harvard-educated lawyer is attractive, and while his charisma and oratory are rivaled by none of the other candidates in the field, there are less-flattering parts of his background he may also have to confront on the campaign trail.

In his 1995 autobiography, “Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance,” Obama admits to recreational drug use, both marijuana and cocaine, as a teenager.

“I had learned not to care,” Obama wrote, referring to the time surrounding his senior year in high school. “I blew a few smoke rings, remembering those years. Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it. Not smack, though.”

The issue came to light last November after Obama gave a coy answer when asked by a reporter in the state if he’d used anything other than marijuana in the past.

“That’ll suffice,” Obama initially responded.

Later he apologized for not answering truthfully, saying he had been caught off guard by the drug question. He also called those teenage choices “misguided” and “a serious mistake.”

Obama, as the only candidate in the primary with a legislative voting record, will have to answer other questions.

One issue in his 2000 primary race against Rush was a vote he missed on a controversial crime bill in the Legislature.

Since then, he voted “present” on a bill requiring parental notification for minors seeking abortions. And in 1997, he voted “present” on a bill banning so-called “partial-birth” abortions and on legislation that would have made carrying a concealed gun a misdemeanor instead of a felony.

Still, Obama’s legislative platform is virtually unequaled by any of his rivals. Since 2003 he has chaired the state Senate’s Health Committee and has taken an active role in the effort to ban ephedra, the dietary supplement that has since been deemed unsafe by the FDA.

Obama was the first candidate in the Senate race to speak forcefully against the war in Iraq, and he has been endorsed by key labor unions such as AFSCME and SEIU.

Through the end of the year, Obama had raised more than $3 million and still had $1.7 million in the bank. He’s held fundraising events in New York with former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) and in Los Angeles with Playboy heiress Christie Hefner.

Substance First

It is substantive achievements — more than race — that can help Obama stand out in the crowded primary field, according to former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder (D), the first and only black state executive in the country. Wilder believes that the success of black Senate candidates will continue to be limited as long as their campaigns aren’t able to do “something more than to say we want to make history.”

“If anybody were to run and say, ‘Look, elect me, I’m white,’ you’d say, ‘Wait a minute, this is a racist campaign,’” Wilder said. “You can’t allow color to predominate your election. You can’t allow it.”

In 2002, race became a key factor in the Texas Senate race, admits former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk (D), whose candidacy was promoted nationally as Democrats’ best chance to elect another black Senator.

In a recent interview, Kirk called his defeat by now-Sen. John Cornyn (R) “much more of a national race than a local race,” and he said the best advice he could give Obama was to find “a message that resonates much broader than the African-American community.”

“He’s got to make the issue about Illinois,” Kirk said.

With the crowded primary, Obama is not being hyped by the national party in the same way that other black candidates such as Kirk or former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt have been in recent years.

Former North Carolina state Rep. Dan Blue, a black Democrat who lost a 2002 Senate primary, said that while most voters are willing to support black candidates, he believes that another African-American isn’t likely to be elected to the Senate until there is a national commitment to making that happen.

“Until there’s some real effort made and some determination that it’s a priority, it’s going to be very difficult to do,” he said.

Obama said he senses black and white voters crave more diversity in the Senate, though blacks sense it more acutely.

“There’s no doubt that the African-American community notices the lack of representation in the U.S. Senate,” he said. “I think my election would be a source of pride to that community.”