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"Now, I'm a Harvard graduate," Barack Obama says. And says. And says. In fact, it is the most common thing you hear Barack Obama say, except for the fact that he wants to roll back President Bush's tax cuts. Obama declared for the race very early, insisting that his unusual name -- which has one very significant homophone -- would not be a problem. His mother is white and his father is a Kenyan immigrant, a fact which he discussed at length in his book Dreams from My Father.

Obama is stately and dignified, and has the countenance of an old-style, intellectual senator. Alongside Dick Durbin, he could be a formidable voice for reason and liberalism in the US Senate. Unfortunately, appearances don't necessarily translate. Part of the reason Obama comes across as such a statesman is that he is a bit of a fop and a little self-satisfied, to the point that some who serve alongside him in the Illinois Senate find he is difficult to get along with. More than anything else, this could be a function of his idealism and dedication to social issues. Obama is indeed a Harvard graduate and has a sparkling record of civil rights activism in the legal realm, a fact that many felt would endear him to the black political establishment in Chicago.

However, that does not seem to be the case. Obama's support comes mainly from the East 40s or "Lakefront Liberal" group, although he has picked up some important endorsements which will help in predominately black areas of Cook County. One fact is telling: his fundraising campaign for Illinois State Senate in 1990 was much more successful in white areas than black; 40 percent of his personal donations (of at least $200) came from zip codes that were 70 percent white; only 18 percent came from zip codes that were 70 percent black. Some have argued that Obama's popularity among the Lakefront Liberal crowd will hurt him among black voters, despite endorsements from US Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., US Rep., Danny K. Davis, and State Sen. James T. Meeks.

Obama has two geographic powerbases: Hyde Park and Evanston. Much of Evanston's city council has come out for him, as has popular US Rep. Jan Schakowsky. Pundits who automatically hand Obama "the black vote" are either naïve or completely unaware of the sophistication of Chicago's African-American political establishment. Although Danny K. Davis has come out in strong support of Obama, he is a West Side alderman, an area that traditionally does not provide strong primary votes. Much more important is the South Side, and Obama is hurt by the fact that Bobby Rush, the most popular and powerful black office-holder in Cook County, has not only endorsed Blair Hull but is also serving as the chairman of his election campaign. Not only that, but popular health care activist and Rod Blagojevich ally Joyce Washington will also win a healthy portion of the state-wide black, female, and healthcare industry vote (a big one in Illinois), due in no little part to her energetic campaigning, excellent record in activism and general charisma. Some have speculated that Washington dislikes Obama enough to stay in the race for spite.

Obama's legislative record is not as impressive as it could be, especially for someone who touts himself as such a mover-and-shaker and activist. He did have a major part in reforming the death penalty and insisting on videotaping of confessions in order to preclude police torture, but these measures passed with some difficulty and caused much ire among many Cook County Democrats, who rely on DOC and police department support in their home areas. In the economic realm, Obama's most significant piece of legislation was his sponsoring of an earned income credit to help working families. Obama has also taken very impressive initiatives -- although little has gotten done -- in healthcare, a fact which appealed him to many unionized healthcare workers.

Will Obama have enough momentum going into March to steal the election? Unfortunately, his most likely roll is that of spoiler. But who will he spoil for? Who else, but State Comptroller Dan Hynes. Before Maria Pappas even entered the race, the Hynes camp was concerned about Obama's support by a handful of key unions, including the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Service Employees International Union, among others. Although his labor support is not strong, it is enough to chip away at Hynes' at a time when it seems like every candidate was designed to wilt some part of Hynes' power base.

The story will become more clear as we get further into January, since that is when the campaigns will really kick off and voters who are polled will have a better sense of who they support. It will be important to note where the polls are taken, however: Obama, because of strong support in Hyde Park, Evanston, and the East 40s, will do disproportionately well in Cook County. However, Pappas' entry into the race more or less killed his chances to carve a significant slice of Cook County and his downstate support is middling at best: by most accounts he is polling third or fourth downstate despite his endorsement by the SEIU and US Rep. Lane Evans (17th district, the north-western border of the state).

Obama's strategy was to take a little bit of the union vote to help him downstate, carry the East 40s, Hyde Park, and Evanston, and win enough of the black vote to give him a healthy plurality in the primary election. Blair Hull's imaginative campaigning downstate has hurt that first effort, and Bobby Rush's endorsement of Hull as well as the presence of Joyce Washington and Gery Chico have hurt that last tactic. His strongest constituency going into the election will be the Lakefront Liberals, but that will serve mainly to hurt Dan Hynes' and Maria Pappas' campaigns.

Would Obama be a good senate candidate? It would be difficult for him to beat a viable Republican candidate, if one of the Republican candidates does prove themselves viable (Steven Rauschenberger and John Borling have the most "senatorial" appeal). His legislative record is solid and his community record is excellent. He is certainly qualified, but his stand-offish personality and hodge-podge of support would make his statewide candidacy questionable.

Just the Facts:

Born: Chicago, Illinois, 1962.

Marital Status: Married

Ethnicity/Race: African-American

B.A., Political Science, Columbia University
Law Degree, Harvard Law

199?-Present, Professor, University of Chicago
1990-Present, Illinois State Senator

Official Website:

The Issues:

The Economy: Obama really, really dislikes Bush's tax cuts, which he characterizes in much the same way people characterized Reagan's tax cuts in the 1980s. He is also an advocate of corporate responsibility, offering corporations incentives for investing in distressed areas.

Healthcare: Obama is a major supporter of single-payer, universal healthcare.

Education: Obama, like most of the Democratic candidates, vehemently opposes school vouchers.

Foreign Policy/War on Terror: Obama very stridently opposed the war in Iraq and favors the repeal of the PATRIOT Act.

Abortion: Obama is pro-choice. His advocacy of female reproductive rights is not as impressive as Hynes', but his legislative record does show some initiative.

Affirmative Action/Gay Marriage: Obama is a strong supporter of affirmative action. His stance on gay marriages/civil unions is not clear. He does support equal benefits for "domestic partnerships."

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Ramsin / January 14, 2004 2:05 PM

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I am on the payroll of an organization that has endorsed Barack Obama. No articles that appear in my column are written in that capacity.

Seth Zurer / January 16, 2004 10:13 AM

Great reports!

Andy / January 16, 2004 12:12 PM

Fantastic report - thanks! I was wondering about this guy.

suzanne / January 16, 2004 3:13 PM

nice and concise, good job ramsin!

Ramsin / January 16, 2004 4:08 PM

Wow, I've never been accused of being "concise" before. "Rambly O'RunOn" is usually more applicable.

ChicagoTeacher / January 20, 2004 3:10 PM

Although my union is backing up Obama, I still have yet to hear him talk numbers when it comes to education finance reform. He tends to stick to positive sound bites, at least in what I have seen. Hull seems to be the only (democratic) candidate who mentions numbers when he talks education. If I am wrong, please refer me to the right information. I want to know exactly why my union feels so strongly about Obama.

Jeff / January 23, 2004 4:50 PM

Not a bad article, but I have to speak up.

I'm NOT employed by a group that has endorsed Obama, I'm just an average citizen (no, really I am) who thinks Obama is fantastic. As such, I take issue with three specific things in your article:

1) How can you characterize Obama's legislative accomplishments as "not as impressive as it could be," especially when you list a rather impressive set of legislation that he drafted and was integral in helping pass through the chamber? The fact that the death penalty reform bill was tough to pass is a tribute to Obama's legislative savvy, not a knock on it. If it was easy to pass, this wouldn't be a big deal.

2) Although you are right about the work Obama has to do to shore up support in the African-American community, you are wrong about his limited support elsewhere. I live on the NW side, in mixed working-class/middle-class neighborhood, and there is a LOT of grass-roots Obama support among people of many races. So it's not just Hyde Park, lakefront liberals, and Evanston.

If Obama had $10 million to drop on campaigning for the primary alone (like Blair Hull does), he would readily have broader support, because he is extraordinarily articulate and speaks directly to issues that are critical in this election: employment, health care reform, civil and human rights, etc.

ALSO, you fail to mention that Bobby Rush's support of Hull seems largely motivated by a huge check that Hull cut for Bobby, and because Bobby seems to have a personal vendetta against Obama because Obama opposed Rush in a primary for Rush's current U.S. House seat.

3) Exactly what policies has Dan Hynes enacted to help protect reproductive freedom? There's nothing inherently wrong with Dan Hyes; it's just that as State Comptroller, all he has to do is sign checks. I think Obama's record in supporting reproductive freedom is actually pretty darn good.


Jeff / January 23, 2004 4:54 PM

One more thing -- virtually all of the Democrats in downstate Champaign County have endorsed Obama. Yeah, it's a college town, but his Champaign County endorsements are from folks like the county board members, who are elected by "full time" Champaign County residents.

Shannon / January 24, 2004 5:21 PM

As someone who feels that Barack Obama would be a truly great U.S. Senator of whom Illinois would be proud, I feel compelled to respond to a number of points in this article. My comments come simply as a citizen living on the Northwest Side of Chicago - I am not employed by either Obama or any organization that has endorsed Obama.

1. Not only is Obama the only Democratic candidate in the race with legislative experience, but his record also shows that he is a very effective legislator. In the most recent legislative session, Obama was the chief sponsor of 26 bills passed by the General Assembly. Obama's legislative successes include extending health insurace to 20,000 children, providing over $100 million in tax credits to working class families, and making Illnois the first state in the nation to require videotaping of confession in murder cases and banning ephedra. Obama's record shows that he has the talent and experience necessary to be an effective advocate for working-class people in the U.S. Senate.

2. Obama has a broad, statewide coalition of support that extends far beyond just Hyde Park and Evanston. For example, the latest Chicago Tribune poll had Obama tied for the lead with Hynes and Pappas, and four points ahead of Blair Hull. Obama has been endorsed by four of nine Democratic Congresspeople - including Lane Evans from Rock Island - numerous Chicago Aldermen such as Rey Colon, and countless elected officials from the Metro East area, Urbana, Champaign, Decatur, and throughout the state. The fact that Obama is tied with or beating candidates with greater name recognition and/or more money shows that Obama is not simply a spoiler - Obama is proving that he has the qualifications and grassroots support necessary to win.

3. The outline of Obama's views on the issues is inaccurate. For example, while Obama wil fight to ensure that all Americans have health insurance, Obama is not simply a supporter of single-payer which, unfortunately, would not pass in today's Congress. Instead, Obama takes the realistic approach of working to extend existing programs, to curb prescription drug prices, and to assist working families with affording health insurance. I would encourage everyone to visit to find out more about Obama's detailed plans for improving the economy, education, health care, the environment, international relations, etc.

4. I have met Obama 6 or 7 times and have never found him to be stand-offish. Instead, Obama is the most inspiring, engaging, and intelligent politician that I have met in nearly 12 years of volunteering for candidates. In addition, I do not recall ever hearing Obama mention that the fact that he graduated from Harvard Law School.

Ramsin / January 25, 2004 12:18 AM

There are two errors I am grateful were pointed out:

First, that Mr Hynes has done more for reproductive rights; what I meant to say was that Hynes has been more active in maternity issues/rights in general. For an overview of what I mean, visit Mr Hynes' website.

Second, I should have been more clear about what Mr Obama supports in terms of healthcare; although he supports a single-payer system, he has provided more elaborate specifics concerning the healthcare he has pursued.

As for my statement about his personality, that of course is subjective and should not be presented by commenters as a fact because they have met him "six or seven" times. I spoke to people who had been around him many times, too. I'm sure he's pleasant enough and I nowhere insinuated he was mean-spirited or a bad person. Just somewhat stand-offish, is all.

Obama does have a "broad-statewide coalition" but so do most of the candidates. It is still a fact that his power base comes from Hyde Park, the East 40s, and parts of the North Shore. Obviously, he has support elsewhere.

Yes, Lane Evans has endorsed him as have some committeemen in other counties. This has not generally translated to a significant field presence in those areas.

Jeff, I don't think you have any evidence that backs up your claim that Rush is support Hull only because of a contribution. Hull is a philanthropist who has given significant contributions to many black parishes and community churches over the years, and many of those who have benefitted have not endorsed him.

And let's not fool ourselves into believing Mr Obama--for whom, I should reiterate, I have great personal respect--is some poor underdog. He is politically connected and makes a pretty healthy salary between his position at the University of Chicago and his state senate seat. He has made promises to many organizations that give him a pretty huge de facto war chest, too. If his backing by the IFT, SEIU, and some other unions could be translated into dollars, it'd be pretty lavish. Similarly, do you think Hynes' recent endorsement by the AFL-CIO isn't worth a pretty penny?

Mr Obama has not, as some commenters have insinuated, released highly detailed policy positions--Gery Chico's, for example, are much more detailed, and Blair Hull has made available very specific policy papers. Mr Obama's organizational support, like Rod Blagojevich's last year, is coming from groups that feel the race will be tight and he will be beholden to them if he wins. That's the name of the game in Illinois politics, so it isn't fair to bash a candidate who has money to spend on his campaign, while praising someone who is more likely to have special interest committments if elected.

I have personally heard Mr Obama refer to himself as a Harvard graduate three times--and folks I spoke to noted it, too. But, hey, if I were a Harvard graduate I'd probably be bringing it up all the time, too.

Ramsin / January 25, 2004 12:23 AM

Oh, concerning Mr Obama's endorsements by four of nine Dem. representatives, something should be clear: the three most influential (Luis Guttierez, Bobby Rush, and Bill Lipinski) have endorsed other candidates. The strongest ally Obama has in that respect is Jesse Jackson, Jr., since he would have taken Jan Schakowsy's district, anyway. And M. Blair Hull's strongest congressional district, polling and field presence wise? The 17th--Lane Evans'. So his endorsement has meant little.

JW / February 25, 2004 1:39 AM

What? A dozen-plus wrongful convictions, some uncovered by grad students! Countless stories by the tribune. Lawsuits on torture. Hearings everywhere, public outcry, a book, editorials, blue ribbon panels, prosecutors and defense attorneys all with roles. A moratorium. The morning after, Barack wanders in and all alone he champions and passed death-penalty reform? What an ego. Then after the northside porch collapse he wants state porch regulations? Gross. No wonder his colleagues roll their eyes so much.

Ramsin / February 25, 2004 9:32 PM

Well put. Too bad his supporters can't see the forest for the trees.

Mike / March 15, 2004 1:36 PM

Get used to calling him U.S. SENATOR Obama when you repeat your ill-informed criticisms.

Asner GP / March 17, 2004 2:15 PM

what do you all have to say for yer selves now that Obama got the democratic nomination?

JaredNyagol / May 4, 2004 4:13 PM

Obama is as liberal as it can get. I like his roll back on Bush's tax cut and he seems to weigh alot of thoughts in education.

JaredNyagol / May 4, 2004 4:20 PM

If the Illinois elections will be centered on issues, Obama should not have a problem sailing through. He is strong on education, attacks Bush's tax cut, which even some republicans question. Going by his past performance in the Chicago area, his record is impechable. I think Obama will have the easiest time sailing through to the United States senate. Am equally impressed by his pride in his father's native country of Kenya. Goodluck senator B. Obama. The election is yours to lose.


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