Obama learned political ropes in bare-knuckled Chicago

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 24, 2008 

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CHICAGO — As Barack Obama prepares to accept the Democratic nomination for president in Denver on Thursday, the short version of his unusual life story often leaves out some important points.

The condensed version goes something like this: He's biracial, raised in Hawaii and Indonesia by a white mother and her parents; and he hardly knew his Kenyan father, who'd left the family when Obama was 2 years old.

He's the Chicago transplant who became a community organizer and a Christian. He's the Harvard Law graduate who returned to Chicago to marry another Harvard Law grad. He's the idealist whose dedication to social justice, health care, ethics and racial unity led him to politics.

What this version omits is that throughout those experiences, Obama also was ambitious, pragmatic and strategic. He sought guidance from mentors while managing to keep his independence. He was willing to take risks for political gain, and he learned how to play politics in Chicago, a city known for its bare-knuckled brand.

In 1992, despite having a deal to write a book about being the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, 30-year-old Obama took a detour.

He took a low-paying job directing the Illinois office of a national group called Project Vote. His task was to organize Chicago-area efforts to register minority and low-income voters. Taking the post meant blowing his book deadline and losing the contract.

"That he was willing to give up the sort of easy road to public notice spoke volumes about how deeply he believed in making the democratic process work for people," said Project Vote's founder Sandy Newman, who hired Obama.

Yet Jerry Kellman, who'd given Obama his first job in Chicago seven years earlier — as a community organizer — and had watched his interests shift to politics, understood his Project Vote stint as something more strategic.

"When he came back from Harvard, he needed to move himself into the electoral world," said Kellman, now a lay minister for the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago who supports Obama's presidential bid. "The voter registration campaign was a way to establish credibility and move into that world. It was exactly the right thing to do."

That year, Project Vote registered 150,000 new voters in Chicago and Cook County, which Newman said remains a record. That got noticed in a year when Democratic turnout in Illinois helped propel Carol Moseley Braun, an African-American woman, to the U.S. Senate and Bill Clinton to the presidency.

In the course of the registration drive, Obama also expanded his own network and knowledge of local politics, learned how to bring rival community factions together and impressed some movers and shakers.

One was Bettylu Saltzman, a Chicago fund-raiser who'd worked with Gov. Adlai Stevenson and Sen. Paul Simon, both famous Illinois Democrats. She first met Obama that year when he came to Clinton's Chicago campaign office to give a talk about voter registration.

"He was very impressive," Saltzman recalled. "At that moment, I said he'd be our first black president. There was just something about him."

Obama cultivated such friendships. Saltzman later became an important ally. She also told her friend David Axelrod, a nationally known political consultant who's now Obama's chief strategist, that the young Obama was someone he needed to watch and meet.

As for the blown book deal, Obama's literary agent got him a subsequent contract. It became his bestselling memoir, "Dreams From My Father."

In 1985, Obama had been living in New York when he answered an ad for a church-funded community organizer to help unemployed steel workers on Chicago's South Side.

Starting that job in a black Protestant community, Kellman recalled, "he was accused of being the tool of Jews and Catholics." Through that experience, Obama learned to keep cool in responding to false rumors, and to make allies of residents whose opinions counted with their neighbors.

Chicago was tough but beckoned to Obama, who longed to better understand the traditional black American experience. He'd been inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., but had been born too late to experience the civil-rights era.

The city was a Mecca for blacks throughout the 20th Century. It had black business and culture, a black upper and middle class, and also poverty and despair. It had machine politics, which wasn't Obama's style, but also was home to a spectrum of black leadership from Louis Farrakhan to Jesse Jackson to the city's first black mayor, Harold Washington.

Over time, Chicago gave Obama powerful and wealthy allies, and honed the skills that enabled his rise, including:

  • Calm agitation.
  • Appealing to voters outside black communities.
  • Practicing pragmatism while preaching idealism.
  • Silencing enemies by making more-powerful friends.
  • Salvaging victory from failure.
  • Slipping between the roles of outsider and insider as it suited him.
During his three years of community organizing from 1985-88, Obama was not universally known in the community. During a reporter's recent visit to the Altgeld Gardens housing projects where he'd worked, two longtime residents who were there during his tenure said they'd never heard of him until after he'd left organizing and entered politics. But he helped get asbestos removed from some of the public housing.

Some residents later became political supporters.

"Once we see you're a good person, we'll hold you up and stand with you," said Linda Randle, who lived in public housing at Altgeld Gardens for many years, worked with Obama on the asbestos campaign and now keeps Obama signs in her windows. "I introduced him to as many folks as I knew." She said his main legacy was giving some of the residents "feet to stand on and a higher voice than what they had."

Today, however, Altgeld Gardens is plagued by violence, and many of the two-story brick structures are boarded up.

After getting married, working for a civil rights law firm, lecturing at the University of Chicago Law School and being published, Obama in 1995 prepared to run for office. State Sen. Alice Palmer was running for Congress and Obama got her blessing to run for her seat representing Chicago's South Side in the Illinois General Assembly. But when she lost her bid for Congress and pressured Obama to drop out so she could keep her job, he refused. His supporters successfully challenged the validity of her ballot signatures and ended her bid.

This angered some of Palmer's allies in Springfield, including older black legislators. So did Obama's quick rise once in office - and his ability to push through civil-rights bills involving racial profiling and taping homicide interrogations, measures that his veteran colleagues had failed to pass when Democrats were in the minority.

State Sen. Rickey Hendon of Chicago's West Side was one of those critics; he was even quoted back then questioning how black Obama really was. These days though, Hendon supports Obama's campaign and insists the reports of bad feelings were overblown.

"Barack I found to be bright and intelligent," Hendon said. "I had my conflicts with him, don't get me wrong. But you work past it. He was more willing to compromise and find common ground on some of these things than I was or some other members of the black caucus - racial profiling, videotaping of confessions, the death penalty. Barack had the patience, and not being in the early fights gave him a level of I guess you'd call acceptability with the other side."

"He's black. But he's not the angry black man. He had a different experience. I think that's what makes him perfect for this country at this time. He understands both worlds."

Hendon said he has a book coming out next month that deals with issues surrounding Obama and race.

In 1999, Obama challenged a fellow black Democrat, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, the former Black Panther activist, for his House seat. Rush crushed Obama in 2000.

But the loss had a silver lining: Obama's supporters included many whites, even from outside the district. That opened up his prospects for statewide office.

"He learned that he had crossover appeal," said Marty Nesbitt, a Chicago businessman and one of Obama's best friends. "In a statewide race he could get support from the African-American community and the non-African-American community, whereas another African-American might not have the same appeal."

Obama also had made a powerful mentor in Emil Jones Jr., the state Senate president. Jones had tapped Obama to manage legislation — including ethics reforms — that Obama still talks about on the campaign trail. Jones' support also was key to building Obama's following enough to win his U.S. Senate seat in 2004.

"When you see a talented individual, people just want to see how far this person can go," said John Corrigan, a Democratic consultant. He helped Obama redraw his state district lines after the 2000 census in a way that boosted his fund-raising prospects. "I just think people saw him destined for something bigger."

"Chicago and the community there have been important in terms of getting him to the national stage," says Obama's friend Nesbitt. "But I'm fairly confident he probably would have emerged on the national stage if he'd lived in another city as well."

But Randle, the former Altgeld Gardens resident, now 54 and living in another housing complex on the South Side, said it's impossible to separate Obama's fortunes from the city. "This is a great learning place here, politically."

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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