Politics & Government

Police interrogation law showed Obama's skill in Illinois senate

Then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama, shown in a 1999 file photo.
Then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama, shown in a 1999 file photo. Chicago Tribune / MCT

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Facing the challenge of overhauling the death-penalty law in a state rocked by revelations of botched prosecutions, Illinois state Sen. John Cullerton made a tactical decision.

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee decided to separate one controversial proposal from the broader package, one that would require videotaping interrogations in murder cases. Police and prosecutors opposed it so much that keeping it in the broader package threatened to sink the whole effort.

The state senator who later took on the task of pushing the proposal to videotape interrogations was Barack Obama.

Obama worked with Democrats, Republicans and especially with police and prosecutors to fashion a bill that all of them could support. By the time it reached the Senate floor, everyone was on board. It passed in a unanimous vote, and is now Illinois law.

How Obama did it reveals a lot about his political style, which is at the core of his appeal. It defines an approach to political problem solving that he vows can change how Washington does business.

Whether he could replicate his Illinois success as president remains to be seen, however. Others have come from statehouses with similar promises to change Washington — including such former governors as Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — only to find the national capital far different and more hostile terrain.

Nonetheless, Obama's record in the Illinois Senate (1996-2004) shows that he often was able to bring together opposing forces in one room, emerge with agreement and enact legislation.

"In early '03, we were going to enact the recommendations of a governor's task force on the death penalty," Cullerton said. "There were 64 recommendations . . . . But the videotaping was too controversial. If I were to include it in my bill, it would take the whole thing down. We figured that one was going to be almost impossible to pull off."

"We stopped it for a number of years," said Greg Sullivan, the executive director of the Illinois Sheriffs' Association

"He (Obama) called us and said, 'We need to work on this together. We need to bring this to conclusion,' " Sullivan said. "He's very good at bringing people to the table and getting to the core of tough issues."

One issue for police was the cost of buying videotaping equipment. Sullivan said. "For small-county sheriffs, this was a big issue." Obama worked to add state financing.

Another problem was the push to make police tape every step of an investigation as soon as they identified someone as a suspect. Cops hated that.

"He was the only one to understand we don't run around with cameras on our foreheads," said Limey Nargelenas of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.

"We might be working at a crime scene when someone comes forward and says, 'I did it.' We can't stop and say, 'Wait, we needs lights, cameras.' . . . He gave us that to help us out," Nargelenas said.

Another obstacle was a proposal from several legislators to release any suspect in a case in which the videotaping didn't work.

"The ACLU was not willing to give in. But what if the tape broke? Obama said, 'Let's say if you can provide evidence to the judge that you didn't do this on purpose, the judge has the option to keep the case or throw it out,' " Nargelenas said.

While Sullivan thought that Obama's willingness to negotiate was crucial to passing the bill, Nargelenas thought it was more a courtesy that bought good will and unanimity. He noted that the Democrats had just won the governor's office and control of the legislature.

"They could have pushed through any bill, and there was nothing we could have done about it," Nargelenas said. "He (Obama) did the same thing with (a bill to prohibit) racial profiling. We found him willing to look at both sides."

In addition to bringing police and prosecutors to the table with the ACLU and others, Obama won over the committee's top Republican, state Sen. Kirk Dillard. Dillard has since appeared in an Obama TV ad lauding his political skill, though he's endorsed Republican John McCain for president.

Other Republicans aren't as generous, stressing that it was the Republican former governor, George Ryan, who first recognized the problems with the state's death penalty system.

"Obama wasn't really in the driver's seat at all," said state Sen. Christine Radogno, a Republican leader in the Senate. "He signed on to things Republicans initiated. Barack does not have an unpleasant style. But just working out the details, that's something that all legislators do."

State capital politics — with their less polarized, more familiar relationships — often are much different from Washington's.

Bush, for example, pointed to his record of working well with Democrats in the Texas legislature as a sign of how he'd change politics in Washington.

But both parties in the Texas statehouse were more conservative, and the divide there was easier to bridge.

In Washington, Bush initially tried bipartisan negotiation, working with Democrats on education, for example, and persuading conservative Democrats to support his tax cuts.

But he gradually changed his style to govern as a partisan. He wrote a major energy policy in secret, for example, without bringing environmentalists to the table alongside oil and gas companies.

Like Clinton before him, Bush found an entrenched opposition in Washington prodded by a professional political class that raises money and frames issues through fights, not by seeking compromise and agreement.

"This notion of Obama's that I'm going to bring people together is just not the way politics works. That's a pipe dream," said George Edwards, a scholar of the presidency at Texas A&M University. "Take a rigorous look at what happens in the real world, that's not how it works in Washington."

The last president to try Obama's approach was the elder George Bush, who never served in a statehouse.

He called all sides together at a secluded site at Andrews Air Force Base to negotiate a budget deal. The plan cut the federal budget deficit as desired. But it included tax increases, and Bush's conservative base pilloried him.

To Leon Panetta, a former White House chief of staff for Clinton, the Bush budget deal remains a sign that politicians in Washington can still forge compromise.

"If you're someone capable of cutting deals and get people to work together at the state level, the same principle holds true even if you're playing in a bigger league in Washington," Panetta said.

Edwards disagreed, noting that the Bush budget deal was the exception, not the rule, and that the political culture in Washington has changed since then.

"It's worse now," Edwards said. "The polarization is greater. It is the way to go. But it's a hell of lot harder than it is on the state level . . . . It would be a mistake to infer that success at the state level will mean success at the national level."