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Obama forged political mettle in Illinois capital

When Sen. Barack Obama heads downstate to Springfield on Saturday to announce his candidacy for president, he will speak in lofty tones of America and Abraham Lincoln, but also of a more prosaic topic: his own eight years in the Illinois Senate.[!]
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When Sen. Barack Obama heads downstate to Springfield on Saturday to announce his candidacy for president, he will speak in lofty tones of America and Abraham Lincoln, but also of a more prosaic topic: his own eight years in the Illinois Senate.

The heart of Obama's political résumé lies in Springfield, where he arrived in January 1997. He was a newcomer to elective politics after time as a community organizer and University of Chicago law professor operating largely outside the city's Democratic machine.

From a district on the South Side of Chicago, he reached Republican-dominated Springfield as a committed liberal, later writing that he understood politics in the capital "as a full-contact sport, and minded neither the sharp elbows nor the occasional blind-side hit."

Yet he emerged as a leader while still in his 30s by developing a style former colleagues describe as methodical, inclusive and pragmatic. He cobbled together legislation with Republicans and conservative Democrats, making overtures other progressive politicians might consider distasteful.

‘He wasn’t a maverick’
Along the way, he played an important role in drafting bipartisan ethics legislation and health-care reform. He overcame law enforcement objections to codify changes designed to curb racial profiling and to make capital punishment, which he favors, more equitable.

"When you come in, especially as a freshman, and work on something like ethics reform, it's not necessarily a way to endear yourself to some of the veteran members of the Illinois General Assembly," said state Sen. Kirk W. Dillard, a Republican who became a friend. "And working on issues like racial profiling was contentious, but Barack had a way both intellectually and in demeanor that defused skeptics."

"He wasn't a maverick," said Cynthia Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. "There were other legislators I would turn to if I just wanted to make a lot of noise. That wasn't his style."

Obama was a persistent foe of social conservatives on issues of reproductive rights. He was also a reliable vote for gun control and backed a ban on assault weapons, although he took a political hit from Democrats for missing an important gun vote while in Hawaii for the Christmas holidays.

In 1997, Obama was not instantly embraced, Dillard said: "The fact that he was a law professor -- and a constitutional-law professor -- and he was a Harvard graduate made many members of the General Assembly roll their eyes."

Obama went to work. Afterward, he played golf and pickup basketball. He made the social rounds at Springfield cocktail parties. He joined a weekly poker game with legislators and lobbyists in which the ante was a dollar or two.

One regular, former Democratic state senator Larry Walsh, said Obama was competitive yet careful -- and always hard to read.

"One night, we were playing and things weren't going very well for me," Walsh said. "I had a real good hand and Barack beat me out with another one. I slammed down my cards and said, 'Doggone it, Barack, if you were a little more liberal in your card playing and a little more conservative in your politics, you and I would get along a lot better.' "

'He was very aggressive'
The campaign finance effort came at the initiative of former U.S. senator Paul Simon (D-Ill.). A Republican and a Democrat in each legislative body were tapped to tighten a system that, among other things, allowed politicians to use campaign accounts for personal expenses.

Obama was given the job of representing Senate Democrats by state Sen. Emil Jones Jr., who chose him on the recommendation of Abner J. Mikva, a former judge and Democratic congressman.

"He was very aggressive when he first came to the Senate," said Jones, now president of the state Senate. "We were in the minority, but he said, 'I'd like to work hard. Any tough assignments or things you'd like me to be involved in, don't hesitate to give it to me.' "

Obama favored more ambitious changes in campaign law, including limits on contributions, but nipped and tucked in search of consensus.

"What impressed me about him was his ability in working with people of the opposite party," said Mike Lawrence, director of the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. "He had definite ideas about what ought to be contained in a campaign finance reform measure, but he also was willing to recognize that he was probably not going to get everything he wanted."

Complex debate
The result, according to good-government groups, was the most ambitious campaign reform in nearly 25 years, making Illinois one of the best in the nation on campaign finance disclosure.

Five years later, Obama waded into a complex capital-punishment debate after a number of exonerations persuaded then-Gov. George Ryan (R) to empty death row.

Obama wrote in his recent memoir that he thinks the death penalty "does little to deter crime." But he supports capital punishment in cases "so heinous, so beyond the pale, that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage by meting out the ultimate punishment."

In proposing changes, Obama met repeatedly with officials and advocates on all sides. He nudged and cajoled colleagues fearful of being branded soft on crime, as well as death-penalty opponents worried that any reform would weaken efforts to abolish capital punishment.

Obama's signature effort was a push for mandatory taping of interrogations and confessions. It was opposed by prosecutors, police organizations and Ryan's successor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, who said it would impede investigators.

Working under the belief that no innocent defendant should end up on death row and no guilty one should go free, Obama helped get the bill approved by the Senate on a 58 to 0 vote. When Blagojevich reversed his position and signed it, Illinois became the first state to require taping by statute.

"Obviously, we didn't agree all the time, but he would always take suggestions when they were logical, and he was willing to listen to our point of view. And he offered his opinions in a lawyerly way," said Carl Hawkinson, the retired Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee. "When he spoke on the floor of the Senate, he spoke out of conviction. You knew that, whether you agreed with him or disagreed with him."

Obama paid a political price for missing an important vote on a crime package. That was during the 1999 Christmas holidays, as Obama -- who describes himself as suffering from "chronic restlessness" -- embarked on an ill-fated attempt to unseat Rep. Bobby Rush, a popular Chicago Democrat.

When the legislature was called into special session to vote on gun control, Obama and his family were visiting his grandmother in Hawaii. His 18-month-old daughter, Malia, was sick and unable to fly. The measure was narrowly defeated, and Rush criticized him. Obama lost by 31 points, his only electoral defeat.

"I take my legislative responsibilities extremely seriously," Obama said after the measure fell five votes short. "In the midst of a congressional race, I'm well aware of the potential risk of missing a vote, even if that vote doesn't wind up making the difference on a particular piece of legislation. But at some point, family has to come first."

Obama was a steady supporter of abortion rights, said Pam Sutherland, Planned Parenthood's chief lobbyist in Springfield, although he caught flak from the political left in 2004 as he ran for the U.S. Senate.

The reason was a series of votes on such issues as late-term abortion and parental notification when Obama voted "present" instead of yea or nay. He said he was not tacking toward the center, but an opponent in the Democratic primary sent mailers portraying a rubber duck and proclaiming, "He ducked!"

Obama said his votes helped provide cover for other legislators. Sutherland said the votes were part of a strategy designed with Obama's help to deny Republicans easy campaign sound bites.

"The Republicans loved to put out legislation all the time that would put their opponents in a trick box during the elections," Sutherland said. "It was a strong statement to those who promoted bad legislation that we're not going to take this; you can't use this against us."

Staff writer Kari Lydersen contributed to this report.