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In Ill., Obama proved pragmatic and shrewd

In his eight years in the Illinois State Senate, Barack Obama did not bring revolution, but he had an eye for opportunity and a willingness to compromise.
Emil Jones, left, the Illinois Senate president, talks with Barack Obama as the latter says goodbye to his colleagues after his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004.
Emil Jones, left, the Illinois Senate president, talks with Barack Obama as the latter says goodbye to his colleagues after his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004. AP file
/ Source: The New York Times

There was something improbable about the new guy from Chicago via Honolulu and Jakarta, Indonesia, the one with the Harvard law degree and the job teaching constitutional law, turning up in Springfield, Ill., in January 1997 among the housewives, ex-mayors and occasional soybean farmer serving in the State Senate.

The new senator, Barack Obama, was a progressive Democrat in a time of tight Republican control. He was a former community organizer in a place where power is famously held by a few. He was a neophyte promising reform in a culture that a University of Illinois political studies professor describes as “really tough and, frankly, still quite corrupt.”

“One of my first comments to Barack was, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ ” said Denny Jacobs, a former senator and self-described “backroom politician, not one of those do-gooders that stands up front and says we got to make changes.”

Senator Obama’s answer? “He looked at me sort of strange.”

Mr. Obama did not bring revolution to Springfield in his eight years in the Senate, the longest chapter in his short public life. But he turned out to be practical and shrewd, a politician capable of playing hardball to win election (he squeezed every opponent out of his first race), a legislator with a sharp eye for an opportunity, a strategist willing to compromise to accomplish things.

He positioned himself early on as a protégé of the powerful Democratic leader, Senator Emil Jones, a beneficiary of the Chicago political machine. He courted collaboration with Republicans. He endured hazing from a few black colleagues, played poker with lobbyists, studiously took up golf. (“An awful lot happens on the golf course,” a friend, Jean Rudd, says he told her.)

By the time he left Springfield in 2004, he had built not only the connections necessary to win election to the United States Senate but a record not inconsistent with his lofty rhetoric of consensus building and bipartisanship.

“He came with a huge dose of practicality,” said Paul L. Williams, a lobbyist in Springfield and former state representative who is a supporter of Mr. Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination. Mr. Williams characterized Mr. Obama’s attitude as, “O.K., that makes sense and sounds great, as I’d like to go to the moon, but right now I’ve only got enough gas to go this far.”

With the assistance of Senator Jones, Mr. Obama helped deliver what is said to have been the first significant campaign finance reform law in Illinois in 25 years. He brought law enforcement groups around to back legislation requiring that homicide interrogations be taped and helped bring about passage of the state’s first racial-profiling law. He was a chief sponsor of a law enhancing tax credits for the working poor, played a central role in negotiations over welfare reform and successfully pushed for increasing child care subsidies.

“I learned that if you’re willing to listen to people, it’s possible to bridge a lot of the differences that dominate the national political debate,” Mr. Obama said in an interview on Friday. “I pretty quickly got to form relationships with Republicans, with individuals from rural parts of the state, and we had a lot in common.”

Not everyone was impressed, at least initially. His “pedigree,” as Mr. Jones calls it with a chuckle, evoked some skepticism. Two black, Democratic state senators from Chicago, Donne E. Trotter and Rickey R. Hendon, who both now say they are Obama supporters, caricatured him as a privileged, know-it-all greenhorn. At times, they seemed to call into question his black credentials, foreshadowing complaints from some African-Americans today that Mr. Obama is “not black enough” because of his biracial heritage and his class.

“We could barely have meetings in caucus because Donne and Rickey would give him hell,” said State Senator Kimberly A. Lightford, a Democrat and former chairwoman of the Senate’s black caucus. “Donne would be, ‘Just because you’re from Harvard, you think you know everything.’ Barack was like the new kid on the block. He was handsome and he was mild mannered and he was well liked. Sometimes there was a little ‘Who’s this? He coming here, he don’t know anything.’ ”

In a hurry?
His critics say Mr. Obama could have accomplished much more if he had been in less of a hurry to leave the Statehouse behind. Steven J. Rauschenberger, a longtime Republican senator who stepped down this year, said: “He is a very bright but very ambitious person who has always had his eyes on the prize, and it wasn’t Springfield. If he deserves to be president, it is not because he was a great legislator.”

Within three years of his arrival, Mr. Obama ran for Congress, a race he lost. When the Democrats took control of the State Senate in 2003 — and Mr. Jones replaced James Philip, known as Pate, a retired Pepperidge Farm district manager who served as president of the Senate — Mr. Obama made his next move.

“He said to me, ‘You’re now the Senate president,’ ” Mr. Jones recalled. “ ‘You have a lot of power.’ I said, ‘I do?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Tell me what kind of power I have.’ He said, ‘You have the power to make a U.S. senator.’ I said, ‘I do?’ He said, ‘You do.’ I said, ‘If I’ve got that kind of power, do you know of anyone that I can make?’ He said, ‘Yeah. Me.’ ”

The route that had brought Mr. Obama to Springfield was far from typical. Born in Hawaii and raised for a while in Indonesia, he had worked as a community organizer in Chicago after graduating from Columbia College in 1983. Returning from Harvard to practice law and later teach at the University of Chicago, he had run a voter registration drive in the 1992 election.

Three years later, a congressman from the South Side of Chicago was convicted of having sex with a minor. A Democratic state senator from his district, Alice L. Palmer, decided to run for the seat. Carol Anne Harwell, Mr. Obama’s first campaign manager, said Ms. Palmer invited Mr. Obama, then 35, to run for her seat.

But after losing in the primary, Ms. Palmer had second thoughts. A delegation of her supporters asked Mr. Obama to step aside. He not only declined, but his campaign staff challenged the signatures on Ms. Palmer’s campaign petitions and kept her off the ballot. It was nothing personal: They did the same thing to every other Democrat in the race.

“He knocked off the incumbent, so that right there gave him some notoriety,” said Ron Davis, who served as Mr. Obama’s precinct coordinator. “And he ran unopposed — which for a rookie is unheard of.”

He added, “Barack is a quick learner.”

At the time, Mr. Obama said he was running to mobilize people to work for change. He wanted to apply techniques of community organizing to elected office. In a 1995 profile in The Chicago Reader, he said, “What if a politician were to see his job as an organizer, as part teacher and part advocate, one who does not sell voters short but who educates them about the real choices before them?”

But Springfield was not ideally suited for such an approach. Republicans outnumbered Democrats by 37 to 32 in the Senate when Mr. Obama arrived. Power resided almost exclusively with the “Four Tops” — the Senate president, the House speaker and the minority leaders in each chamber. They controlled committee assignments, the legislative agenda, the staff. They even disbursed campaign money.

“It’s power politics, and it’s politics as a business, and it’s winning and control,” said Kent Redfield, the political studies professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “The mind-set is, it is not the public’s business. That’s part of the culture: It’s about the politicians, and the politicians own the company.”

Asked why he ran for the Senate in a state where rank-and-file lawmakers have been called “mushrooms” (because they are kept in the dark and fed, uh, manure), Mr. Obama said: “Part of it was that the seat opened up. I was living in the district, and the state legislature was a part-time position. It allowed me to get my feet wet in politics and test out whether I could get something done.”

Forming relationships
From his days as an organizer, Mr. Obama already knew the Democratic leader, Mr. Jones, who had come up through the Democratic organization in Chicago. He had helped Mr. Obama’s group acquire state money for a dropout prevention program that still operates today.

“Well, when he came here, first got elected, he came to me,” Mr. Jones said, ensconced in his corner office in the Statehouse, his head wreathed in a swirl of cigarette smoke. “And he said to me, ‘You know me, you know me quite well.’ He said: ‘You know I like to work hard. So feel free in giving me any tough assignments and everything.’ I said, ‘Good.’ ”

One of the first was campaign finance reform. Illinois had one of the least regulated campaign finance systems in the country and a history of corruption. Paul Simon, the former United States senator, was running a public policy institute at Southern Illinois University and asked each of the four legislative leaders to name a trusted lawmaker to work on a bipartisan ethics bill.

Mr. Jones recalls receiving a call from Abner J. Mikva, a former Chicago congressman, federal judge and friend of Mr. Simon. Judge Mikva, who had once tried to hire Mr. Obama as a law clerk, suggested him for the job. Mr. Jones says he knew that the new senator was hard-working and bright and that few others would want the assignment.

“He caught pure hell,” Mr. Jones said of Mr. Obama. “I actually felt sorry for him at times.”

The job required negotiating across party lines to come up with reform proposals, then presenting them to the Democratic caucus. Senator Kirk Dillard, the Republican Senate president’s appointee, said, “Barack was literally hooted and catcalled in his caucus.” On the Senate floor, Mr. Dillard said, “They would bark their displeasure at me, and then they’d unload on Obama.”

Mr. Obama entered the discussions favoring contribution limits, said Mike Lawrence, now director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. But he realized they had no chance of passing. So the legislation, passed in 1998, banned most gifts by lobbyists, prohibited spending campaign money for legislators’ personal use and required electronic filing of campaign disclosure reports.

“I know he wanted to limit contributions by corporations or labor unions, and he certainly wanted to stop the transfers of huge amounts of money from the four legislative caucus leaders into rank-and-file members’ campaigns,” Mr. Dillard said. “But he knew that would never happen. So he got off that kick and thought disclosure was a more practical way to shine sunlight on what sometimes are unsavory practices.”

The disclosure requirement “revolutionized Illinois’s system,” said Cindi Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. By giving journalists immediate access to a database of expenditures and contributions, it transformed political reporting. It also, she said, “put Senator Obama on a launching pad and put the mantle of ethics legislator on his crown.”

His role, though, did not endear Mr. Obama to everyone.

Racial friction early on
By many accounts, there was already friction between him and Mr. Hendon, whose West Side Chicago district is among the poorest in the state, and Mr. Trotter. When Mr. Trotter and Mr. Obama both ran for Congress two years later — unsuccessfully, it turned out — Mr. Trotter told a reporter that Mr. Obama was viewed in part as “the white man in blackface in our community.”

Mr. Dillard said, “I remember Rickey chiding Obama that, ‘What do you know, Barack? You grew up in Hawaii and you live in Hyde Park. What do you know about the street?’ To which Obama shot back: ‘I know a lot. I didn’t exactly have a rosy childhood. I’m a street organizer by profession and a lot of my area, once you get outside the University of Chicago neighborhoods, is just as tough as your West Side, Rickey.’ ”

In an interview, Mr. Trotter said Mr. Obama had arrived “wanting to change things immediately,” as though he intended “to straighten out all these folks because they’re crooks.” But Mr. Trotter credited Mr. Obama with later “trying to make himself more regular” and “taking himself out of his cocoon, his comfort zone” and “not just pontificating through the press.”

Mr. Hendon, who says he is writing a book on electoral politics called “Backstabbers,” said ethics reform would have passed with or without Mr. Obama because of scandals that preceded it. He said the sponsors of ethics bills tended to be “wealthy kind of people, the same kind of people who vote against pay raises, who don’t need $5,000 a year. Whereas senators like me from poorer communities, we could use that $5,000.”

Mr. Hendon praised Mr. Obama, however, for later winning passage of what some in Springfield called “the driving-while-black bill,” which required the police to collect data on the race of drivers they stopped as a way to monitor racial profiling. Law enforcement groups had repeatedly blocked earlier versions while the Republicans were in control; when the Democrats took over, Mr. Obama brokered a compromise between the police groups and the A.C.L.U.

Mr. Hendon, sponsor of a previous bill, said Mr. Obama had “made some compromises that other members of the black caucus just weren’t willing to bend on” — perhaps, he said, because Senator Obama had never been abused by the police. But he added, “I’m not saying he gave up too much. In hindsight, it was best to go ahead with the weaker version because a lot of police attitudes changed when we passed it.”

Mr. Obama worked hard at building connections. Aside from taking up golf he joined a weekly poker game. One lobbyist said Mr. Obama played poker well, but “with more skill than luck,” adding, “It’s certainly not instinctive with him; it’s cerebral.”

In Springfield, Mr. Obama said, he learned early “that forming relationships a lot of times was more important than having all the policy talking points in your arsenal. That most of the time people at the state level — and in the U.S. Senate — are moved as much by whether or not they trust you and whether or not they think your values are sound as they are by graphs and charts and numbers on a page.”

Many of those relationships have proved helpful since. As Mr. Jones tells it, when Mr. Obama asked him to support his run for the United States Senate, the younger man had already figured out that the Senate president’s early backing could “checkmate” the mayor, the governor and organized labor.

Senator Terry Link, a forklift business owner who golfed and played poker with Mr. Obama, also provided assistance. Chairman of the Lake County Democratic organization, he informed the group that it would be backing the long shot, Mr. Obama, in the Senate primary.

“They all thought I’d lost my marbles,” said Mr. Link. “ ‘You’re nuts! We can’t support him.’ I said, ‘When you know him like I know him, you’ll all support him.’ The largest percentage in the primary came from my county. He carried every precinct.”