Insight from a Chronicler of Obama’s Rise
Todd Spivak was a local reporter for a small newspaper in Chicago when Barack Obama first came onto the scene. In this story, he describes how both he and Obama came of age in their professions at about the same time and, more importantly, gives his perspective on the rise of Obama from legislator to Presidential candidate in 7 years. (For more on Obama’s early years–and some of the contacts he made–read John Fund’s latest in the WSJ). Here are some extended excerpts from Spivak’s story.
First, on his perception of Obama, then and now:
My view of Obama then wasn’t all that different from the image he projects now. He was smart, confident, charismatic and liberal. One thing I can say is, I never heard him launch into the preacher-man voice he now employs during speeches. He sounded vanilla, and activists in his mostly black district often chided him for it.
On Obama’s record as an Illinois legislator and how he went from greenhorn legislator to candidate for Senator of Illinois.
When asked about his legislative record, Obama rattles off several bills he sponsored as an Illinois lawmaker.
He expanded children’s health insurance; made the state Earned Income Tax Credit refundable for low-income families; required public bodies to tape closed-door meetings to make government more transparent; and required police to videotape interrogations of homicide suspects.
And the list goes on.
It’s a lengthy record filled with core liberal issues. But what’s interesting, and almost never discussed, is that he built his entire legislative record in Illinois in a single year.
Republicans controlled the Illinois General Assembly for six years of Obama’s seven-year tenure. Each session, Obama backed legislation that went nowhere; bill after bill died in committee. During those six years, Obama, too, would have had difficulty naming any legislative achievements.
Then, in 2002, dissatisfaction with President Bush and Republicans on the national and local levels led to a Democratic sweep of nearly every lever of Illinois state government….Emil Jones Jr., a gravel-voiced, dark-skinned African-American known for chain-smoking cigarettes on the Senate floor [became Illinois Senate majority leader]….He represented a district on the Chicago South Side not far from Obama’s. He became Obama’s kingmaker.
Several months before Obama announced his U.S. Senate bid, Jones called his old friend Cliff Kelley, a former Chicago alderman who now hosts the city’s most popular black call-in radio program….
“He said, ‘Cliff, I’m gonna make me a U.S. Senator.'”
“Oh, you are? Who might that be?”
Jones appointed Obama sponsor of virtually every high-profile piece of legislation, angering many rank-and-file state legislators who had more seniority than Obama and had spent years championing the bills.
“I took all the beatings and insults and endured all the racist comments over the years from nasty Republican committee chairmen,” State Senator Rickey Hendon, the original sponsor of landmark racial profiling and videotaped confession legislation yanked away by Jones and given to Obama, complained to me at the time. “Barack didn’t have to endure any of it, yet, in the end, he got all the credit.
“I don’t consider it bill jacking,” Hendon told me. “But no one wants to carry the ball 99 yards all the way to the one-yard line, and then give it to the halfback who gets all the credit and the stats in the record book.”
During his seventh and final year in the state Senate, Obama’s stats soared. He sponsored a whopping 26 bills passed into law — including many he now cites in his presidential campaign when attacked as inexperienced.
It was a stunning achievement that started him on the path of national politics — and he couldn’t have done it without Jones.
Before Obama ran for U.S. Senate in 2004, he was virtually unknown even in his own state. Polls showed fewer than 20 percent of Illinois voters had ever heard of Barack Obama.
Jones further helped raise Obama’s profile by having him craft legislation addressing the day-to-day tragedies that dominated local news headlines.
For instance. Obama sponsored a bill banning the use of the diet supplement ephedra, which killed a Northwestern University football player, and another one preventing the use of pepper spray or pyrotechnics in nightclubs in the wake of the deaths of 21 people during a stampede at a Chicago nightclub. Both stories had received national attention and extensive local coverage.
I spoke to Jones earlier this week and he confirmed his conversation with Kelley, adding that he gave Obama the legislation because he believed in Obama’s ability to negotiate with Democrats and Republicans on divisive issues.
On the stump, Obama has frequently invoked his experiences as a community organizer on the Chicago South Side in the early 1990s, when he passed on six-figure salary offers at corporate law firms after graduating from Harvard Law School to direct a massive voter-registration drive.
But, as a state senator, Obama evaded leadership on a host of critical community issues, from historic preservation to the rapid demolition of nearby public-housing projects, according to many South Siders.
Harold Lucas, a veteran South Side community organizer who remembers when Obama was “just a big-eared kid fresh out of school,” says he didn’t finally decide to support Obama’s presidential bid until he was actually inside the voting booth on Super Tuesday.
“I’m not happy about the quality of life in my community,” says Lucas, who now heads a black-heritage tourism business in Chicago. “As a local elected official, he had a primary role in that.”
…Obama’s aloofness on key community issues for years frustrated Lucas and many other South Siders. Now they believe he was just afraid of making political enemies or being pigeonholed as a black candidate. Lucas says he has since become an ardent Obama supporter.
“His campaign has built a momentum of somebody being born to the moment,” Lucas says. “He truly gives the perception that he could possibly pull us all together around being American again. And the hope of that is worth the risk when you look at the other candidates. I mean, you can’t get away from old school when you look at Hillary.”
…Though it didn’t make national news, Obama inflamed many residents in his old state Senate district last March when he endorsed controversial Chicago alderman Dorothy Tillman in a runoff election.
Flamboyant and unpredictable, Tillman is perhaps best known for once pulling a pistol from her purse and brandishing it around at a city council meeting. The ward she represented for 22 years, which included historic Bronzeville, comprised the city’s largest concentration of vacant lots.
Just three months before Obama made his endorsement, the Lakefront Outlook community newspaper ran a three-part investigative series exposing flagrant cronyism and possible tax-law violations that centered on Tillman and her biggest pet project, a taxpayer-funded cultural center built across the street from her ward office that had been hemorrhaging money since its inception.
The series won a national George Polk Award, among the most coveted prizes in journalism. Not bad for a 12-page rag with a circulation of 12,000 and no Web site.
On some of Obama’s campaign tactics:
Obama has spent his entire political career trying to win the next step up. Every three years, he has aspired to a more powerful political position.
He was just 35 when in 1996 he won his first bid for political office. Even many of his staunchest supporters, such as [Timuel] Black [historian and City Colleges of Chicago professor emeritus who lived in Obama’s state Senate district], still resent the strong-arm tactics Obama employed to win his seat in the Illinois Legislature.
Obama hired fellow Harvard Law alum and election law expert Thomas Johnson to challenge the nominating petitions of four other candidates, including the popular incumbent, Alice Palmer, a liberal activist who had held the seat for several years, according to an April 2007 Chicago Tribune report.
Obama found enough flaws in the petition sheets — to appear on the ballot, candidates needed 757 signatures from registered voters living within the district — to knock off all the other Democratic contenders. He won the seat unopposed.
“A close examination of Obama’s first campaign clouds the image he has cultivated throughout his political career,” wrote Tribune political reporters David Jackson and Ray Long. “The man now running for president on a message of giving a voice to the voiceless first entered public office not by leveling the playing field, but by clearing it.”
On the early strain of Obamamania
I moved to Springfield in early 2004 to work for the Illinois Times, where I covered Obama’s U.S. Senate bid.
My first assignment was to profile Obama, who was largely unknown in central Illinois.
In fact, at that time just four years ago, Obama was still largely unknown even in his own community.
I followed Obama one wintry morning as he visited several black churches on Chicago’s South Side urging people to vote for him in the upcoming primary. Congregants greeted him with lukewarm applause.
I noted in my article that one lady sitting in a pew beside me was noticeably impressed with the young man, and asked to borrow my pen. She wrote on her church pamphlet, “Obama, March 16,” then underlined the date.
Over the years, most of my interviews with Obama were conducted by phone. So it felt good when he immediately recognized me and shouted my name from the end of a long, empty hallway inside the church after his speech.
After all, I admired the guy — and still do.
We shook hands and walked outside together. I asked some questions and snapped some pictures before a dark-blue Chevrolet Suburban with tinted windows whisked him off to another congregation less than a mile away. I followed behind in my beat-up Oldsmobile.
My story ran on the cover of the Illinois Times. The more I thought about it, though, the more I thought it was fluff. Obama’s own public-relations flack could have produced something comparable.
At the time, the Illinois media had fallen head-over-heels in love with Obama and his squeaky-clean image. “As pedigrees go, there is not a finer one among the Democratic candidates,” the Chicago Tribune gushed in its endorsement.
On deciding to clear his conscience, doing a more thorough report on Obama and suffering the consequences.
“He’s been given a pass,” says Harold Lucas, the community organizer in Chicago. “His career has been such a meteoric rise that he has not had the time to set a record.”
A week after my profile of Obama was published, I called some of my contacts in the Illinois Legislature. I ran through a list of black Chicago lawmakers who had worked with Obama, and was surprised to learn that many resented him and had supported other candidates in the U.S. Senate election.
“Anybody but Obama,” the late state Representative Lovana Jones told me at the time.
State Representative Monique Davis, who attended the same church as Obama and co-sponsored several bills with him, also did not support his candidacy. She complained of feeling overshadowed by Obama.
“I was snubbed,” Davis told me. “I felt he was shutting me out of history.”
In a follow-up report published a couple weeks later, I wrote about these disgruntled black legislators and the central role Senate President Emil Jones played in Obama’s revived political life.
The morning after the story was posted online, I arrived early at my new offices. I hadn’t taken my coat off when the phone rang. It was Obama….
He said the black legislators I cited in the story were off-base, and that they couldn’t have gotten the bills passed without him.
I started to speak, and he shouted me down.
He said he liked the other story I wrote.
I asked if there was anything factually inaccurate about the latest story.
He repeated that his former colleagues couldn’t have passed the bills without him.
He asked why I wrote this story, then cut me off when I started to answer.
He said he should have been given a chance to respond.
I told him I had requested an interview through his communications director.
He said I should have called his cell phone.
I reminded him that he had asked me months ago to stop calling his cell phone due to his busier schedule.
He said again that I should have called his cell phone.
Today I no longer have Obama’s cell phone number. I submitted two formal requests to interview Obama for this story through his Web site, but have not heard back. I also e-mailed interview requests to three of his top staffers, but none responded.
Maybe he’ll call the day after this story runs. I’ll get to the office early just in case. And this time I’ll have my recorder ready.