Tribune: How Obama operated as a state legislator

Originally published May 4, 2007 in The Chicago Tribune:

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Sen. Barack Obama calls himself a strong defender of abortion rights, and the presidential contender quickly condemned the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding a ban on a controversial late-term procedure. The decision, he feared, "will embolden state legislatures to enact further measures to restrict a woman's right to choose."

But this is how Obama voted in 1997 when he was new to the Illinois Legislature and got a chance to take a stand against bills to impose a similar statewide ban on what critics call partial birth abortion:

"Present," the political equivalent of taking a pass.

Obama's short time in Washington offers a limited guide to his political views and methods, but he spent nearly eight years in the Illinois Senate. "It was that experience in the Legislature that convinced me that politics can be a noble calling," he said in a recent campaign appearance.

If Springfield is the measure of Obama the politician, a review of his tenure is a study in complexity, caution and calculation. In the minority party for all but his final two years in the statehouse, he tempered a progressive agenda with a cold dash of realism, often forging consensus with conservative Republicans when other liberals wanted to crusade.

The insular world of Springfield also served as a prelude to some of the challenges confronting Obama on the presidential campaign trail. While some African-American colleagues in the state capital viewed him as a dynamic leader, others were put off by the pedigree of a Harvard-educated lawyer raised in exotic places far from Chicago's West and South Sides. Some in the Senate Black Caucus went out of their way to haze him.

At the same time Obama, who is biracial, bonded with a trio of white colleagues from the suburbs and Downstate. They became some of his closest friends, poker playing buddies and sounding boards.

He took leadership roles on reform measures dealing with the death penalty, racial profiling, tax credits for the working poor and ethics, issues that earned him praise from Democratic supporters and even some Republicans.

But Obama wasn't above playing the political angles.

He pushed to get state-run pension funds to open more investment opportunities for minority money managers who donated to his campaign. During his 2004 U.S. Senate primary bid, Obama sent a newsletter to constituents at taxpayer expense that touted his accomplishments. It went out just days before the effective date of a ban on such practices close to election time -- part of a reform package he had championed.

Perhaps nothing illustrated Obama's calculating style more than his approach to abortion. The state Senate voted 14 times on various abortion restrictions during his tenure. Half the time, Obama voted "present."

He said it was a strategy agreed to by abortion-rights advocates to insulate Democrats from political backlash in more conservative areas. But Obama's Hyde Park district was one of the state's most liberal.

From the moment he arrived in the Illinois Senate, it was clear to many that Obama didn't plan to stay. Just months into office, Obama approached then-Senate Democratic chief of staff Mike Hoffman and offered to buy him a beer. The two adjourned to a hotel bar.

Talk turned to how Obama's name might play with Downstate voters in a statewide race, Hoffman recalled recently. "We talked about in a campaign, if you have a strange name, you could have some fun with it."

No specific office came up, Hoffman said, but the legislative freshman's message was clear. Obama "wanted me to know that he had other ambitions."

Obama arrived in Springfield with an important ally. Emil Jones Jr., then the minority leader of the chamber and later its president, fancied himself a mentor to Obama. To Jones, Obama represented "the future," someone who "embodies all that I dream and work for."

The two met on a street corner years earlier when Obama's South Side community group coincidentally convened an outdoor meeting just doors from Jones' house. They have been close ever since.

Obama needed a powerful friend. He had breezed to election in 1996 by forcing all his Democratic opponents off the ballot, including a popular member of the Senate Black Caucus, incumbent Sen. Alice Palmer. That bit of hardball didn't endear him to many in the caucus.

Before taking office, Obama sought advice from Rep. Art Turner, a veteran West Side Democrat. Turner warned him not to "come in the door looking like you're all-knowing" and to "realize that some aren't ready for reform or changes."

Obama also reached out to former state Rep. Paul Williams, a longtime lobbyist who once served as legislative aide to Harold Washington when the former Chicago mayor was in the General Assembly. Williams found himself healing relations between Obama and senior lawmakers who wondered why Obama drew such attention.

"Let's face it," Williams said in a recent interview. "There's certain African-Americans that the world is more likely to fall (for) than others. Barack fits all of that stuff: educated, smart, good-looking, lean, all of these kind of things." Obama was just months into his first term when Jones began doling out assignments to him befitting a more senior lawmaker. Jones made Obama the lead Democratic negotiator on a landmark welfare-to-work package Republicans were pushing.

His rise caused friction in the Senate's black caucus. Some caucus veterans thought Obama hadn't paid his dues and were resentful of the attention Jones was lavishing on someone they considered an Ivy League upstart.

Among the most put out was Sen. Rickey Hendon, a streetwise West Sider nicknamed "Hollywood" who once hoped to be a movie producer. Another lawmaker giving Obama a hard time was Sen. Donne Trotter, the Democratic point man on budget issues. In 2000 Trotter and Obama vied to unseat U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, but didn't come close to toppling the South Side congressman.

In Springfield, Hendon and Trotter would "just give Barack hell" and disparage him as a know-it-all, said Democratic Sen. Kimberly Lightford, who then chaired the chamber's black caucus.

In a recent interview, Obama said the tension was particularly intense during his push for ethics reforms. "The general perception was, `Here's the new guy coming in and he is acting holier than thou,'" he recalled.

Once, Obama and Hendon nearly came to blows. Obama had voted for budget cuts that eliminated a child welfare office in Hendon's district. On the Senate floor, Hendon said Obama had "a lot of nerve to talk about being responsible" to those in need and then voting to cut services to the poor.

Saying he didn't realize he was voting for the cuts, Obama added: "I would appreciate that next time my dear colleague, Sen. Hendon, ask me about a vote before he names me on the floor." Microphones off, the two headed to the back of the Senate chamber where Obama tried to put his hand on Hendon's shoulder. Hendon slapped it away.

Asked about the incident recently, Hendon said, "My memory is foggy on that issue. It's going to remain foggy."

In many ways, Obama's relations with fellow legislators in Springfield reflected his lifelong efforts to straddle different worlds, a political challenge that continues to this day.

While his dealings with some top black legislators were icy, he often seemed most comfortable among other Democrats. Obama formed tight friendships with three white Senate colleagues whose backgrounds and personalities couldn't have been more different from his.

There was the blunt-talking Denny Jacobs from the Quad Cities, and Larry Walsh from Elwood, whose "aw-shucks" demeanor belied deft political skills.

Closest to Obama was Terry Link of Waukegan, who also was Lake County Democratic chairman. Both entered the Senate the same year, sat next to each other on the floor and shared office space. "We were just polar opposites," said Link. "He won easy, I had a difficult race. He was Harvard Law, and I was lucky to get out of high school. He was backed by the independents and here I was, a party leader." Link served as a conduit to party insiders, coaching Obama to pay heed to the agendas of organized labor and other old-line Democratic pressure groups.

Nowhere was Obama's ability to navigate Springfield's subcultures on better display than at The Committee Meeting. That was the code name for Wednesday night poker games attended by about a dozen lawmakers and lobbyists.

Obama was a regular, and his stingy betting became a running joke with those at the table.

"You're a socialist with everybody's money but your own," Republican Sen. Bill Brady complained to Obama.

Some in the Legislature treat their long interludes in Springfield as a form of camp, a chance to get away from family obligations and party it up. Obama wasn't one of them. An early riser, he was a regular in the exercise room of his downtown hotel. Sometimes he showed up at the local YMCA for a dawn pickup basketball game.

An exception to his disciplined routine was the poker game held inside the headquarters of the Illinois Manufacturers' Association, the big business lobby whose legislative goals often were at odds with liberals like Obama.

Handed a cigar and cocktail on the way in, players left a few hundred dollars richer or poorer. Obama played liked he legislated, "slowly, deliberately, cautiously," recalled Jacobs. When Obama bluffed, he never showed his cards.

Poker was a way to relax and schmooze out of the polarizing glare under the Capitol dome. To Obama, it was also a chance to prove to colleagues that he was a regular guy.

"When it turned out that I could sit down at (a bar) and have a beer and watch a game or go out for a round of golf or get a poker game going," Obama said, "I probably confounded some of their expectations."

In his first campaign, Obama lashed out at incumbent pols who cut backroom deals to consolidate their power rather than advance the common good. But once in the Springfield mosh-pit, Obama crafted an image as a bridge-builder.

"He's not dogmatic, he's consensus building," said Jones. He also was practical. With Republicans controlling the Senate until 2003, fighting them wouldn't accomplish much.

In 1999, Obama spoke so passionately in favor of affirmative action that a Republican colleague shelved a resolution aimed at undermining the practice at public universities.

He had less success with another goal that he now is pushing in his presidential run: universal health care. He once proposed a state constitutional amendment to mandate it. In another echo of criticism Obama has faced in his presidential campaign, the proposal lacked detail. He later watered down his idea to simply call for a task force to study the issue.

A critic of the state's broken capital punishment system, Obama spent two years working with Republicans to broker a series of reforms aimed at making it more difficult for the innocent to face execution. Still, Obama found himself on various sides of the death penalty debate.

Five months into office, he voted to expand the list of death-eligible crimes to include the brutal murder of a senior citizen or a disabled person. Four years later, he opposed adding murders that were part of "gang activity" to the list, saying the term was a "mechanism to target particular neighborhoods (and) particular individuals."

In 2003, with Democrats in control of the General Assembly and Obama readying his U.S. Senate run, he became a whirlwind of legislative activity. He secured passage of the nation's first law to require law enforcement to tape formal interviews and confessions of murder suspects. He also won passage of a law requiring police to record the race of drivers they stop for a study of racial profiling.

The most awkward moment of Obama's legislative tenure came in 1999. Lawmakers in a special session considered restoring an anti-gun violence law struck down in court. The battle stalemated, and Obama flew to Hawaii for Christmas with his family.

Lawmakers were called back Dec. 29 to vote on a compromise, but Obama remained in Hawaii. The deal narrowly failed. Obama later said his young daughter had taken ill and he couldn't leave her, but the incident damaged his already slim hopes of unseating Rush. Legislators face an array of sensitive topics, but few pack the emotional and political wallop of abortion. Obama has long publicly promoted his support for abortion rights, but his voting record in Springfield is not simple to read.

Obama said he sought compromise with abortion opponents, but they balked. As a fallback, he said he worked out an arrangement with abortion-rights advocates to encourage Democrats to vote "present" on some bills if they feared a "no" would look insensitive and endanger their re-election.

But few of the other Democrats who voted "present" on abortion bills recall such a strategy. And, like Obama, they weren't politically vulnerable.

Obama's friend Link offered another reason for the strategy: to protect those with plans for higher office. A "present" vote helped "if you have aspirations of doing something else in politics," Link said, "and I think (Obama) looked at it in that regard." Illinois has a rich legacy of government scandal, and Obama's campaign resume plays up his role in trying to do something to stop it. Jones early on tapped him as the Senate Democratic point man on ethics reform, an unenviable task for a rookie lawmaker given that Springfield veterans were reluctant to embrace change and dispense with perks. Many resented him.

Trotter said Obama swooped in "as the knight on the white horse" and made it sound as though everybody in Springfield, except him, was corrupt. "It wasn't appreciated."

The ethics bill, Obama said, "was not a favorite of my colleagues."

Obama also was in the thick of negotiations on a 2003 ethics package that led to restrictions on gifts from lobbyists and the appointment of new inspectors general to hunt corruption in a variety of state agencies.

It also banned lawmakers from sending taxpayer-funded promotional mailings in the weeks before an election, an attempt to clamp down on an all-too-common practice that critics said was tantamount to having the state help bankroll incumbents' campaigns.

Obama wasn't big on sending newsletters to constituents. In his first seven years in the Senate, he did it only twice. But in early 2004, as he was gearing up for his U.S. Senate run, Obama ordered his largest newsletter mailing _ 75,000 copies.

Records show they hit the post office Jan. 30, two days before the ban Obama helped write was to take effect.

Obama said the impact was "nominal" because the mailings only went to voters in his state legislative district. "We abided by the rules," he said. In late 2002, long before maverick Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald decided not to run for re-election, Obama approached his mentor, Emil Jones, who was preparing to lead a new Democratic majority in the state Senate.

"You're a very powerful guy," Obama told Jones.

"I've got the power to do what?" Jones responded.

"You could help elect a U.S. senator," Obama said.

Jones asked his protege if he had anyone in mind.

"Yeah," Obama replied. "Me." Obama's ambitions for higher office were an open secret in Springfield, but trying to make the leap to the U.S. Senate seemed a longshot. He was an unknown to most Chicago voters, let alone those in the rest of the state. His loss to Rush was so lopsided even Obama described it as "a spanking."

He couldn't count on the support of some prominent black caucus members, including Hendon. In a recent interview, he said Obama was so ambitious that if the position were up for a vote, Obama would run for "king of the world."

He formally announced his campaign in January 2003, more than a year ahead of the primary. Jones, of course, was there. Link, Walsh and Jacobs also attended, illustrating that his support transcended the black community.

Hendon and Trotter were a tougher sell. Jones eventually got them to endorse Obama. Hendon said it took "seven or eight" talks with Jones before he finally decided to go along. And, Hendon said, he only did it out of loyalty to Jones.

Obama wasn't expecting the endorsement of either Trotter or Hendon. He asked Jones how he pulled it off.

"I made them an offer," Jones recalled telling Obama. "And you don't want to know."