Before Obama Was a Favorite Son

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Mr. Stewart-Winter is a Ph.D. Candidate in American history and a James C. Hormel Fellow at the Center for Gender Studies at the University of Chicago. He is currently writing his dissertation, "Raids, Rights, and Rainbow Coalitions: Gay and Lesbian Citizenship and the Remaking of Chicago Politics, 1950s-1990s."

In his losing 2000 Democratic primary campaign in Illinois's First District, Barack Obama won the white vote, which made up 30% of the electorate, but lost the all-important black vote. Obama's relatively little-known 2000 campaign was the most demoralizing moment of his political career; in The Audacity of Hope, he wrote, "It was a race in which everything that could go wrong did go wrong, in which my own mistakes were compounded by tragedy and farce." In the seven months between his official campaign announcement and his stinging defeat by four-term incumbent Bobby Rush, onetime chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, Obama confronted not only a black-white racial divide but also a complex and volatile political landscape within the black communities of Chicago's South Side. There were no rallies with Oprah, no superdelegates, no Rev. Wright controversy, no "major speech on race." Yet Obama's 2000 campaign is uniquely illuminating about his approach to highly intricate, sometimes prickly racial politics.

In an unusual primary contest, issues of class, education, racial authenticity and "street smarts" were fused with tensions between the generation of Bobby Rush and Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., and younger blacks like Obama, a highly ambitious young state senator who had never known life before the civil rights era. The First District of Illinois had elected the first 20th-century black US congressman, Oscar DePriest, in 1929, has been represented by African Americans ever since, and was the nation's most overwhelmingly black congressional district in the 2000 census. Obama's political base was in the elite, interracial Hyde Park neighborhood, where he taught at the University of Chicago Law School. Rush looked vulnerable because he had just lost big in a mayoral primary challenge to incumbent Richard M. Daley (who had won a remarkable 45% of the black vote), though many perceived Obama's decision to run against a popular incumbent as audacious to the point of being foolhardy.

The race soon became seen as a contest between the Black Panther and the professor. Rush's other primary opponent, Donne Trotter, from a well-connected South Side family, called Obama "the white man in blackface in our community." (Trotter polled a distant third on election day.) For the second time in four years Obama was challenging a black incumbent with decades of experience and wide respect in South Side politics. Shortly before the primary, black progressive journalist Salim Muwakkil noted in the Chicago Tribune that Obama was "perhaps the least favorite son," observing that "his Harvard education and crisp elocution mark him as insufficiently 'black.' "

Today Obama the presidential candidate has frequently received in the ballpark of 90% of the African American vote in Democratic primaries, and University of Chicago political scientist Michael Dawson points out that even though Rev. Jackson was initially far better known among blacks when he first ran for president in 1984, Obama has consistently "outperformed Jackson among blacks." Dawson argues this is largely because blacks closed ranks around Obama in the wake of racially tinged remarks by Bill Clinton and other Hillary surrogates. Eight years ago, by contrast, Bill Clinton was perhaps the one national politician best positioned to swing black votes in the First District—and he endorsed Rush, campaigned for him in person, and recorded a 30-second radio spot on his behalf, helping assure Obama's defeat. (In doing so, he also repaid a debt to the first Illinois politician to have endorsed him in 1992.)

For the past year, Barack Obama has been constantly represented as walking a racial tightrope of needing to seem black enough, but not too black. (Put the phrase "racial tightrope" into a search engine, and you'll find a dizzying array of reports on the Obama candidacy.) But the particular tightrope he had to walk in 2000 was different: he was a black, Harvard-trained University of Chicago law professor, running against an incumbent former Black Panther Party chairman in a district that has been called the political capital of black America. He was asked questions not about his pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who was well-known and uncontroversial in the district, but rather about how much money he seemed to be raising from white liberals, and how much of it came from outside the First District. Given the University of Chicago's somewhat checkered reputation in neighboring black communities, some wondered where Obama's true loyalties would lie if he were elected. The alternative weekly Chicago Reader reported that across the South Side, "There are whispers that Obama is being funded by a 'Hyde Park mafia,' a cabal of University of Chicago types, and that there's an 'Obama Project' masterminded by whites who want to push him up the political ladder."

Two remarkable unlucky episodes dramatically shaped the campaign. Perhaps tellingly, each focused attention on a major issue in the First District and urban politics generally: gun violence and gun control. First, Bobby Rush's son Huey was killed in a random shooting in October, instantly prompting an outpouring of sympathy. The Congressman soon embarked on a crusade against the glorification of guns that drew a staggering amount of publicity. It was "an irresistible story: the ex-Black Panther who'd posed with a pistol and served time on a weapons charge before learning firsthand the evil that guns do." Suddenly nobody was talking anymore about Rush's failed mayoral campaign. Then, at Christmas, the state Senate unexpectedly took up a gun-control package during the Obama family's annual trip to Hawaii to visit Barack's grandmother. When his young daughter Malia came down with a bad flu, with the campaign already putting strain on his marriage, he decided to remain in Hawaii despite some risk he could miss the vote. He lost the gamble, and the bill failed by five votes. Rush, newly passionate about the issue, hammered Obama for missing this critical vote on gun control.

Candidate Obama met the demands of a racially loaded campaign by combining rhetoric and policy proposals with concrete, savvy strategic action. He courted white votes, opening a campaign office in a white working-class precinct where Rush was unpopular. He ran radio spots highlighting black issues and suggesting that Rush "gets on TV a lot" but that it was hard to name "anything important he's done in Washington." He faulted Rush for lacking a plan for creating new jobs, declaring, "There's no need for a suburban site for high-tech businesses. We have a competitive advantage, as close as we are to the Loop." He complained that for Rush to continually invoke his Harvard background as though it were a slur sent the wrong message to his young constituents. In a striking Martin Luther King Day op-ed in the Chicago Defender, he drew attention to tension among African Americans of Rush's own generation, arguing that black disunity was part of what made King's courage important: "A sizable percentage of the black elite in the pre-Civil Rights south," Obama noted, "had vested interests in maintaining the racial status quo, and vilified protesters within the community." (This year, Obama's longstanding willingness to "call out" the black community has impressed many whites, and made some blacks ambivalent.)

Bobby Rush defeated Obama by a more than 2-to-1 margin, and although the press generally applauded his campaign and even called him a rising star, the loss was devastating personally. That summer at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, Obama was unable to get a floor pass and went home early. In the aftermath of losing, he consciously set out to improve his sometimes rocky relationships with other black legislators in Springfield. He especially cultivated Democratic Senate leader Emil Jones, later reaping benefits when the Democrats regained control of the state Senate in 2003. Obama's presidential campaign today has the full-throated support of nearly everyone who backed Rush in 2000 except Bill Clinton. Some, like Dick Durbin and Jesse Jackson, are important Obama surrogates.

Politically, it didn't take Obama long to find a way to turn lemons into lemonade. On primary day 2000, his highest vote percentage had come in the overwhelmingly white working-class 19th Ward on Chicago's far southwest side, home to many white cops and firefighters, many of whom had long found the idea of a former Black Panther holding elective office unacceptable. Two years later, when Obama launched his primary campaign for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Peter Fitzgerald, a black Chicago newspaper asked Obama whether he thought he was electable statewide as a black candidate. "There are special challenges an African-American faces when running statewide," Obama said, "but I have a track record of being able to get crossover votes."

Today even Bobby Rush has come around, after endorsing one of Obama's opponents in the 2004 Senate primary. "That race is over," he said, brushing off memories of 2000 and of the boost he got from Bill Clinton. "We come from the same neighborhood and represent the same constituency," Rush said, "and I'm going to be with my constituency and Senator Obama." And he noted, in a remarkable reversal of the rhetoric of eight years ago, that for his constituents Barack Obama is a "favorite son."

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Downriver Dem - 4/7/2008

As a Baby Boomer who has been in politics for years. I have been saying for months that Obama can't get elected in November. We are being set up and many naive Obama supporters are going to get the lesson of their lives. Red states are not going to vote for Obama in November. They are just messing with us. But Obama supporters don't have a clue as to how the political game is played. (It's state by state, not popular vote.)

I REALLY hate to say this, but when it comes down to it, many white men will not vote for Obama. All the racists are not dead yet. They view this as their last stand for white power. I have written many progressive talk shows who are pushing Obama and doing nothing but Hillary hate speech. I tell them the same thing, but they never respond. They never take the subject up.

Not only that, these hate talkers are only hurting & turning off the Democratic base. And who is the Democratic base? WOMEN!!!!!!!!!!

Many women have told me just how pissed off they are at the progressive talk shows, the pro Obama press, and the naive Obama supporters. Will they vote for McCain? NO! But many have said they won't vote for president. As a political junkie, I know that is a vote for McCain.

I blame a lot of the progressive talk show hosts for this whole mess.
(One host has called Hillary a whore!)

Either Obama and Clinton should run together or else we need someone else. (Edwards or Gore would be great).

There are not enough young voters to overcome the white male vote and the pissed off female vote.

We badly need a Dem in the White House. But what have we done?????????