I met state Sen. Donne Trotter in 2000, when he was running in the Democratic primary for Congress against Bobby Rush and Barack Obama, and I was writing about the race for the Chicago Reader. Trotter may have been the third wheel in that historic election, but he was the one who made it fun to cover.
Trotter, who has thrown his hat into the ring for Jesse Jackson Jr.’s congressional seat, is a member of one of the biggest, oldest clans on the South Side, a family that beat everyone else to Chicago by a generation or two. Trotter’s roots in this town go all the way back to 1900, when his great-grandfather, a Choctaw Indian named Granville Trotter, arrived here from Oklahoma. The senator says Granville and his wife had “13 kids who begat another 13 kids who begat another 13 kids.”
Trotter’s grandfather, Walter Trotter, was a prominent minister in Hyde Park, and his cousin Larry was a bishop at Sweet Holy Spirit Full Gospel Baptist Church. Combing through the voter rolls, the senator’s staff decided to invite all the Trotters they found to a fund-raiser. (Another time, he held a “Trottin’ with Trotter” event at the harness races at Hawthorne Race Course.)
Trotter lives in South Shore, at 84th and Yates, but he grew up in Grand Crossing, around the corner from Ralph Metcalfe, the Olympic sprinter who represented the First District for many years. He was a Boy Scout with Metcalfe's son, Ralph Jr., who later ran for alderman. He remembers when the Palm Tavern was the hangout for “Billy Eckstine and all the jazz greats,” and when the Rosenwald Building, now a flophouse, was home to the black middle class. His campaign slogan was “Chicago’s Native Son” -- as opposed to Rush, who’d grown up in Georgia, and Obama, who was from Hawaii.
Trotter, who was and still is the best-dressed man in Illinois politics, embodied South Side urbanity, with tailored suits, bow ties, soul food lunches, and smooth jazz oozing from the speakers of his Jeep. He held his campaign kick-off luncheon at Army and Lou’s. When we sat down for an interview, he took me to a vegetarian soul food restaurant on 87th Street. Complaining about the lack of movies on the South Side, he asked, “Where’s my show?”
Rush and Obama were both grim, humorless candidates that year. Rush had just gotten hosed by Richard M. Daley in a mayoral race, and was furious that two challengers were trying to exploit his political weakness. Obama was a stiff University of Chicago law professor, and was uptight because he knew he was going to lose, and because his opponents were attacking him for not being black enough, and for being a tool of University of Chicago.
Nobody expressed those suspicions more baldly than Trotter. He already had a history of needling Obama about his racial identity in Springfield. Trotter and state Sen. Rickey Hendon bought a copy of Dreams from My Father and combed it for passages they could use to get under their colleague’s skin. Trotter also thought Obama was an ineffectual legislator who walked around the Capitol with his nose in the air -- a view shared by plenty of senators in the late 1990s.
“Barack is viewed in part to be the white man in blackface in our community,” Trotter told me, during an interview at a juice bar in Bronzeville. “You just have to look at his supporters. Who pushed him to get where he is so fast? It’s these individuals in Hyde Park, who don’t always have the best interests of the community in mind.”
That quote has been reproduced in countless newspaper articles and biographies about Obama, but it’s seldom accompanied by the fact that Trotter later learned to respect Obama as a colleague, and became an early supporter of his Senate and presidential campaigns.
“When he came back, he really immersed himself in the process,” Trotter would tell me in 2007. “He learned he had to get an agenda, to get issues he felt passionately about. He also learned some of those ‘get-along’ qualities you need to get a bill passed. He has proven himself to me that he can take advice. He’s not a one-man operation.”
Now Trotter, who has been a state senator since 1993, is in a race he has a better chance of winning. No other candidate has served the South Side longer, and no one knows it better.