Obama Began Political Career Two Miles From Where It's Ending - NBC Chicago
Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

Obama Began Political Career Two Miles From Where It's Ending



    Barack Obama’s final political campaign will end Tuesday night at McCormick Place -- 17 years, and just two miles, from where his first began.

    On Sept. 19, 1995, Obama announced his candidacy for the state senate before 200 supporters at the Ramada Inn Lakeshore, 4900 S. Lake Shore Drive.

    Obama was running for the seat being vacated by Alice Palmer, a candidate in the special election to replace Congressman Mel Reynolds, who had stepped down over allegations he’d had sex with a 16-year-old campaign volunteer.

    This was Obama’s chance. When he decided to run for the seat, he also decided to ask for Palmer’s blessing. But despite his political involvement, Obama had never met his state senator. He had an in, though. In 1992, Obama had overseen Project Vote!, a registration drive that added 150,000 South Siders to the rolls. Brian Banks, a colleague from that project, was managing Palmer’s campaign. Obama called him.

    “I want to run,” he told Banks. “I want to talk to Alice.”

    Banks arranged a meeting at the North Side home of Hal Baron, a former Harold Washington appointee who was chairing Palmer’s campaign. At the meeting, Obama told Palmer of his plans.

    “Do you have any problem with that?” he asked, wanting assurance, “and will you come back if you lose?”

    Palmer did more than give Obama her blessing and promise to get out of the way. She introduced him as her successor. On the night Obama announced his candidacy, Palmer preceded him to the microphone, where she anointed him as a scion of the lakefront liberal movement.

    “In this room,” she declared, “Harold Washington announced for mayor. It looks different, but the spirit is still in this room. Barack Obama carries on the tradition of independence in this district, a tradition that continued with me and most recently with [state] Senator [Richard] Newhouse. His candidacy is a passing of the torch because he’s the person that people have embraced and have lifted up as the person they want to represent this district.”

    It wasn’t just Palmer who signaled that Obama was the independent movement’s choice. In attendance were both Hyde Park aldermen, Barbara Holt and Toni Preckwinkle. Also in the crowd was County Clerk David Orr, who had been one of Harold Washington’s few white allies on the city council.

    Obama began his first run for office with a lawyer joke.

    “Politicians are not held to highest esteem these days – they fall somewhere lower than lawyers,” he said before delivering the message Hyde Parkers wanted to hear: “I want to inspire a renewal of morality in politics. I will work as hard as I can, as long as I can, on your behalf.”

    Obama opened a campaign office on 71st Street, far from Hyde Park, but close to the center of the district, which reached south into South Shore and west to Englewood, one of the city’s poorest, most barren neighborhoods. As his campaign manager, he hired another Project Vote! veteran, Carol Anne Harwell, who had run races for Ald. Sam Burrell, Orr, and Danny Davis. Harwell had been baffled by his interest in the seat.

    “Why do you want to do that?” she’d said, when Obama told her he planned to run.

    “We can make some changes,” he responded. Then he added, “Alice asked me.”

    Harwell’s job was to transform Obama from a law lecturer to a Chicago politician. Despite Palmer’s endorsement, his election was not a sure thing. There were two other candidates: Marc Ewell, the son of a former state representative, and Gha-is Askia, who had the support of Sen. Emil Jones, and a name as exotic as Obama’s. Outside of Hyde Park, Obama was unknown in the district. Not only did he have to get known, he had to overcome the rest of the South Side’s suspicion toward uppity U of C blacks. He decided to spend most of his time campaigning in Englewood. Starting every evening around suppertime, he’d doff his suit coat so he could roll up his sleeves and don the leather jacket he’d worn as a law student.    

    “Where are you going?” Harwell would ask.

    “We’re going to circulate some petitions.”

    “It’s cold, Barack.”

    Undaunted, Obama would drive his Saab into the hood. He didn’t bother to wear a hat or gloves, even as Chicago sank into winter. That was something else he needed to learn about local politics. After he caught a cold, Harwell scolded him.

    “Barack, this is Chicago,” she said. “You have to learn how to dress.”

    Obama was a big hit with the little old ladies who answered the doors of Englewood’s worn two-flats and decaying houses. They were just as eager as the women of DCP to mother this skinny young man. Obama was offered fried chicken sizzling in stovetop pans and invited to sit down and explain where he’d gotten that funny name.

    “My father was from Africa,” he explained, and that led to even more conversation, until Obama had spent 15 minutes to get a single name on his petition. Door knocking hours were 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., and, sometimes, Obama would leave an apartment house with only three signatures.

    “Barack, you can’t sit and talk to them,” Harwell lectured. “I’m gonna give you a goal. We’re gonna do two sheets.”

    As with everything else he’d ever attempted, Obama proved a quick learner. His forays to Englewood also reawakened street smarts he hadn’t needed in Hyde Park or at Harvard. One Saturday he was walking a precinct with John Ruiz, his old law student. The two had become friends: Ruiz held a small fundraiser in his apartment, collecting $1,000.  Another group of campaign volunteers ran up to Obama with serious news.

    “There’s a bunch of thugs coming over and asking us who gave us permission to walk in their neighborhood, and one of them flashed a gun,” a volunteer reported.

    Ordinarily, Obama didn’t hesitate to approach gang-bangers on street corners. But these were his volunteers. And there was a gun involved.

    “It’s time to go,” he snapped.

    Obama got a boost from another old colleague when Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn hosted a small Sunday brunch for him at their house. Again, Palmer was there and introduced Obama as her chosen successor, touting his background as a community organizer, a Harvard graduate, and a law school teacher.

    As payback for Palmer’s support, Obama acted as an advisor to her congressional campaign. He attended strategy meetings and helped develop a position paper on building a freight-handling airport in the south suburbs. Still, Obama felt conflicted about supporting Palmer, for both personal and political reasons. He wanted to help a mentor, but Michelle was an old schoolmate of Jesse Jackson Jr.’s wife, Sandi. Harwell had advised him to avoid taking any stance in the congressional race, to avoid making enemies of the Jacksons, or of Mayor Richard M. Daley, who was supporting Emil Jones.

    The campaign, of course, ended ugly. Palmer lost the special election, then tried to jump back into the race to retain her senate seat, only to have Obama knock her off the ballot. But such were the ideals with which Obama began his political career.

     Join the Party! NBCChicago, Capitol Fax and Google are having a  humdinger of a  shin-dig at the Public House on Election Night.  The event is invite only, but you can  watch along on our streaming coverage and interact with our guests on social  media. Tune in at 6:30 p.m. on November 6 and prepare for some fun!