Did Obama Get A "Free Pass" In His First Election? - NBC Chicago
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Did Obama Get A "Free Pass" In His First Election?



    The Republican National Committee is circulating a clip of a WTTW debate during Barack Obama's failed 2000 congressional campaign against Rep. Bobby Rush. The 90-second clip features an exchange in which Obama praised Rush for running against Mayor Richard M. Daley, because no politician should “get a free pass.”

    “I don’t think Congressman Rush in this instance should have a pass,” Obama said. “I don’t think the Mayor should have a pass. I don't get a pass for my State Senate seat.”

    Rush retorted that Obama “did get a pass in his first effort out, in terms of running for the Senate. He and others knocked his predecessor Senator Alice Palmer off the ballot. So, he got a free pass on his first time around.”

    While researching my book,Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President, I interviewed several people involved in that senate election, including Palmer, so I can tell you what actually happened.

    After Rep. Mel Reynolds was forced to resign for having sex with a 16-year-old campaign volunteer, Palmer decided to run for his congressional seat in a November 1995 special election. That created an opening for Obama. When he announced his campaign for state senate at the Ramada Inn Lakeshore, he was introduced by Palmer.

    “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.”

    Palmer lost the congressional election to Jesse Jackson Jr. At the urging of supporters, she decided to jump back into the state senate race to retain her seat. Obama was summoned to a meeting at the home of state Rep. Lou Jones, where several elders of the black community encouraged him to drop out, promising support for another office in the future if he made way for Palmer. Obama not only refused, he was furious at their condescension -- his campaign manager, Carol Anne Harwell, said it was the only time she ever saw him angry.

    “They talked to me like I was a kid,” Obama sputtered. “They said, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing.’ It was ‘Alice said this, Alice said that.’”

    The day after Palmer filed her petitions, one of Obama’s supporters, 5th Ward Committeeman Alan Dobry, went down to the Board of Elections and began paging through them. Right away, he found errors that suggested a hurried, slapdash effort. He saw names like “Goo Goo” and “Pookie.” One sheet was filled with signatures from an adjacent district. On some petitions, entire households had signed, even though not everyone at the address was registered to vote.

    At first, Obama was reluctant to challenge Palmer’s petitions. A Chicagoan wouldn’t have thought twice, but Obama was from Hawaii, a state that didn’t even get politics until two years before he was born. He was finally persuaded by the locals on his staff: Harwell and field coordinator Ron Davis, who cut through Obama’s agonizing by growling, “The hell with this. The petitions are garbage.”

    Obama went after all three of his rivals: Palmer, Marc Ewell, Ulmer D. Lynch and Gha-is Askia. The Board of Elections agreed that none had collected enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. Palmer had one last chance: If her supporters could collect 200 affidavits from challenged voters, affirming they had signed her petitions, the Board might let her back on the ballot. Her campaign made an effort, but there wasn’t enough time to track down all those people before a Jan. 17 hearing.

    So Obama did indeed get a free pass in his state senate race: He ran unopposed in a Democratic primary which was tantamount to election on the South Side. In November, he won 82 percent of the vote against candidates from the Republican Party and the Harold Washington Party. Alice Palmer never forgave him for knocking her off the ballot. In 2008, she went to the Democratic National Convention in Denver as a Hillary Clinton delegate. When the convention was asked to nominate Obama by acclimation, Palmer didn’t raise her voice.


    This month, Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland’s Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President will be available on Kindle for $9.99. Tracing Obama’s career in Chicago from his arrival as a community organizer to his election to the U.S. Senate, Young Mr. Obama tells the story of how a callow, presumptuous young man became a master politician, and of why only Chicago could have produced our first black president.