May 22, 2008

THE PRINCE OF COOK COUNTY:

Barack Obama and Me: It was the year 2000 and I was a young hungry reporter in Chicago covering a young hungry state legislator (Todd Spivak, February 28, 2008, Houston Press)

On the stump, Obama has frequently invoked his experiences as a community organizer on the Chicago South Side in the early 1990s, when he passed on six-figure salary offers at corporate law firms after graduating from Harvard Law School to direct a massive voter-registration drive.

But, as a state senator, Obama evaded leadership on a host of critical community issues, from historic preservation to the rapid demolition of nearby public-housing projects, according to many South Siders.

Harold Lucas, a veteran South Side community organizer who remembers when Obama was "just a big-eared kid fresh out of school," says he didn't finally decide to support Obama's presidential bid until he was actually inside the voting booth on Super Tuesday.

"I'm not happy about the quality of life in my community," says Lucas, who now heads a black-heritage tourism business in Chicago. "As a local elected official, he had a primary role in that."

In addition to Hyde Park, Obama also represented segments of several South Side neighborhoods home to the nation's richest African-American cultural history outside of Harlem.

Before World War II, the adjacent Bronzeville community was known as the "Black Metropolis," attracting African-American migrants seeking racial equality and economic opportunity from states to the south such as Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

Storied jazz clubs such as Gerri's Palm Tavern regularly hosted Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Josephine Baker and many others. In the postwar era, blues legends Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King all regularly gigged in cramped juke joints such as the Checkerboard Lounge.

When the City of Chicago seized the 70-year-old Gerri's Palm Tavern by eminent domain in 2001, sparking citywide protests, Obama was silent. And he offered no public comments when the 30-year owner of the Checkerboard Lounge was forced to relocate a couple years later.

Even in Hyde Park, Obama declined to take a position on a years-long battle waged by hundreds of local community activists fighting against the city's plan to replace the historic limestone seawall along Lake Michigan — a popular spot to sunbathe and swim — with concrete steps.

It would be comparable to representing Barton Creek in Austin, and sidestepping any discussion about conservation.

Obama's aloofness on key community issues for years frustrated Lucas and many other South Siders. Now they believe he was just afraid of making political enemies or being pigeonholed as a black candidate. Lucas says he has since become an ardent Obama supporter.

"His campaign has built a momentum of somebody being born to the moment," Lucas says. "He truly gives the perception that he could possibly pull us all together around being American again. And the hope of that is worth the risk when you look at the other candidates. I mean, you can't get away from old school when you look at Hillary."

Lucas even believes Obama made the right choice by declining PBS talk-show host Tavis Smiley's invitation to speak at this week's State of the Black Union 2008 conference in New Orleans.

"Obama can't bring those issues up if he wants to be elected," Lucas says. "And that's the travesty of the situation that we find ourselves in as African-Americans."

In the presidential campaign, Obama has been criticized for a shady land deal and other past ties to Tony Rezko, the Chicago real estate developer and ubiquitous political donor who now faces federal charges of attempted extortion and money laundering.

In a debate held last month before the South Carolina primary, Hillary Clinton charged that Obama had legally represented Rezko "in his slum landlord business in inner-city Chicago." The issue was turned back on her a few days later when an old picture of a smiling Clinton posing with Rezko surfaced on Drudge Report.

Though it didn't make national news, Obama inflamed many residents in his old state Senate district last March when he endorsed controversial Chicago alderman Dorothy Tillman in a runoff election.

Flamboyant and unpredictable, Tillman is perhaps best known for once pulling a pistol from her purse and brandishing it around at a city council meeting. The ward she represented for 22 years, which included historic Bronzeville, comprised the city's largest concentration of vacant lots.

Just three months before Obama made his endorsement, the Lakefront Outlook community newspaper ran a three-part investigative series exposing flagrant crony­ism and possible tax-law violations that centered on Tillman and her biggest pet project, a taxpayer-funded cultural center built across the street from her ward office that had been hemorrhaging money since its inception.

The series won a national George Polk Award, among the most coveted prizes in journalism. Not bad for a 12-page rag with a circulation of 12,000 and no Web site. I had already left the Outlook and had nothing to do with the project.

In the end, Tillman lost the election despite Obama's endorsement, which critics said countered his calls for clean government. Obama told the Chicago Tribune that he had backed Tillman because she was an early supporter of his 2004 U.S. Senate campaign.

Many speculate Obama only bothered to weigh in on a paltry city council election during his presidential campaign as a gesture to Chicago's powerful Mayor Richard M. Daley, a Tillman supporter. Even so, Obama should have remained neutral, says Timuel Black, a historian and City Colleges of Chicago professor emeritus who lived in Obama's state Senate district.

"That was not a wise decision," Black says. "It was poor judgment on his part. He was operating like a politician trying to win the next step up."

Obama has spent his entire political career trying to win the next step up. Every three years, he has aspired to a more powerful political position. [...]

I moved to Springfield in early 2004 to work for the Illinois Times, where I covered Obama's U.S. Senate bid.

My first assignment was to profile Obama, who was largely unknown in central Illinois.

In fact, at that time just four years ago, Obama was still largely unknown even in his own community.

I followed Obama one wintry morning as he visited several black churches on Chicago's South Side urging people to vote for him in the upcoming primary. Congregants greeted him with lukewarm applause.

I noted in my article that one lady sitting in a pew beside me was noticeably impressed with the young man, and asked to borrow my pen. She wrote on her church pamphlet, "Obama, March 16," then underlined the date.

Over the years, most of my interviews with Obama were conducted by phone. So it felt good when he immediately recognized me and shouted my name from the end of a long, empty hallway inside the church after his speech.

After all, I admired the guy — and still do.

We shook hands and walked outside together. I asked some questions and snapped some pictures before a dark-blue Chevrolet Suburban with tinted windows whisked him off to another congregation less than a mile away. I followed behind in my beat-up Oldsmobile.

My story ran on the cover of the Illinois Times. The more I thought about it, though, the more I thought it was fluff. Obama's own public-relations flack could have produced something comparable.

At the time, the Illinois media had fallen head-over-heels in love with Obama and his squeaky-clean image. "As pedigrees go, there is not a finer one among the Democratic candidates," the Chicago Tribune gushed in its endorsement.

All this predated TV pundit Chris Matthews's more recent comment that Obama's speeches send chills up his legs.

"He's been given a pass," says Harold Lucas, the community organizer in Chicago. "His career has been such a meteoric rise that he has not had the time to set a record."

A week after my profile of Obama was published, I called some of my contacts in the Illinois Legislature. I ran through a list of black Chicago lawmakers who had worked with Obama, and was surprised to learn that many resented him and had supported other candidates in the U.S. Senate election.

"Anybody but Obama," the late state Representative Lovana Jones told me at the time.

State Representative Monique Davis, who attended the same church as Obama and co-sponsored several bills with him, also did not support his candidacy. She complained of feeling overshadowed by Obama.

"I was snubbed," Davis told me. "I felt he was shutting me out of history."

In a follow-up report published a couple weeks later, I wrote about these disgruntled black legislators and the central role Senate President Emil Jones played in Obama's revived political life.

The morning after the story was posted online, I arrived early at my new offices. I hadn't taken my coat off when the phone rang. It was Obama.

The article began, "It can be painful to hear Ivy League-bred Barack Obama talk jive."

Obama told me he doesn't speak jive, that he doesn't say the words "homeboy" or "peeps."

It seemed so silly; I thought for sure he was joking. He wasn't.

He said the black legislators I cited in the story were off-base, and that they couldn't have gotten the bills passed without him.

I started to speak, and he shouted me down.

He said he liked the other story I wrote.

I asked if there was anything factually inaccurate about the latest story.

He repeated that his former colleagues couldn't have passed the bills without him.

He asked why I wrote this story, then cut me off when I started to answer.

He said he should have been given a chance to respond.

I told him I had requested an interview through his communications director.

He said I should have called his cell phone.

I reminded him that he had asked me months ago to stop calling his cell phone due to his busier schedule.

He said again that I should have called his cell phone.

Today I no longer have Obama's cell phone number. I submitted two formal requests to interview Obama for this story through his Web site, but have not heard back. I also e-mailed interview requests to three of his top staffers, but none responded.

Maybe he'll call the day after this story runs. I'll get to the office early just in case. And this time I'll have my recorder ready.


Being a politician is a perfectly honorable profession, unless you pretend you aren't one.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 22, 2008 7:06 PM
Comments

There's got to be a political version of the Peter Principle that explains why so many politicians who are successful at one level become such incompetents when they try to move up. If BarryO fails in his quest, his mistake will be to think that what worked in Chicago and Illinois would work nationally, and that no one would notice or care about his past.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at May 22, 2008 9:35 PM

Heck, 99% blacks will vote for him in Nov.

Posted by: ic at May 22, 2008 10:01 PM

Please keep in mind that 99% of 12% is 11.88%

Posted by: Lou Gots at May 23, 2008 4:35 AM
« WHERE'S LE BEOUF?: | Main | EARNING ITS NAME: »