In 2000, a young 20-something reporter, Todd Spivak was assigned to cover local Chicago politics. Obama was just a rank-and-file state senator in Illinois.
It was 2000 and I was a young, hungry reporter at the Hyde Park Herald and Lakefront Outlook community newspapers earning $19,000 a year covering politics and crime.
I talked with Obama on a regular basis — a couple times a month, at least. I’d ask him about his campaign-finance reports, legislation he was sponsoring and various local issues. He wrote an occasional column published in our papers. It ran with a headshot that made him look about 14 years old.
These days when Obama is asked on the campaign trail about his legislative accomplishments, he often rattles off several bills he sponsored while in the Illinois state senate. Spivak knows a little about Obama’s career in Illionois and there is a lot less to it than meets the eye.
It’s a lengthy record filled with core liberal issues. But what’s interesting, and almost never discussed, is that he built his entire legislative record in Illinois in a single year.
Republicans controlled the Illinois General Assembly for six years of Obama’s seven-year tenure. Each session, Obama backed legislation that went nowhere; bill after bill died in committee. During those six years, Obama, too, would have had difficulty naming any legislative achievements.
Then, in 2002, dissatisfaction with President Bush and Republicans on the national and local levels led to a Democratic sweep of nearly every lever of Illinois state government. For the first time in 26 years, Illinois Democrats controlled the governor’s office as well as both legislative chambers.
The white, race-baiting, hard-right Republican Illinois Senate Majority Leader James “Pate” Philip was replaced by Emil Jones Jr., a gravel-voiced, dark-skinned African-American known for chain-smoking cigarettes on the Senate floor.
Jones had served in the Illinois Legislature for three decades. He represented a district on the Chicago South Side not far from Obama’s. He became Obama’s kingmaker.
Several months before Obama announced his U.S. Senate bid, Jones called his old friend Cliff Kelley, a former Chicago alderman who now hosts the city’s most popular black call-in radio program.
I called Kelley last week and he recollected the private conversation as follows:
“He said, ‘Cliff, I’m gonna make me a U.S. Senator.'”
“Oh, you are? Who might that be?”
Jones appointed Obama sponsor of virtually every high-profile piece of legislation, angering many rank-and-file state legislators who had more seniority than Obama and had spent years championing the bills.
“I took all the beatings and insults and endured all the racist comments over the years from nasty Republican committee chairmen,” State Senator Rickey Hendon, the original sponsor of landmark racial profiling and videotaped confession legislation yanked away by Jones and given to Obama, complained to me at the time. “Barack didn’t have to endure any of it, yet, in the end, he got all the credit.
“I don’t consider it bill jacking,” Hendon told me. “But no one wants to carry the ball 99 yards all the way to the one-yard line, and then give it to the halfback who gets all the credit and the stats in the record book.”
During his seventh and final year in the state Senate, Obama’s stats soared. He sponsored a whopping 26 bills passed into law — including many he now cites in his presidential campaign when attacked as inexperienced.
And in return for all the king-making efforts by Jones on Obama’s behalf, Obama made sure Jones was repaid handsomely.
So how has Obama repaid Jones?
Last June, to prove his commitment to government transparency, Obama released a comprehensive list of his earmark requests for fiscal year 2008. It comprised more than $300 million in pet projects for Illinois, including tens of millions for Jones’s Senate district.
Shortly after Jones became Senate president, I remember asking his view on pork-barrel spending.
I’ll never forget what he said:
“Some call it pork; I call it steak.”
Nice. It ain’t pork and it ain’t steak. It is our freakin’ money.
Obama also touts all his “experience” as a community organizer. What that has to do with his qualifications to be president is anyone’s guess. But, nevertheless, turns out he didn’t really do that either.
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.” [snip]
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. [snip]
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.
No legislative record. No experience as a community organizer. Obama truly is an empty suit.
Bill Dupray at The Patriot Room
Bill Dupray is a lawyer living in Northern Virginia.