the greenhorn

In 2000 Obama made his first run for national office—an unsuccessful bid to oust incumbent Congressman Bobby Rush. A 7,700-word examination of the race (by the writer then known as Ted Kleine) was published in the Chicago Reader on March 17, 2000; this is an excerpt.

Bobby Rush’s enemies smell blood.

Last year, in a mayoral bid that even one of Rush’s supporters—Cook County Board president John Stroger—calls “a stupid political judgment,” the congressman was flattened by the Daley machine. He won only 28 percent of the vote citywide: more significant, he lost the Second Ward, where he’s committeeman, and barely eked out a majority of the black vote.

Was this stomping a sign that voters are ready to end Rush’s career in Washington? State senators Barack Obama and Donne Trotter think so. Both men are anxious to move up to Congress, and they think 2000 is the year for the coup that will get them there. They’re working hard to finish off the politically wounded incumbent.

“Congressman Rush exemplifies a politics that is reactive, that waits for crises to happen then holds a press conference, and hasn’t been particularly effective at building broad-based coalitions,” says Obama, a Harvard-educated lawyer who promises to be more effective in cooperating with whites and Latinos.

“We’re living in fantastic economic times,” says Trotter, who wants to use the skills he perfected as a Springfield wheeler-dealer to snare money for the district. “Bobby, what have you brought back to our community?”

Rush doesn’t believe the mayoral race was a referendum on his work in Congress—”On more than one occasion, I’ve heard people say, ‘We prefer you in Congress, not City Hall,'” he said—but he knows it’s why he’s being challenged. “They’re misreading the tea leaves,” Rush said at his 95th Street campaign headquarters. “They think I’m vulnerable. I’m not concerned about it, but I am running as an underdog.”

You might say Rush has been running as an underdog his whole life. He dropped out of high school to join the army but now holds two master’s degrees. (“My father told me, ‘You wanted to read so bad and study so much that you said you wanted to die in a classroom,'” Rush says.) Once hunted by the Chicago police after fellow Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were gunned down, Rush went on to serve ten years as an alderman. He’s fought off a stammer to become a fluid, if not dynamic, public speaker. In his devotion to self-improvement he’s become an acolyte of Tony Robbins, the motivational speaker who asks his followers to “awaken the giant within.”

Rush wants to raise up the people of the south side too. When he was invited to speak from the pulpit of Southwestern Baptist Church, he urged the congregation to buy computers and hook up to the Internet, so knowledge would flow into their homes. Making a religious connection for his audience, Rush compared Web access to the printing of the Bible, which allowed all Christians to read what only the “high-class, super-elite” priests had seen.

“At one time, the Bible was only read and understood by a very few people,” Rush says. “These folks intimidated those that didn’t have access to the Bible. God in his wisdom created the printing press. Then the Bible was mass-produced, so common ordinary folk snatched the power from the elite. I look at the Internet the same way. If we are computer literate, we are on the same level as Bill Gates, the richest man in the world. We are on common ground with the wealthy and powerful. You can bring the libraries of the world to your living room, whether your living room is on South Michigan Avenue or in the richest suburbs.”

But Rush shows a suspicion of folks who get too high, especially if they’re trying to take his congressional seat. “He went to Harvard and became an educated fool,” he says scornfully of Obama, and declares, “We’re not impressed with these folks with these eastern elite degrees.”

Obama’s overeducation has left him with an “ivory tower” outlook, Rush charges. In a debate on Cliff Kelley’s WVON radio show, Rush, the old street fighter, talked about leading marches to urge punishment for Gregory Becker, the off-duty cop who killed a homeless man in 1995.

“It’s not enough for us just to protest police misconduct without thinking systematically about how we’re going to change practice,” Obama said in measured, mellow tones.

Rush jumped on him.

“We have never been able to progress as a people based on relying solely on the legislative process, and I think that we would be in real critical shape when we start in any way diminishing the role of protest,” he argued. “Protest has got us where we are today.”

A week later, Rush was still rankled by the remark. “Barack is a person who read about the civil rights protests and thinks he knows all about it,” he said. “I helped make that history, by blood, sweat, and tears.”

Losing the mayoral race has shown Rush who his friends are. Senator Dick Durbin came in to help Rush announce a $1.5 billion federal plan to demolish and rebuild the Chicago Housing Authority’s biggest projects. “Bobby Rush was the advocate for the tenants in the Chicago Housing Authority,” Durbin said. “He fought to make sure there will be good public housing to replace this housing. He also led the fight to make sure 50 percent of the contracts would go to minorities. I don’t jump at the prospect of getting involved in primaries with good Democrats running, but I jump at the prospect of endorsing Bobby Rush.”

President Clinton has also endorsed Rush. And there’s speculation in the district that Stroger’s support means even Mayor Daley secretly favors Rush’s reelection. The board president and the mayor are allies, and Daley is said to fear Barack Obama’s appeal as a citywide candidate. Stroger will only say that Daley is “not actively opposing” Rush.

The First Congressional District seat is a bellwether of black leadership in Chicago. When Rush took it from 74-year-old Charles Hayes in 1992, his victory was seen as a sign that the militants who’d come of age in the late 1960s were taking over from the preachers and funeral directors who led the integration marches in the days of Dr. Martin Luther King.

For Clee Lowe, a Barack Obama supporter, the fight against segregation is over. Blacks have legal equality. Now the community needs leaders who’ll work for economic equality.

“Rush is part of the old guard,” Lowe said. “I’m not going to stand here and say his time has passed, but we’ve got to look at what’s good for the whole district. Senator Obama, he is of a new generation. What we are saying is that we are poised and ready to meet the challenges of a new generation, which are more economic.”

When Obama makes a speech to an unfamiliar audience, he usually starts with a joke about his exotic name. “The first thing people ask me is, ‘How did you get that name, Obama?’ although they don’t always pronounce it right,” he tells voters. “They say ‘Alabama,’ or ‘Yo Mama.'”

Obama’s detractors rap him because he didn’t grow up on the south side. He points out that he’s spent most of his adult life there, his wife is from South Shore, and he’s raising his daughter as a south-sider. His enemies also say he’s too white and too bright. Part of it—although they won’t say it publicly—is that he grew up with a white mother. Part of it is his demeanor. His lanky, Lincoln-esque body is usually stiff and upright, and he speaks in a stentorian baritone that sounds like a TV newscaster’s. But the main reason is that he’s associated himself with Harvard and the University of Chicago, two strongholds of white power.

“Barack is viewed in part to be the white man in blackface in our community,” says Donne Trotter, who detests Obama. “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.”

Lu Palmer, a radio talk show host and chairman of the Black Independent Political Organization, dismisses Obama as arrogant and compares him to Mel Reynolds, who went from a Rhodes Scholarship to Congress to prison.

“When Obama first hit town, my recollection is that he came here running some voter registration drive,” Palmer said. “He came to our office and tried to get us involved, and we were turned off then. We sent him running. We didn’t like his arrogance, his air.”

Palmer had another run-in with Obama in 1996, when he tried to dissuade the young politician from running to replace state senator Alice Palmer (no relation). Palmer was resigning to seek Reynolds’s old congressional seat, which was won by Jesse Jackson Jr.

“I said, ‘Man, you sound like Mel Reynolds,'” Palmer said. “There are similarities. If you get hung into these elite institutions, and if you so impress white folks at these elite institutions, and if they name you head of these elite institutions, the Harvard Law Review, that makes one suspect.”

Obama says that when “Congressman Rush and his allies” rip him for going to Harvard and teaching at the U. of C., they’re sending a signal to black kids that “if you’re well educated, somehow you’re not keeping it real.” He refuses to be ashamed of his education. In January he held a fund-raiser for black educators at Honeysuckle’s, a nightclub on 87th Street. It attracted people who don’t believe the Ivy League is poison. “I’m glad he went to Harvard,” said Lula Ford, who used to be principal of Beethoven Elementary School in the Robert Taylor Homes. “I want all children to go to Harvard, especially from the south side of Chicago.”

Obama is gunning hard for the white vote, which makes up about 30 percent of the district. He’s criticized Rush for not looking outside the black community for support during his mayoral campaign.

“We have more in common with the Latino community, the white community, than we have differences, and you have to work with them, just from a practical political perspective,” he says. “It may give us a psychic satisfaction to curse out people outside our community and blame them for our plight. But the truth is, if you want to be able to get things accomplished politically, you’ve got to work with them.”

The other knock on Obama is that he’s still getting his legislative chops in the minor league of the Illinois senate. He’s not ready for a promotion to Washington. Rich Miller, the publisher of Capitol Fax, a Springfield newsletter, says Obama hasn’t compiled much of a legislative record, partly because he’s turned off other senators.

“Barack is a very intelligent man,” Miller said. “He hasn’t had a lot of success here, and it could be because he places himself above everybody. He likes people to know he went to Harvard.”

Obama was a leader on an ethics bill that limited the gifts legislators can take from lobbyists and ended the practice of using campaign funds for personal use. (The senator’s always been Paul Simon pure when it comes to taking gifts. He says he’s one of “three or four” senators who won’t let lobbyists buy him dinner.) He also worked to double the personal exemption on the state’s income tax, figuring this would help low-income families. Republicans, who love tax cuts, willingly went along. Now Obama wants the state to institute an earned income tax credit for the poor. He’s also introduced legislation to require drug companies to charge Medicare the same rates as their best customers, which would lower the cost of medicine for seniors. And he is asking the secretary of state’s office to compile statistics on traffic stops, to see if minority drivers are targeted more than whites.

But Obama didn’t help his record in Springfield when he failed to come home from a Hawaiian vacation to vote on the Safe Neighborhoods Act. His vote wouldn’t have made a difference, but Obama’s been a strident supporter of gun control, so a lot of voters thought he’d disappeared when his voice was needed most. Obama takes his family to Hawaii once a year to visit his 80-year-old grandmother, Toot. Both his parents are dead, and Toot is the only living relative he knew growing up. This year he almost canceled the trip because the fight over the Safe Neighborhoods Act went on until December 22. The Obamas managed to get out of town on Thursday, December 23, and planned to fly back the following Tuesday, so Barack could be in Springfield when the legislature reconvened the next day. But on the day of the flight, Obama’s 18-month-old daughter came down with the flu. He decided to stay in Hawaii one more day. If Malia seemed to be recovering, the Obamas would go home together. If not, Barack would fly out alone. On Wednesday Malia was well enough to fly, and the family returned to Illinois.

“I made an assessment based on the fact that I didn’t want to leave my wife and daughter alone without knowing how serious her condition was, and my assessment was based on the fact that this was a largely political vote, in the sense that either Pate Philip was going to agree to a compromise, in which case the bill was going to pass, or there were going to be negotiations taking place,” he says. “We put our families through so many sacrifices in this process anyway that every once in a while you have to make a decision in terms of what you think is best for your family, and I think that this was one of these decisions. Politically, I took a big hit.”

Obama was castigated in the Tribune‘s “Inc.” column (the headline: “D-U-M”) and by callers to Cliff Kelley’s show on WVON. He had to answer for his missed vote at a January candidates’ forum in the Tulley Park field house.

“If you initiate a lot of ideas and at the time of a vote you’re not there, how can we count on you?” Kevin Tyler asked.

Obama gave a curt answer. “If you look at my record in Springfield, I don’t miss votes. I missed one as a result of my daughter being sick. That’s an exceptional situation that doesn’t arise often.”

Tyler didn’t buy Obama’s excuse.

“If you tell me this is one of your issues, and then you miss the vote, that concerns me,” Tyler said afterward. “With that in mind, I’m very reluctant to support him for anything. I think he’s biting off a little more than he can chew. He’s got some good issues, but he’s too green.”v