OBAMA RISING All but assured to become the fifth Black American to hold a seat in the U.S. Senate, Obama represents to many the emergence of a new generation of national political leadershipBy Ronald Roach
Less than two months after a stellar keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Barack Obama took his U.S. Senate campaign to the community colleges of Illinois. Over two days in September, reporters traveling with the “Obama For Illinois” campaign on a tour to tout policies to make college more affordable could claim witness to a confident yet focused and businesslike candidate. On the road between Peoria and East St. Louis, the tall, lanky Obama seems friendly and engaged, but not overly so. He’s mostly cool and alert. “We have an obligation and a responsibility to be investing in our students and our schools,” a dapper, blue-suited Obama told about 150 students at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield. “We must make sure that people who have the grades, the desire and the will, but not the money, can still get the best education possible.”On a tour that begins in Chicago and includes stops in Rockford, Peoria, Springfield, and at an academic center in East St. Louis, Obama announces plans to boost college affordability, while expressing support for the role that community colleges and vocational schools play. He backs the idea of having all college loan programs managed by the federal government, instead of allowing a portion of them to be managed by private lenders. “We would save $4.5 billion annually if we made all student loans directly by the government,” Obama told students and faculty members at Lincoln Land Community College. In the college affordability talks, Obama did not mention his challenger, Dr. Alan Keyes, by name and simply attacked the Bush administration for its higher education policies. Obama and Keyes are competing for the seat currently occupied by Republican U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, who announced his intention not to seek re-election. The mostly White crowds at the Illinois Central College campus in Peoria and at Lincoln Land Community College cheered the message, which included specifics on the profits going to private lenders that could be channeled back into additional loans and grants for students.“We’re pleased when Illinois Central College is a stop for political candidates. We’re happy that our students can hear firsthand what candidates have to say,” says Dr. John S. Erwin, the president of Illinois Central College. By late September, Obama’s message on issues such as higher education, economic development and health care had helped propel him to a 45-percentage point lead over the controversial Keyes. According to a poll by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch/KMOV-TV polling operation, Obama led the Senate race with 68 percent to Keyes’ 23 percent. Nine percent were undecided. “I think the Keyes candidacy is in deep trouble,” says political scientist Dr. John S. Jackson of Southern Illinois University Carbondale, adding that the conservative Maryland-based political commentator was alienating moderate Republicans and independent voters with his ultra conservative positions and statements. As a political story, Obama’s move into national political prominence seems to far outshine that of the failing Keyes candidacy. Political analysts have focused on the rise of Obama, a native of Hawaii born to a Black Kenyan economist and a White woman from Kansas, from a little-known state senator representing a southside Chicago district to a national political figure. All but assured to become the fifth Black American to hold a seat in the U.S. Senate, Obama represents to many the emergence of a new generation of national political leadership. His speech at the national convention, drawing rave reviews for its eloquence and patriotic message, prompted commentators to trumpet him as a likely contender to be the first Black U.S. president.“He was put there to support the ticket, to hit the themes, and he did his job. And on that he got, I think, an accolade of a rising star and so forth,” says Dr. Ronald Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland. “I tend to think that speech was one that tried to identify (Obama) as a non-racial politician, that tried to connect with his immigrant roots, and tried to meet the theme of diversity that was thrust upon him. It was a theme that went over great with everybody in the convention — Blacks, Whites, everyone.”
The AscentSuch national acclaim for Obama seemed an unlikely prospect during the Democratic nomination race that pitted him against six candidates. While he ran second in the field, it took revelations of alleged marital abuse to knock Blair Hull, the leading Democrat, from serious contention. This past March, Obama won the Democratic primary with 53 percent of the vote by capturing the support of Black and White voters in cities and rural areas. “I’m surprised (Obama’s U.S. Senate campaign) has gone as well as it has. He ran in a field of seven strong candidates,” says Dr. Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC). A second political scandal involving Jack Ryan, the Republican party nominee, crested when divorce proceeding allegations by his former wife, TV actress Jeri Ryan, revealed that the former investment banker sought to have the couple participate in activities at sex clubs. The scandal forced Ryan to resign from the race in the summer. “I think Obama was going to win whether Ryan had stayed in the race or not,” Jackson speculates, noting that the wealthy Ryan was vulnerable to Obama even without the divorce allegations coming to light. Keyes, who is African American and a previous two-time U.S. presidential candidate, joined the race only after state Republicans failed to recruit an Illinois-based candidate to take on Obama, whose candidacy was growing stronger day by day. While the entry of Keyes saved the Illinois Republicans from complete embarrassment, some analysts are now saying his campaign has become damaging to the state party.“While (Republicans) stand to lose the Senate and presidential races in Illinois, they also face the prospect of losing three House GOP seats,” says Simpson, noting that moderate Republican voter turnout may decrease due to Keyes’ campaign statements and behavior.“Saying that Jesus Christ wouldn’t vote for Obama and that all gays are sinners is beyond the bounds of acceptable speech in political debate,” says Simpson, describing statements by Keyes. The Keyes campaign has exposed the rift among Illinois Republicans, between moderates, such as former Govs. Jim Edgar and James Thompson, and its more conservative faction, which supports Keyes. Obama is said to rarely mention Keyes during campaign events. “I think Obama has to keep his cool and make his case and not be goaded by Keyes who likes to be bombastic. Keyes is a provocateur,” Jackson says.
Tracing the RootsIn his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, Obama renders in language worthy of a better-than-average novelist colorful early years growing up in Hawaii, as well as four of his childhood years spent in Indonesia. His father went to Hawaii as a foreign student from Kenya and would marry Obama’s mother, who was a college student at the time. After studying at Harvard, the father returned to Kenya leaving the mother and son to remain in Hawaii, according to the memoir. Barack’s mother later married an Indonesian businessman and moved to Indonesia with her family, but Obama would return to Hawaii after a few years. As a young adult, Obama migrated to the U.S. mainland where he attended Occidental College in Los Angeles, and later earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from Columbia University. After college, he spent a few years in Chicago working as a community organizer. Later, as a Harvard University law student, Obama would attract national media attention upon becoming the first Black elected president of the Harvard Law Review, an honor bestowed on a law student demonstrating exceptional academic ability, top-notch writing and editing and strong leadership skills among his or her peers at the student-run journal. He was a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School. Returning to Chicago after law school, Obama plunged back into community-based work, managing a successful statewide voter registration drive as the director of Illinois Project VOTE that reportedly proved fruitful for the Clinton campaign in Illinois in the 1992 presidential race. Obama later began practicing civil rights law and teaching law at the University of Chicago Law School. In 1996, Obama won a seat as an Illinois state senator, representing the 13th legislative district. He has served on the public health and welfare committee and the judiciary and local government committees in the state senate. “He’s always been a polished speaker and committed to liberal causes and civil rights,” says UIC’s Simpson, who met Obama sometime shortly after his first election to the state senate. Simpson is an expert on Chicago politics and was a Chicago city alderman during the 1970s. “I would call him a liberal Democratic politician in terms of the kind of measures that he has supported — basic family-oriented, job-oriented measures, civil rights-oriented. To that extent, the profile of his agenda is very much compatible with the needs of the Black community,” says Walters of the University of Maryland. Walters says Obama’s cross-racial appeal, however, bears strongly on how far he’s likely to go in national politics. According to Walters, previous Black U.S. senators Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois and Edward Brooke of Massachusetts largely positioned themselves as legislators with exalted status in the African American community, but did not take on the mantle of national Black leaders in a way one might associate with some congressional representatives, such as the late Rep. Adam Clayton Powell and Rep. Maxine Waters.“He’s somebody who doesn’t shy away from the Black community, but on the other hand has a great cross-racial appeal, genuine cross-racial appeal,” Walters says. In the stop at the East St. Louis Higher Education campus, Obama departed from his college affordability text and urged the mostly Black community college and charter high school students in attendance to make academic achievement a high priority in their lives. “If you want any hope of achieving success, then you have to apply yourself in your studies,” Obama told the nearly 200 students in attendance. “There is no shame in sitting down and reading a book.” After the East St. Louis talk, he lingered around the newly constructed academic center building for a few minutes, answering questions from students about financial aid. Soon the crowd dissipated and Obama, accompanied by campaign aides, disappeared, heading off to the next campaign stop.
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