Running on Race

In one of the countryu2019s most-watched elections, Barack Obama may be defining a new kind of racialized candidacy as he tries to become the third black U.S. Senator in history.

By Mick Dumke Sep 21, 2004

Barack Obama didn’t intend to take over the meeting, but that’s what ended up happening. It was a few weeks after he had rolled to a surprisingly wide victory over six rivals in the Illinois Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, and he was driving around the Chicago area thanking voters. That evening, stop one was a community meeting in a Baptist church basement on Chicago ’s West Side.

About 100 people were there, almost all of them black, listening to a discussion about a new investment in the mostly poor neighborhood around the church. Suddenly city councilman Michael Chandler burst in from the back of the room, leading Obama to the front while shouting: “Obama! Obama! Obama!” The energy level surged; people were on their feet applauding, cheering and, in a few cases, waving Obama signs.

Smiling widely, his tie already a little loose, Obama made the rounds, slapping skin and giving hugs. When the crowd finally quieted, he thanked them for their votes and started recounting how he had won with their help.

“ People assume a lot,” he said. “People assume white folks won’t vote for black people. And they assume that black folks won’t vote at all. Well, we went in with a different assumption, and that was that everyone has some common goals—that everyone should work, and when they work, they should get paid a fair wage. Every child should get a quality education. And every senior citizen should be able to retire with some dignity and respect.” He received a standing ovation. People flocked around him asking for autographs.

An hour later, Obama was in an American Legion hall in suburban Evanston, addressing a firefighters’ union. The 25 men (all but one was white) smoked cigars, sipped from beer cans and listened while Obama told them he appreciated their get-out-the-vote efforts, which had helped him take a whopping 89 percent of Evanston’s vote. “I’m going to do my best to make you guys proud as the Democratic nominee, ” he said.

Afterward, union leader Dave Lipp explained that the group supported Obama because he had a pro-labor voting record and a plan to expand health care coverage. He emphasized that Obama’s racial background had nothing to do with it. “He could have been black, white, pink or purple,” said Lipp. “He’s just a good guy and an excellent candidate. ”

The appearances exemplified the “Obama message.” As he embarked on his Senate campaign last year, Obama told voters he was running to carry out his belief that people everywhere have intertwined concerns, interests and fates. “If a child on the [mostly black] South Side can’t read, it affects me,” he likes to say. “If John Ashcroft rounds up an immigrant, it affects my civil liberties. ”

People were captivated by his talk of race and class crossover, especially because it seemed to be an extension of his professional career and family history. Born to a black father and white mother, Obama grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia before attending Columbia University and Harvard Law School, where he was the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. He worked as a community organizer, taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago and served a multiracial district in the Illinois Senate. During seven years in the legislature, he was known as a dependable progressive sponsoring laws that cracked down on racial profiling and broadened health care coverage for the uninsured.

Tiger Woods Politics

Observers say the success of his approach could signal the emergence of a new kind of racial politics.

“ We’re a country right now that doesn’t know quite what to do with issues of race. We don’t have a very good language for talking about race. And so somebody who’s a kind of Tiger Woods-figure who can straddle different racial communities” will have a wide appeal to voters, said Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a political scientist at the University of Chicago’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture.

Black candidates have always been expected to acknowledge their racial backgrounds in a way that will not scare off whites. But Obama appears comfortable telling white and black audiences alike that, while he’s rooted in the black community, his ideas can help everyone out. “He’s kind of what a new set of racialized candidates will look like, ” Harris-Lacewell said.

Once he romped through the primary, Obama had another round of work to do. His Republican opponent, Jack Ryan, was a wealthy white investment banker who had quit the corporate world to teach at an all-boys, all-African American Catholic high school on Chicago’s South Side. Ryan had a racial message of his own, couched in classic compassionate conservatism. Calling for public policy that helps “the poorest of the poor, those who have been left behind,” he pushed school choice, lower taxes and crime reduction as weapons against racial and economic injustice.

Though Obama was ahead in early polls, his match-up with Ryan promised an unusually open, if not unprecedented, debate about race. But then, in June, a judge ordered that files from Ryan’s 1999 divorce be released to the public, and newspapers around the world detailed his ex-wife’s allegations—which he denied—that he had taken her to sex clubs and asked her to perform sex acts there. Less than a week later, GOP insiders pulled their support for his candidacy, and Ryan withdrew from the race.

So, by early summer, one of the most closely watched elections in the country now featured just Barack Obama, hoping to become the third African American Senator since Reconstruction by discussing how social justice is important for everyone. The Republican Party, meanwhile, was still deciding on its new candidate.

It was a dramatic turnaround for Obama, whose first attempt to get to Washington had failed.

In 2000, he challenged incumbent congressman Bobby Rush, a one-time Black Panther who now pastors a South Side church on the weekends. Characterizing Obama as an elite from Harvard University, Rush questioned his credentials to lead the historic black district and won with 61percent of the vote to Obama ’s 30 percent.

Heading into the U.S. Senate primary—with Rush endorsing one of his white opponents—Obama presented his multicultural credentials, often speaking in the most subtle racial terms. Instead of calling himself biracial, he’d note that his father was from Kenya and his mother was from Kansas. “I got my name from my father and my accent from my mother, ” he joked on the stump.

And he advertised his political platform—including reversing the Bush tax cuts for upper-income families, creating jobs and protecting civil liberties—as something that would help everyone, not just people of color. “I have a universal message,” he said. “I don ’t do any tailoring for different groups.”

Yet supporters believed he didn’t just preach a great universal message he actually understood the different concerns faced by people around the state. Selma D’Souza, who heads the Chicago-based Indo-American Democratic Organization, noted that Obama had won Asian support when he pushed a bill in the state legislature requiring that school systems teach Asian American history. But his ability to relate to people from a variety of backgrounds impressed her the most. “He’s great at reaching out to people no matter what their background is,” she said. “He’ll take the time to listen to your concerns and your issues. ”

Thousands of other Illinois Democratic voters also found something to like in Obama. His surprising victory in the March primary had two sources. First, the excitement extended deep into what was assumed to be his rivals’ territory. In the city’s white wards, for example, Obama won 46 percent of the vote. And he aggressively took his case to black voters—visiting churches, linking up with black aldermen and Democratic organizers on plans to get voters to the polls, and launching an advertising blitz trumpeting his leadership in the state senate on criminal justice reform, day care expansion and job training initiatives.

As a result, African American turnout in Chicago was the highest it has been in a primary in 12 years, with 41 percent of registered voters getting to the polls. Black voter turnout exceeded turnout in white areas, a feat not even accomplished during the historic 1983 and 1987 Chicago mayoral victories of the late Harold Washington, the only African American ever elected to that post.

Many voters also concluded that, while Obama’s multiracial background was a plus, he was simply the most qualified candidate. “He’s got the record; he’s got the character,” said Jerome Summers, a black Democratic activist in Evanston. Summers pointed out that Obama helped enact legislation requiring that police videotape homicide confessions.

Running Scared

With Jack Ryan’s departure from the race, the Republicans are scrambling to find another candidate who can provide his kind of energy and race appeal—without the baggage. At the end of June, Jason Gerwig, communications director for the state GOP, said the process of picking another candidate would take about three weeks. Initially, he said, party leaders were trying to determine who was interested in running.

“ We want to see who wants to get into the race,” Gerwig said. “We want somebody who’s going to be out there talking about the issues with Barack Obama, who ’s got a free pass right now.”

Party activists have mentioned a few names, including Jim Oberweis, the primary runner-up in March; Ronald Gidwitz, a party activist and fundraiser who’s never run for elected office before; and state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger, who finished third in the primary. Oberweis is not likely to pick up Ryan’s emphases on racial crossover. During the primary, he ran television advertisements claiming that enough undocumented immigrants enter the country each week to fill Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears. But after Ryan’s pullout, Oberweis was making a much different point, emphasizing that the ads, and his platform, were mischaracterized as a racially charged attack on all immigrants. He also blamed himself for not making his ads clearer. “We didn’t apparently do it right,” he said. Oberweis added that his proposed crackdown on undocumented workers would help protect the jobs and rights of citizens, especially those who are legal immigrants. Citing what he said was a strong record of diversity at his dairy company, Oberweis insisted he would have the best chance to appeal to a range of voters.

“ I think the Republican Party has to be a broad-based party,” he said. “I’d have an appeal across party lines. I think Obama would be the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate, and he certainly would not be representative of the state of Illinois. He’s been able to focus the campaign on personality issues. We have to point out that he’s been in favor of raising taxes and opposed to educational choice. ”

Gidwitz, a past chairman and current member of the state board of education, is often called a “social moderate” whose fundraising experience would be welcome. But conservative members of the party are already dismissing him for not being sufficiently pro-life and “pro-family.” He’s never had to articulate positions on issues like civil rights, immigration law or health care.

Obama supporters believe Rauschenberger could give their candidate the toughest test. Known as an expert on the state budget, Rauschenberger is, like Obama, respected by state legislators from both parties. Like Ryan, he’s a social conservative who opposes race-based affirmative action and a blanket amnesty for undocumented workers while supporting school choice and the Bush tax cuts. But he’s parted with the GOP by opposing the Patriot Act.

Rauschenberger is also known for criticizing corruption within the Republican ranks, which might help him with independent voters. “He clearly doesn’t have that race piece that Ryan had,” said Harris-Lacewell. “What he does have is the dissident piece. He looks like a defiant hero. I think [the Republicans] will look for somebody who’s going to be able to match with Obama on issues of impeccable morality and family values. Rather than the race card, if they go with Rauschenberger it will be because he ’s in a strong dissident position.”

In late June, Rauschenberger re-activated his campaign Web site, and his spokesman, Charlie Stone, said Rauschenberger “stands ready to serve the people” if he were asked to be the nominee. While Obama would be difficult to beat, Stone said, “impossible does not belong in the lexicon of politics. Barack is the flavor the month, but he can’t be the favor for all five months. He’s going to get the scrutiny. ”

Still, if past election returns are an indication, any Republican candidate would have serious work to do in the nonwhite areas of the state. In 2002, GOP candidates for statewide office received, on average, just 8 percent of their votes from Chicago and 1 percent from its majority black wards. In contrast, Democrats counted on Chicagoans to provide 28 percent of their vote totals, including 14 percent from black wards. Despite the numbers and the disarray in their party, many Republicans maintain that Jack Ryan’s campaign may help them in the long run by getting the party to put energy into reaching out to nonwhite voters.

Elroy Leach, an African American Republican activist who helped Jack Ryan campaign for the primary, said Ryan isn’t the only person who can take conservative ideas into black neighborhoods, and his approach isn’t the only one that will work. Candidates don’t even need to talk directly about race, said Leach, who is forming a conservative activist organization called the Illinois Freedom Project. “The greatest need in the African American community is capital, and the Republican Party talks a lot about entrepreneurship and capital. Democrats are the status quo. ”

Meanwhile, Obama is taking trips to rural areas downstate and sending volunteers to every night of the Taste of Chicago, the city’s most popular outdoor festival. Gibbs said he isn’t counting any votes yet. “He has told us that he’s going to continue to run scared until the polls close, regardless of what happens on the other side.”