Obama Forged Political Mettle In Illinois Capitol

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 9, 2007

CHICAGO, Feb. 8 -- When Sen. Barack Obama heads downstate to Springfield on Saturday to announce his candidacy for president, he will speak in lofty tones of America and Abraham Lincoln, but also of a more prosaic topic: his own eight years in the Illinois Senate.

The heart of Obama's political résumé lies in Springfield, where he arrived in January 1997. He was a newcomer to elective politics after time as a community organizer and University of Chicago law professor operating largely outside the city's Democratic machine.

From a district on the South Side of Chicago, he reached Republican-dominated Springfield as a committed liberal, later writing that he understood politics in the capital "as a full-contact sport, and minded neither the sharp elbows nor the occasional blind-side hit."

Yet he emerged as a leader while still in his 30s by developing a style former colleagues describe as methodical, inclusive and pragmatic. He cobbled together legislation with Republicans and conservative Democrats, making overtures other progressive politicians might consider distasteful.

Along the way, he played an important role in drafting bipartisan ethics legislation and health-care reform. He overcame law enforcement objections to codify changes designed to curb racial profiling and to make capital punishment, which he favors, more equitable.

"When you come in, especially as a freshman, and work on something like ethics reform, it's not necessarily a way to endear yourself to some of the veteran members of the Illinois General Assembly," said state Sen. Kirk W. Dillard, a Republican who became a friend. "And working on issues like racial profiling was contentious, but Barack had a way both intellectually and in demeanor that defused skeptics."

"He wasn't a maverick," said Cynthia Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. "There were other legislators I would turn to if I just wanted to make a lot of noise. That wasn't his style."

Obama was a persistent foe of social conservatives on issues of reproductive rights. He was also a reliable vote for gun control and backed a ban on assault weapons, although he took a political hit from Democrats for missing an important gun vote while in Hawaii for the Christmas holidays.

In 1997, Obama was not instantly embraced, Dillard said: "The fact that he was a law professor -- and a constitutional-law professor -- and he was a Harvard graduate made many members of the General Assembly roll their eyes."

Obama went to work. Afterward, he played golf and pickup basketball. He made the social rounds at Springfield cocktail parties. He joined a weekly poker game with legislators and lobbyists in which the ante was a dollar or two.

One regular, former Democratic state senator Larry Walsh, said Obama was competitive yet careful -- and always hard to read.

"One night, we were playing and things weren't going very well for me," Walsh said. "I had a real good hand and Barack beat me out with another one. I slammed down my cards and said, 'Doggone it, Barack, if you were a little more liberal in your card playing and a little more conservative in your politics, you and I would get along a lot better.' "

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company