MOMENTS OF TRUTH | OBAMA IN SPRINGFIELD
From Outsider To Politician
Thursday, October 9, 2008
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. The taunting began as soon as Barack Obama joined the Illinois Senate in January 1997. He had expected to face some skepticism as a political neophyte, but not such outright hostility. For the first few months of his career as a lawmaker, Obama navigated the unfamiliar corridors of the state Capitol like a misfit lost in a new school, sometimes complaining to colleagues that he was "getting it from all sides."
He was a Democrat surrounded by Republicans. A Harvard intellectual chided by good old boys. A biracial progressive in an environment rife with racial tension. A sophisticated urbanite living in a town built on cornfields, 200 miles removed from his family in Chicago.
Even those senators who seemed like natural allies treated Obama with nothing but enmity. Rickey Hendon and Donne Trotter, fellow black Democrats from Chicago, dismissed him as cocky, elitist and, Trotter said, "a white man in blackface." When those insults failed to rile him, the two bought a copy of Obama's 1995 autobiography, "Dreams From My Father," and used the book to concoct more. They teased him for smoking marijuana as a teenager and for being raised by his white, Kansas-born grandmother. Most frequently, they ridiculed Obama for his complex ethnicity. You figure out if you're white or black yet, Barack, or still searching?
Obama ignored them. "Give it time," he told friends, "and I'll bring those guys around."
Obama has built a biography on overcoming obstacles -- on fusing unlikely bonds that help him to adapt and then advance. He knew from the moment he took the oath of office in Springfield that he wanted to move beyond the state Senate, so he set out to orchestrate his rise in trademark fashion: by emphasizing relationships over results; by transforming from an outsider into the ultimate insider.
Just as he had before -- as an American child who moved to Indonesia, an Ivy League graduate who worked in housing projects on Chicago's South Side and a black student who enrolled at Harvard Law School -- Obama arrived in Springfield with limited knowledge of his environment and few friends to guide him. He left eight years later with the legislative accomplishments, political savvy and network of allies needed to win a seat in the United States Senate.
Obama declined to be interviewed for this article, but conversations with more than a dozen friends and colleagues portray his time in Springfield as a political baptism performed at warp speed, engineered by Obama's vast self-confidence and ambition.
His legislative record in the state Senate showed promise, but it was fraught with 129 "Present" votes, watered-down bills and a dearth of significant accomplishments -- shortcomings that hardly affected his success. With an eye toward the future, Obama decided to befriend everyone in Springfield who could help him get where he wanted to go. And that included the two men who mercilessly hazed him: Hendon and Trotter.
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It was a daunting task, since Obama's first impression on his colleagues in Springfield was so disastrous. He had won his seat by challenging the validity of opponents' petition signatures, a tactical move that knocked a popular black incumbent named Alice Palmer off the ballot and allowed Obama to run unopposed. During his first week at the state Capitol, he scheduled a meeting with Senate Minority Leader Emil Jones (D) to request a heavy workload and coveted committee assignments. Then Obama invited a few other senators out for beers and indicated, Trotter said, "that he had higher places he wanted to be."
His eagerness vexed fellow Democrats, many of whom either wrote him off or privately encouraged him to slow down. Rather than heed their advice, Obama spoke regularly to the news media about his distaste for the laziness and political gamesmanship of "old politics" in Springfield.
For one of his first major projects as a senator, he sponsored an ethics bill that made it illegal for senators to receive gifts from lobbyists. The successful effort reinforced Obama's public image as a do-good reformer but annoyed some colleagues.