Barack Obama, America’s latest political star, is expected to become the next black U.S. senator. Could his victory put him on the path to the White House?

Favorite son: Barack Obama, America’s latest political star, is expected to become the next black U.S. senator. Could his victory put him on the path to the White House?

Kenneth Meeks

He gave the speech of his life. With grace and confidence, a relatively unknown Illinois state senator stood before a sea of cheering delegates at Boston’s FleetCenter, home to this year’s Democratic National Convention. In a electrifying keynote address, the poised politician spoke of his lineage; uniting a nation across racial, ideological, and economic lines; and, most importantly, the promise of the American dream.

“If there’s a child on the South Side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child,” he told delegates as they exploded into applause and cheers during his speech. “If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandmother. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It’s that fundamental belief–I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper–that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family…. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”

After his address of unity and hope–one that energized a party and set the tone for the presidential race to come–the nation witnessed the birth of a new political star: Barack Obama. They not only saw a man who is almost assured of ascending to the U.S. Senate representing the state of Illinois, but a politician pundits say has the timber to one day become America’s first African American president.

So who is this candidate many speculate is in contention for the White House? To answer that question. BLACK ENTERPRISE went on the road with Obama–to three cities on a campaign tour through southern Illinois–a month before he stepped onto the national stage. We discovered his platform, his political passion, his background, and the aspirations of “a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him.”


On a warm and rainy June morning in Springfield, the state capital, the 42-year-old three-term senator who represents Chicago’s South Side addresses a packed room of mostly white, blue-collar workers at the AFL-CIO building. In the back of the room, a unionist holds up a sign that reads: “The Land of Lincoln Loves Senator Obama.”

Today, Obama listens to Ada Owens, a Decatur woman who worked at the Bridgestone/Firestone manufacturing plant for 27 years before it closed in 2001. The plant, which employed as many as 1,200 people, shot down as a result of the recall of Firestone tires that dominated headlines several years ago. Now, Decatur is on the verge of becoming a ghost town.

“I was able to get a negotiated package but too young for Social Security, so that meant. I had to go out and look for another job,” Owens says in a shaky voice worn by three years of economic despair and hardship. “For younger workers who didn’t have a retirement option, it’s been horrible. A lot of older folks have died of heart attacks because of the stress. We hear that the economy is looking up and that there are jobs out there, but they are not decent jobs where you can support your families. And they’re not here in Decatur, That’s what we lost.”

Owens’ story underscores a larger problem facing Illinois and the heart of Obama’s campaign. As Owens recounts her story, the politician nods his bead, his face etched with concern and compassion. When she finishes, Obama calmly takes the microphone and collects his thoughts before addressing the issue head-on. He conducts an informal poll of the 100 or so in the room, finding that half have either lost jobs or knows such a casualty. Despite President George W. Bush’s pledge to create millions of new jobs this year, Obama says many pay a fraction of those originally lost. “What I’m hearing everywhere I go is a middle class that is feeling squeezed because their jobs are moving overseas, and they are economically insecure,” he says. “We lost 150,000 manufacturing jobs and we have not been benefiting from the economic growth that has been taking place. Collectively, what we’re experiencing is erosion of the economic status. We have some people–a small slither of the economy–who have done better than they’ve ever done before; a middle class that is shrinking; and a greater and greater difficulty on the part of the working class … to get into the middle class. That is the story that we have to reverse.”

Throughout the room, heads nod in agreement. Obama seems to connect with a constituency that ranges from black churchgoers like Owens to white unionists threatened by the outsourcing of jobs to China, India, and Mexico, An older white man in the fourth row eyes Obama cautiously as the politician outlines his four-part program called “REAL U.S.A. Corporations Plan.” His platform is designed to counteract the despair that corporate outsourcing breeds by, among other things, getting the federal government to advocate more effectively on behalf of workers and communities in the World Trade Organization and making sure that tax codes give incentives to companies that keep jobs in America. When he finishes, the room erupts with applause.

“I could be wrong about him,” says Owens. “We won’t know until he gets into office, but I think he says what he means. And if he doesn’t, then he will have me to answer to. He will be held accountable.”


The next stop is East, Alton, a city on the Mississippi River with a population just shy of 7,000. It’s roughly an hour and a half drive to East Alton, where Obama faces the machinist union, and it’s a great opportunity to get to know the man behind the campaign. Next month, he could possibly replace Republican Peter G. Fitzgerald, who is not seeking reelection. And an Obama victory would move the Senate Democrats–at present outnumbered 51 to 48–one seat closer to a majority. This year also marks the first time Democrats have the possibility of gaining control of the Senate, with strong Democratic hopefuls in Southern states like South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana.

As it stands, Illinois doesn’t look good for Republican challenger Alan Keyes, who entered the race in August. He was hastily chosen by the GOP after a tabloid scandal knocked the former Republican candidate, Jack Ryan, out of the race. Ryan, 44, is a Wilmette native and a Goldman Sachs investment banker who dropped out of the race in late June when unsealed portions of his 1999 divorce case revealed claims from his former wife, actress Jeri Ryan, that Ryan took her to sex clubs and tried to talk her into having public sex with him. The story came at a time when the challenger was trailing Obama in the polls by 20 points. Obama’s only comment was that Ryan’s divorce documents were “not a campaign issue.”

In 1988 and 1992, Keyes unsuccessfully sought a Senate seat in Maryland, earning 38% and 29% of the vote, respectively. However, according to published reports, his credibility suffered when the media learned in 1992 that he had paid himself a salary of $8,500 a month from his campaign funds. He later sought the Republican presidential nomination, earning 4% of the vote in the Illinois presidential primary election in 1996 and 9% in 2000. Four years ago, the native New Yorker criticized Sen. Hillary Clinton for moving to another state for political reasons. In August, Keyes moved from Darnestown, Maryland, to Calumet City, Illinois, to set up temporary residence for his campaign. Keyes told CNN that he justified his move as “responding to the people of Illinois who have asked me to come and help them with a crisis situation.”

Although Obama refuses to respond to negative pols, Donna Brazile, political consultant and Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign manager, says at some point Bush and the Republican machine will descend on Illinois to try to derail him. “Therefore, he will need the active support of John Kerry and the rest of the Democratic Party. There is no question that the era of electing black power candidates is over. Now you’re electing individuals who have expanded their power base and are looking at larger goals. I think Barack’s positioning in the race will suit him well to become a leading voice of African American issues, as well as American causes that African Americans should be a part of. He has his pulse on the real issues facing voters this fall. Nobody thought he would come out of that primary alive, given that he had two [rivals] who had a great deal of gravitas, but he came out more than OK.” He came out strong and well positioned.

Rep, Artur Davis (D-Ala.) remembers talking about Obama’s long-shot candidacy a year ago with Democrats in Washington, D.C. They all expected Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes, the leading candidate, to win the primary in March. Instead, Obama beat out all six Democratic hopefuls by an incredible 53% of the vote. “Frankly, a lot of people in Washington were dismissive of Barack’s candidacy; a lot of people in D.C. believed that if you can’t win a House seat, how are you going to win a Senate seat?” (In 2000, Obama lost by a 60% to 31% margin when he challenged incumbent Rep. Bobby Bush, a former Black Panther, for a seat in the House of Representatives.)

If Obama wins, it will be a milestone for African Americans. To date, there have been two African American senators since Reconstruction–Edward William Brooke, who represented Massachusetts when he was elected in 1966, and Carol Moseley Braun, another Illinois politician who held office for one term after she was elected in 1992. Rep. Denise Majette is also looking for a seat after winning the Democratic nomination in Georgia. Says Davis: “I think that Denise has a difficult race. Georgia is a state that has never elected a black to the position of U.S. Senator. Illinois has, and there are certain historical advantages in the state of Illinois that I think certainly favor Barack’s candidacy.”

Obama ran a smart campaign in the primaries. He brought together white liberals and African Americans, gaining endorsements from Carbondale City Council member Sheila Simon, daughter of the late Sen. Paul Simon, the most respected liberal Democrat in downstate Illinois, and former Sen. Max Cleland from Georgia, a popular veteran who lost both legs and an arm in the Vietnam War and who introduced Kerry at the Democratic National Convention. Obama also gained votes from heavily Republican and predominantly white areas in the southwestern and northern portions of the state–places like DuPage County, where a black candidate was never expected to get backing.

If Obama wins and becomes the only African American in the U.S. Senate, Braun warns that he will have demands placed on him by both Illinois voters and a “national constituency.”

“He won’t be able to get away with just representing his state, which most senators can do,” explains Braun, who didn’t endorse any candidate during the primary. “[Other senators] can represent their state and that’s really the only expectation that anybody has of them. [Obama is] going to have to learn to balance the needs of h is state against the larger national constituency right off the bat, and without necessarily having the resources or staff to do the job. But I’m sure he’s up to it.”

But not every African American believes this notion of a national constituency. Maintains Vernon E. Jordan Jr., senior managing director at Lazard L.L.C. and a member of BE’s Top 50 African Americans on Wall Street: “His constituency is the people of Illinois. They elected him and it is them he will be responsible to. [He’s not being elected to be] the representative of all black people. He’s being elected to be the Democratic senator to represent the people of Illinois. That is his only mandate.”


East Alton is a small community a stone’s throw away from St. Louis, where many young Altonians moved for jobs. The rain has all but stopped, and a small crowd of 150 people are already in their seats when Obama walks into the room shaking hands with his right hand as he places his left hand on the other person’s shoulder, elbow, or forearm. He always looks people directly in the eye. He is masterful at connecting with people reagardless of age, gender, or race.

At the Machinist Hall, Obama reiterated his pro-labor campaign speech, his stance on the Free Trade Agreement, China, and the ills of the Bush administration. When he finishes, the room erupts with applause, and he easily melts into the crowd, listening to ideas and answering people’s questions. An hour or so after be arrived, Obama and his entourage are back on the road, this time headed south to Carbondale to attend a $50-a-plate fundraiser in his honor. From Carbondale, his motorcade will drive four hours north go Peoria and is scheduled to arrive around 2 a.m. Campaigning is a grueling process, but he’s up to the challenge.

But Obama doesn’t only need votes; he needs money. And he has managed to raise loads of it. Of the first million that his campaign raised, half came directly from BE 100s and small minority-owned companies. He received initial donations from Chicago-based contributors like John W. Rogers Jr., CEO of Ariel Capital Management L.L.C. (No. 1 on the BE ASSET MANAGERS list with $16.1 billion in assets under management) and his wife, who gave more than $21,000. Employees of Loop Capital Markets L.L.C. (No. 3 on the BE INVESTMENT BANKS list with $113 billion in total managed issues) put up in excess of $24,000. And Louis A. Holland, managing partner of Holland Capital Management L.P. (No. 10 on the BE ASSET MANAGERS list with $1.9 billion in assets under management) personally contributed close to $10,000. Obama’s support extends beyond the boundaries of the Windy City to investment bankers in New York City such as Vernon Jordan, who along with his wife, sponsored Obama’s first big Washington fundraiser last fall at a time when his underdog campaign didn’t look good and long before anybody knew him. “Several friends of mine said to me, I’m coming because of you,’ and they came, they saw, and they heard him. They took in what he had to say and I think they too felt his commitment and his passion and were moved by his eloquence enough that they wrote cheeks.” Jordan explains. “So I am just very impressed by him as a man, as a lawyer, as an individual, and as someone who chose not to go to a law firm but to be a community organizer and to do something about community problems. I felt when I first met him and listened to him that I was listening to myself 40 years ago and so I am very excited about his candidacy, very excited about the possibility that he will serve in the United States Senate.”

Rogers, who has known Obama and his wife. Michelle, for well over 10 years, says that as a state senator, Obama has been extremely effective in helping the black business community by providing strategic advice. “Whenever any of us had issues of concern or things that needed to be addressed, Barack has been very responsive. He basically gives people insight into how the government works. Having a peer–someone our own age–in government who can sit down and tell entrepreneurs how the state process works, how you work within it, and what buttons to push shows us the way. He’s shedding light on how the process really works.”

Obama has always been a strong advocate for small and minority-owned businesses. “[They] are crucial to the American economy,” he asserts. “An overwhelming number of jobs in our society have been created by small and minority-owned businesses. I’m proud to see more African Americans generate the capital and the technical knowledge needed to start their own companies. They are taking ownership [of their destiny], and not just working for somebody else. [because owning your own business] is the recipe for long-term wealth and stability for any community.

“But more needs to be done,” he continues. “I see my role as helping to open doors that have previously been closed for small businesses across the country–black, white, Hispanic, or Asian. The more we can do to encourage assistance through the SBA and other organizations; the more we can promote exports in other countries. And the more we can incorporate technology into small and minority-owned businesses, the more successful we will be as a country.”

Obama says this initial core of financial contributors helped him establish credibility early on, and that allowed him to raise additional money. As of the end of the second quarter filings with the Federal Election Commission, Obama raised an astonishing $9.8 million with $3.3 million in cash toward his election bid. outpacing most of this year’s senatorial candidates.

And he has proven to be a shrewd money manager. During the primary, he held on to his money until the last few weeks and then he hit the airways with an impressive (and effective) television blitz. With seven candidates in the race, there was a bloc of undecided voters, and when people started to make up their minds in the last couple of weeks, Obama had a barrage of spots.


Born in Hawaii, Obama is the son of an African exchange student from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. He rarely saw his father, who left the family when Obama was 2 to attend Harvard and then later returned to his native Kenya, where be worked as a government economist. (At age 21, Obama learned that his father had died in a car accident.)

When Obama was 6, his mother married an Indonesian oil manager, and the family moved to Jakarta, Indonesia. As a teenager, Obama returned to Hawaii to live with his grandparents and attended one of the island’s top prep schools. He was a lone black child raised by his white mother and grandparents. But he gained the ability to connect with people from various national, cultural, and racial backgrounds. “I grew up with whites and blacks and Asians within my own family and surrounding communities. It’s an enormous advantage in an America that is changing everyday in that it requires us to work together across racial cultural, and ethnic lines,” Obama says. “But I was affected by the problems that I think a lot of young African American teens have; they feel that they need to rebel against society as a way of proving their blackness. And often, this results in self-destructive behavior. I’ve written about the fact that when I was in high school. I experimented with drugs and I played a lot of sports, but didn’t take my studies particularly seriously. But I was fortunate to have a foundation and values from my family that helped me to overcome some of those destructive attitudes.”

Although he always considered himself a good student in high school, Obama says he didn’t get serious about his scholarship until his third year in college, when he transferred to Columbia University in New York Filled with political idealism, he became a community organizer in Harlem after graduation. But he couldn’t afford to stay in New York City on his salary. When he decided to leave Harlem, he wrote to organizations across the country looking for work and received only a single reply from a church-based group in Chicago that was trying to help residents of poor South Side neighborhoods cope with a wave of plant closings–an experience that would begin to shape Obama’s political career.

Three years later, he left the church organization to attend Harvard Law School, and in 1990, he became the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review. Armed with a law degree that matched the likes of Fortune 500 leaders, Obama could have designed a high-powered legal or corporate career. He turned down an opportunity to clerk with a chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Washington, D.C., circuit and jobs working for prestigious Wall Street law firms. Instead, he returned to Chicago to practice civil rights law, representing victims of housing and employment discrimination and working on voting rights legislation for small public interest firms. He later started teaching at the University of Chicago Law School but did not pursue a tenure-track post. He decided to go into politics.

When Obama announced his intention to run for U.S. Senate, he had already built a solid track record on issues affecting working-class families. He expanded a program to provide healthcare to Illinois children. He wrote and passed a law that gives $100 million in tax breaks to working-class families. He wrote and passed landmark legislation to end racial profiling among state law enforcement agencies. The bill also required a video-taped confessions in murder cases. And while Obama doesn’t have statistics that chart the results of his bill since being signed into law, the ACLU applauded his effort to make law enforcement agencies in Illinois keep track of all traffic stops and the race of the individual. Obama was also one of the few candidates to publicly oppose the war in Iraq.

Win or lose in next month’s election Obama represents a new form of leadership. For more than three decades, black political leadership has largely been tied to civil rights activism, with two distinguishable traits: a willingness to agitate with firebrand conviction and the ability to mobilize large groups of blacks behind a common cause. Today’s black politicians, however, talk less about equal access and more about education and economic opportunities, viewing themselves as coalition builders and economic developers seeking to appeal to broad constituencies and abandoning rhetoric that would tag them as liberals. It’s a group that includes former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who ran an unsuccessful Senate campaign in 2002, and Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. of Tennessee, who is expected to make a run for the Senate in 2006.

It’s Rogers of Ariel Capital Management who sums up Obama best: “If you’re a leader and you care about people, you’re going to reach out beyond your local community and help people nationally. I think Barack will be an extraordinary national leader. Dr. King was able to fill an enormous void with his extraordinary gifts. There is an enormous void in this country and Rev. Jackson can’t fill it all. We need other strong dynamic leaders who can be a voice for the voiceless. I think it’s our responsibility that all of us who are privileged and given the opportunity to, reach back and help bring others up. And Barack does it extraordinarily well.”

As Obama’s campaign motorcade meanders through country roads and small towns, we come to a stop on the campus of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. It’s early evening, and the sun starts to disappear behind the trees. Inside the SIU Student Center, an estimated crowd of 600 conservative Illinois residents are waiting for Obama’s entrance. For Obama, inside are more people to reach and more voters to sway. And it’s one step closer to Washington.

–Additional reporting by Joyce Jones & Stephanie Young

COPYRIGHT 2004 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group