EDITOR’S NOTE: As President Barack Obama returns to Springfield today — now in the final months of his presidency — we decided to take a look back at Obama’s first year in elected office. This story first ran on April 26, 1997, in that year’s annual Law Day edition.
SPRINGFIELD — If he stays true to the path he has followed in the past, first-term state Sen. Barack H. Obama is likely to distinguish himself as a member of the Illinois General Assembly and the Senate Judiciary Committee.
A 1991 graduate of Harvard Law School, the Chicago Democrat served as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review.
Before going to work in 1992 as a civil rights attorney with Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland, the Chicago firm to which he remains counsel, he wrote a book-length memoir, “Dreams from my Father,” which was published by Random House in 1995 and recently came out in paperback.
Also an adjunct professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School, he was named in 1993 to Crain’s Chicago Business magazine’s “40 under 40” list of the city’s outstanding young leaders.
And while residents of his South Side district elected him to public office for the first time only last November, the 35-year-old Obama already has impressed colleages in the legislature, including the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Commitee, Sen. Carl E. Hawkinson of Galesburg.
“He obviously knows what he’s doing,” Hawkinson said in a telephone interview.
“He asks very intelligent questions; he as an in-depth understanding of the law; and I think he’s going to make a top-notch senator.”
The committee’s vice chairman, Sen. Kirk W. Dillard, R-Hinsdale, said Obama had made an “extremely positive” impression on him as well.
“He is a bright, intelligent and articulate spokesman for issues pertaining to his district and statewide. And he is a tremendous addition to the Senate as a whole,” Dillard said.
He added that although Obama has been “impressive on the floor” and has taken his job seriously, “he doesn’t take himself too seriously.”
He noted that the freshman senator had shown a good sense of humor in the face of the teasing to which a new member is subjected in bringing his first bill to a vote.
Former Harvard classmate Robert Fisher, now an attorney with the Washington, D.C. firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, expressed similar views.
“He’s quite a charming guy,” Fisher said. “He was one of the smartest people there — brilliantly articulate — but also a regular-guy kind of person, a very warm person and a very funny person.”
Born in Hawaii, Obama lived in Indonesia between the ages of 6 and 10.
His father, later to become a government official in Kenya, and his mother, a white woman whose family had migrated to the islands from Kansas, had met while studying at the University of Hawaii.
They subsequently separated, and the father after whom the senator was named returned to Africa to work as an economist and UN representative. His mother remarried, and moved with her son to her new husband’s native country.
“Living in Indonesia was a fascinating time,” Obama said, “because it gave me a good sense of what the Third World was like and what an emerging nation goes through.”
He learned to speak the Indonesian language while living there.
“I also speak a barely passable Spanish, and sometimes a barely passable English, he said, “having studied the Spanish language and English literature at Occidental College in Los Angeles and at Columbia University in New York.
“I have a smattering of Swahili,” he added, “because my father was from Kenya.”
He said he had traveled to that country to learn more about his father, who had died in 1980 and whom he had not known very well.
He said his father was “blacklisted” by the Kenyan authorities and was unable to find employment for a time, because he had spoken out against nepotism and corruption in the government.
“I suspect that part of my interest in politics, and a particular brand in politics, can be traced back to who he was and what he wanted,” the senator said. “A lot of those dreams foundered on the rocks of tribalism and politics.”
He said the conflicts that embroiled his father involved issues of ethnicity. And he said his father’s experiences and his own “mixed background” had shown him that “race and ethnicity can be a destructive force in politics.”
After graduating from Columbia with a degree in political science, he worked for a year as a journalist and financial analyst for a business magazine before deciding he was interested in urban problems and issues of community development.
He worked as a community organizer in New York’s Harlem neighborhood for six months. A move to Chicago followed, to work for the Developing Communities project, an organization founded by a group of churches to deal with problems caused by the shutting down of large industrial employers on the Far South Side.
“We set up job-training programs, college-counseling and tututorial programs,” he said. “And we worked to get increased city services for the area.”
He said working as a community organizer for 3½ years was a “wonderful experience” that allowed him to accomplish much at a local level.
But he came to realize that many of the problems the communities were facing were “not really local” but the result of global economic factors.
“So I determined at that point that I needed more training to get a better grasp on how the economy was working and how the legal structure shaped that economy,” Obama said.
He enrolled at Harvard Law School in 1988, hoping to continue his work in community development upon graduation. And three years later, after writing “Dreams from my Father,” he served for six months as director of Illinois Project Vote, which registered 150,000 minority and low-income persons for the 1992 elections.
“That was the first time I started meeting with the political groups in Chicago,” he said. “And it gave me a sense of who some of the players were and what they were or were not trying to accomplish.”
He then went on to work for Davis, Miner, where some of his clients were private organizations that built affordable housing for low-income people.
He said that he was impressed that these community development corporations achieved socially beneficial goals without the aid of governmental bureaucracy. But he said their success was based on a federal program provding tax credits for investment in low-income housing.
“That’s an example of a smart policy,” Obama said.
“The developers were thinking in market terms and operating under the rules of the marketplace; but at the same time we had government supporting and subsidizing those efforts.”
He said it was important for politicians to understand the market principles under which businesses operate, thereby allowing government to utilize market incentives to implement policies “for the benefit of ordinary people.”
He said that although he had been interested in public policy issues throughout his adult life, he hadn’t been “on a fast track to politics.” And his decision to run for the state Senate only came when his predecessor, Alice Palmer, D-Chicago, mounted her ultimately unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. House seat vacated by Mel Reynolds.
“A large number of people thought I was crazy for doing it,” Obama said, noting the stressful nature of politicians’ lives and the public’s cynicism about their motives.
“They think that politics is essentially a dirty business,” he said. But he responded by citing “another tradition” of politics: “Abraham Lincoln was a politician. FDR was a politician. I would argue that Martin Luther King was essentially a politician.”
And while “painfully aware” of his current status as a freshman member of the minority party in the Senate, Obama said his own long-term legislative plan would involve “putting in place building blocks that ensure productive communities.”
He said those building blocks consisted of “a sound education for all kids,” continuing education and market-based vocational training for adults, and sound strategies for state-assisted economic development.
He also expressed a deep interest in issues of juvenile justice. And he said something must be done to reintegrate into society the 50,000 young persons who enter the juvenile court system each year in Cook County alone.
“The strategy of simply continuing to lock them up without any corresponding commitment to education and rehabilitation is a tragic mistake,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Emil Jones, a Chicago Democrat who has known Obama since his days a as a community organizer, said he was glad to have him on his team.
And Chicago attorney Newton N. Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission during the Kennedy administration and now counsel to Sidley & Austin, predicted a great future for Obama, who worked for the firm as a summer clerk during law school.
He said that although he was sorry the senator had declined an offer to become an associate at the firm, he was glad that he had gone into politics.
“We’re all keeping an eye on Barack Obama,” Minow said. “He’s going places.”