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Thursday, March 11, 2004 02:50 pm

Head of the class

Barack Obama banks on his progressive legislative record to win a seat in the U.S. Senate. Is that enough for Illinois voters?

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COVER PHOTO BY GINNY LEE

The gospel choir has finished its hymns and the pastor is well into his sermon when a tall, gaunt man with short-cropped hair and a handsome baby face appears at the edge of the dais. The pastor, fervently promoting the new Mel Gibson movie as though his paycheck depends on it, catches a glimpse of the thin man and stops his preaching in mid-sentence.

"Well, I'm not here to tell you all how to vote and who to vote for," the Rev. Leon Perry III tells the 200-member congregation of Metropolitan Community Church, "but if the pastor brings anyone into this pulpit, amen."

"Amen," echoes his flock.

And with that introduction, U.S. Senate hopeful Barack Obama strides to the microphone and speaks in a croaking baritone, hoarse from an already long morning of campaigning across his home base on Chicago's South Side.

"I used to go to church once a week," Obama has become fond of saying. "Now I go to five churches every Sunday."

Despite his weary voice, Obama began the day with an extra bounce in his step. Just weeks before the election, he suddenly became the front-runner in most statewide polls for the first time since announcing his candidacy in January 2003. The Chicago Tribune had endorsed him in that day's paper, calling him "one of the strongest Democratic candidates Illinois has seen in some time."

Just a couple of days earlier, the Chicago Sun-Times had endorsed Obama, but perhaps even more significant was its Feb. 28 lead story, which carried this incendiary headline: "Hull's stormy divorce records unsealed: Senate candidate . . . won't respond to ex-wife's charges that he struck her, called her names, threatened to kill her." In juicy detail, the story described multimillionaire candidate Blair Hull as a foul-mouthed wife-beater.

During his morning church circuit, Obama makes no mention of the scandal that has engulfed Hull, who a week earlier was leading the Democrats by as much as 10 points in the polls. Rather, Obama touts his legislative achievements in the state Senate (last year he led the passage of a jaw-dropping 26 bills into law) and lays out his platform (he opposes the war in Iraq, NAFTA, tax cuts for the wealthy and ballooning budget deficits) in a scripted speech less than 10 minutes long.

A couple dozen handshakes later, Obama sweeps through the halls and out the door, where he flips open his cell phone -- "Don't take my picture," he warns, "or else I'll look like some self-important politician" -- and awaits the dark-blue Chevrolet Suburban with tinted windows that will whisk him off to another congregation less than a mile away.

A media darling if ever there was one, Obama has enjoyed the kind of press that politicians can't buy. In its endorsement, the Tribune gushed, "As pedigrees go, there is not a finer one among the Democratic candidates."

Obama, 42, graduated from Columbia University and Harvard Law School, where he became the first African-American president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review. He journeyed to Chicago as a civil-rights attorney and community activist. In 1992, during Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign, Obama was director of Illinois Project VOTE!, a massive voter-registration and education drive credited with helping elect Carol Moseley Braun to the U.S. Senate.

In 1996 Obama was elected to the state Senate, representing Chicago's 13th District. He teaches constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School, and lives with his wife, Michelle, and two daughters in a high-rise building overlooking Lake Michigan just outside the U. of C. campus in Hyde Park.

Although Obama has achieved much during his tenure in Springfield, he is counting on his stellar performance in the legislative session last spring to catapult him ahead of the pack in the March 16 primary.

Obama rode a publicity wave by sponsoring such legislation as a bill banning the use of the diet supplement ephedra, which killed a Northwestern University football player, and another one preventing the use of pepper spray or pyrotechnics in nightclubs in the wake of the tragic deaths of 21 people during a stampede at the now-notorious E2 nightclub in Chicago.

Other legislation sponsored by Obama was monumental for the state and the entire country, according to one political ally, House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago. "Barack passed some particularly outstanding legislation last year that reflects his progressive values and progressive ideals," Currie says.

Obama's bill requiring police to record interrogations of homicide suspects was the first of its kind in the country. It has been hailed as the most far-reaching reform the Illinois legislature has passed in its efforts to repair a crippled criminal-justice system.

With another bill, Obama sought to combat racial profiling by requiring police to record the race of stopped motorists. In accordance with the new law, the collected data will be forwarded to the state Department of Transportation, which will analyze the information to determine whether motorists are being pulled over on the basis of race.

Other significant Obama-sponsored legislation expanded the Kid Care program to take in an additional 20,000 children who lacked health insurance, provided an estimated $26 million in tax relief to low-income families by making the state Earned Income Tax Credit refundable, and protected the state Open Meetings Act by requiring public bodies to tape closed-door meetings.

Obama can thank his lucky stars for Senate President Emil Jones, for much of the progressive legislation he crafted would have surely been quashed under the Republican grip of Jones' long-serving predecessor, Pate Phillip.

Jones, along with political heavyweights U.S. Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Chicago, and Danny Davis, D-Chicago, threw his considerable clout behind Obama from the moment he announced his campaign several stories above the Loop in Chicago's posh Hotel Allegro.

Obama has earned the support of many of the state's leading African-American and politically progressive luminaries. Steve Neal, the late Sun-Times columnist, was among those in Obama's corner. In one of his final columns, Neal wrote that U.S. Sen. Paul Simon had intended to formally endorse Obama before he died -- a fact recently made public by Simon's daughter, Sheila Simon.

Other prominent Obama backers include U.S. Reps. Lane Evans, D-Rock Island, and Jan Schakowski, D-Evanston, state Sens. Terry Link, D-Vernon Hills, and Denny Jacobs, D-East Moline, former U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Abner Mikva, and former U.S. presidential candidates Bill Bradley and the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.

More surprisingly, Obama has garnered significant union support that had been expected to go to Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes, whose father, former Senate leader and Chicago ward boss Thomas Hynes, had deep ties to organized labor. The Service Employees International Union; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; and Illinois' second largest teachers' union all have endorsed Obama.

Despite his considerable achievements, Obama faces some major hurdles in winning over voters. Most obviously is his Middle Eastern-sounding name. In one of the low points of the campaign, a Republican political operative constructed a Web site comparing Obama to Osama bin Laden.

Like a kid who learns to avoid humiliation by poking fun at himself before others have the chance, Obama refers to his name at both the start and end of his stump speeches: "'Where did you get that funny name?' people asked me when I first announced my candidacy. Some called me 'Alabama,' some called me 'Yo Mama.'"

To close the speeches, he says, often to laughter and applause, "If we can elect a governor named Rod Blagojevich, I know we can elect a senator named Barack Obama."

Obama's surname is from his Kenya-born father, whom he wrote about in his 1995 book Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, his first name is Swahili for "blessed by God." He attributes his faint Midwestern drawl to his Kansas-born mother, who raised him in Honolulu, Hawaii and Indonesia.

Before voters can warm up to Obama's odd-sounding name, they must first be able to recognize it. When he announced his candidacy, polls showed less than 20 percent of Illinois voters ever heard of Barack Obama.

Whereas Hull's personal fortune enabled him to flood the airwaves several months ago, Obama, who has raised slightly more than $4 million for his campaign, began running ads in the Chicago market just a couple of weeks ago, according to his press secretary Pam Smith, who notes that the campaign doesn't have the funds to saturate the airwaves downstate.

"If people know my track record and know my message, we will do well," Obama predicted in a phone interview last week. "But the challenge is getting that message out for people to respond."

Obama has done as well as any of the candidates to court downstate voters, according to Kent Redfield, professor of political science at University of Illinois at Springfield, who believes that the contest will be won or lost in Cook County. Unlike the 2002 election, in which Blagojevich placed third in Chicago and still managed to win the governorship, Redfield says there are "no favorite sons" in the upcoming primary.

"Downstaters look at the whole field of candidates as being from Chicago," he says. "Right now Obama has the momentum; he's getting positive press and buzz just when people are starting to focus on the race."

Local political activist Roy Williams Jr. says an Obama victory would prove that a "true grassroots" campaign can still trump big money.

"People are beginning to realize the uniqueness of this historic moment," says Williams, a Springfield coordinator for Obama. "It's not every election that you run into a guy with credentials like Barack Obama's."

The underlying sentiment commonly expressed by columnists and editorial writers who have embraced Obama is that the election of any other candidate would demonstrate nothing less than the cynical unraveling of the entire democratic process. A vote for Hynes, who is backed by House Speaker Michael Madigan, is a salute to political nepotism and the state's Democratic machine. A vote for Hull is a solemn bow to the power of deep pockets. (The other Democratic candidates -- Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas, former Chicago Board of Education President Gery Chico, radio talk-show host Nancy Skinner and health-care consultant Joyce Washington -- have been largely ignored by the press as they have failed to place in double digits in the polls.)

According to a study conducted last July by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, "primary candidates in federal contests who spent the most won 90 percent of the time in the 2002 races."

In the current Illinois primary, Hull has already shelled out more than $29 million of his own money, outspending his rivals by more than 6-1. Aside from the fallout as details of his messy divorce were released, the 61-year-old has also had to explain why he did not register to vote in Illinois until 1995 and even stayed away from the polls in the 2000 presidential election. Although Hull runs ads that criticize the pharmaceutical lobby for driving up consumer drug prices, a recent investigation showed that he invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in stock funds tied to the drug companies he accuses of price-gouging.

A mathematical whiz, Hull parlayed $25,000 in blackjack winnings as a member of a professional card-counting team in the 1970s into a hugely lucrative securities-trading firm that was sold five years ago to Goldman Sachs for $531 million.

Hull has said during his campaign that he condensed his political strategy into a mathematical equation guaranteeing him victory in the election. Indeed, he may have it all figured out: Just a quarter of eligible voters are expected to cast their ballots.

If Obama beats the odds -- and wins the upcoming primary and November general election -- the payoff could be substantially more than just another millionaire in Congress. Obama would become not only the lone African-American member of the U.S. Senate, but also, arguably, one of its most progressive.

Back at Met Church on Chicago's South Side, Obama invokes two modern-day pioneers -- the first black mayor of Chicago and first African-American woman elected to the U.S. Senate -- during his speech.

"On March 16," he says, "we've got to turn out to vote like we turned out for Harold [Washington]; we've got to turn out to vote like we turned out for Carol Moseley Braun."

A woman sitting beside me asks to borrow my pen. With it, she writes on her church pamphlet, "Obama, March 16," then, underlines the date.

For the candidate, that's a Sunday morning well spent.

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