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Thursday, March 25, 2004 11:10 am

In the black

Throughout his campaign, Barack Obama told voters, “I’m of the African-American community, but not limited by it.”

It can be painful to hear Ivy League-bred Barack Obama talk jive. When the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate 'gives a shout out' to a supporter, calling him his 'homeboy,' or worse, his 'peeps,' the inflection in his voice betrays him as perhaps more vanilla than chocolate.

In the months leading up to last week's primary election, several African-American pundits raised the issue of Obama's 'blackness.' Worried that some voters would perceive Obama as an "overeducated elitist who wouldn't play well in the 'hood," Chicago Sun-Times writer Laura Washington asked repeatedly in her columns, "Is Barack black enough?"

In the end, the numbers showed Obama, the product of an interracial marriage, is plenty black. Many of his highest vote totals came from Chicago's predominantly African-American wards, some of which handed him as much as 90 percent of the total ballots cast.

And, along the same lines, statistics showed Obama as 'white enough,' too, with large concentrations of Caucasian voters from Chicago's northwest side, as well as all five of the city's collar counties, getting behind him.

"I'm of the African-American community, but not limited by it," was Obama's mantra throughout the campaign.

Though much has been made of Obama's ability to toe the color line, some African-American leaders, like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, have intensified their claim on Obama as the latest 'Great Black Hope,' drawing parallels to the 1983 election of Harold Washington as Chicago's first black mayor.

But in the weeks leading up to the election, back when multi-millionaire candidate Blair Hull led the pack of six candidates, polls showed a mere one-third of African-American voters had decided on Obama. It wasn't until Hull's campaign imploded, after revelations of a contentious divorce, that Obama's ambition to become the Senate's lone black member was dubbed a historic movement.

And even then, many African-American leaders remained unmoved.

Cook County Board President John H. Stroger, for example, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Democratic Machine by endorsing its candidate, Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes, who finished a distant second in the contest.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Chicago, a former member of the militant Black Panther Party, dipped into Hull's bottomless payroll by serving as his campaign co-chairman. Rush spread the wealth among his family, landing his half-brother a $12,000 a month position working as an advisor to Hull.

Throughout the campaign season, Rush deflected criticism that he supported Hull as revenge against Obama, who challenged him for his congressional seat in 2000.

In the current post-primary period -- described by one Chicago journalist as the time when "politicians hug each other in brotherhood after months of stabbing" -- Stroger and Rush now stand firmly behind the Democratic nominee, even if it is Obama.

They are not alone. Some African-American colleagues who served with Obama during his seven-year tenure in the state legislature are now also grudgingly supporting him after they endorsed other candidates or remained neutral in the primary.

"Anybody but Obama," chimed one prominent black legislator, who asked not to be named, a week before the election.

Surprisingly, one such reluctant Obama supporter is state Rep. Monique Davis, D-Chicago. A 17-year veteran legislator, Davis sponsored a pair of significant bills -- one designed to track incidents of racial profiling, and another that mandates the taping of police interrogations in murder cases -- that were central to Obama's campaign platform.

Though she worked closely with Obama to pass the bills into law, and says she toiled to keep the bills alive before he became their Senate sponsor, Davis claims her efforts were largely ignored.

"I was snubbed," says Davis, who endorsed Hynes in the primary though she belongs to the same church as Obama on Chicago's South Side. "I felt he was shutting me out of history."

State Sen. Rickey Hendon, D-Chicago, the original Senate sponsor of both the racial profiling and videotaped confession bills, likewise felt overshadowed by Obama.

"I took all the beatings and insults and endured all the racist comments over the years from nasty Republican committee chairmen," says Hendon. "Barack didn't have to endure any of it, yet, in the end, he got all the credit.

"I don't consider it bill jacking," Hendon clarifies. "But no one wants to carry the ball 99 yards all the way to the one-yard line, and then give it to the half-back who gets all the credit and the stats in the record book."

Senate President Emil Jones, who endorsed Obama from the start of his campaign, aided the candidate by yanking Hendon off the high-profile bills and appointing Obama their new sponsor.

Why did Hendon release the bills after years of carrying them? "Mama didn't raise no fool," he answers. "President Jones has considerable influence and a lot of power. I knew the President would like me a whole lot more if I went along with his wishes."

Still smarting from the slight, Hendon refused to back Obama until just weeks before the election. Hendon admits he buckled to pressure from Jones, whom he considers Obama's ultimate kingmaker.

"Barack felt my support early on would enable him to get off to a flying start," acknowledges Jones, who denied using the legislature as a way to boost Obama's profile.

Assistant House Majority Leader Lovana "Lou" Jones, D-Chicago, who also worked closely with Obama, says she stayed neutral through the primary as a show of loyalty to Rep. Bobby Rush. "Bobby is one of the main people responsible for me being in Springfield," says Jones. "He was very hurt that Barack ran against him. It's not easy to support somebody that came out to take your job when you have mortgages and kids in college."

State Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago, who endorsed Hynes, a longtime ally, says Rush needs to get over himself.

"You have to beat someone to win a seat," says Flowers, noting that Rush, himself, upset the Democratic Party by ousting former U.S. Rep. Charles A. Hayes, a close friend of Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, when he was elected in 1992.

Rush declined interview requests for this article.

The general response from black communities, according to Chicago historian and author Timuel Black, was that African-American leaders who opposed Obama owed it to their race to keep mum about it.

"I was tremendously surprised that people like Rush, who come from similar backgrounds, would be in such vocal opposition to Barack, suggesting he is not black enough," says Black. "Obama distinguishes himself as a leader by not concentrating on race as an issue, but by concentrating on issues that include race."

As the Obama campaign is increasingly painted as a crusade, one wonders if some black leaders rue their decisions not to support him from the beginning. "What do I have to regret?" says Flowers. "I made a choice and stood by what I believe in."

In fact, Obama's lukewarm supporters in the legislature are quick to dismiss the "Obama movement" rhetoric as media fabrication.

"I didn't get swept up in any movement," says Lou Jones. "A 'movement' didn't even exist until a week before the election, when the media played it that way."

Hendon agrees, saying, "There was no real movement. Barack's no Dr. King or Harold Washington."

During a luncheon of chicken Caesars and fruit cocktails held last Wednesday at the Sangamo Club on East Adams, former Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican, offered his two cents on the Senate primary results. When asked what could be learned from the contest, Edgar said Obama's ability to win over a broad base of voters proves that "race is no longer a hindrance; in fact, it's a plus."

Edgar's comment seems to rely on a pair of false assumptions: one, that racism no longer exists; and, two, that minority candidates are assured support from minority voters.

But, until the waning days of the election, Obama had no lock on the black vote. And his African-American Democratic rivals have only recently sheathed their swords.


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