For Obama, bipartisan aims, party-line votes
A desire to build cross-party consensus in Senate rubs up against political perils of compromise.
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Even so, Kellman says, the DCP's accomplishments under Obama were limited. "Poverty remains. Structural unemployment remains. Bad schools remain," says Kellman, now a Catholic lay minister in Chicago. "We were able to whittle around the edges of it but not successfully change things."Skip to next paragraph
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Perhaps more lasting, he says, were the "individual success stories" of the local residents Obama worked with, many of whom gained the skills and self-confidence to find new jobs and move to better neighborhoods.
Obama left for Harvard Law School in 1988 on the belief that he needed to work at a higher level – as a lawyer, a public official – to bring about broader change.
But the decision was not straightforward. In his 1995 memoir "Dreams from My Father," he questions whether in leaving Chicago he was partly fleeing the reality of his own "inconsequence." "Maybe once you stripped away the rationalizations, it always came down to a simple matter of escape."
He returned to Chicago after law school and worked as a civil rights lawyer and university lecturer before running for state Senate in 1996. He pledged to bring his collaborative approach to Springfield.
But there was little evidence of collegiality in that first campaign. Alice Palmer, a state senator and fellow community organizer on the South Side, had decided to run for Congress and encouraged Obama to seek her seat. After Ms. Palmer lost, her supporters asked Obama to step aside so she could keep her Senate post. Not only did Obama refuse, but he challenged the signatures on her election petitions, driving her out of the race.
The idealist had learned that politics sometimes meant playing rough.
A record on civil rights
As a freshman Democrat in a Republican-led legislature, Obama sought as a mentor Senate minority leader Emil Jones Jr., a former Chicago sewer inspector and product of the Cook County political machine. Jones assigned Obama to a high-profile role in a bipartisan overhaul of Illinois's notoriously loose campaign-finance laws. It was unglamorous work that risked upsetting powerful lawmakers. The rules were so lax that some legislators had spent campaign funds on new cars, additions to their homes, and school tuition for their children.
Obama had wanted caps on campaign contributions but came to realize that would never pass, recalls Mike Lawrence, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, which had worked with Obama, Senator Dillard, and two other lawmakers on the overhaul. Obama helped iron out a deal, approved in 1998, that barred the personal use of campaign funds, toughened disclosure laws, and banned many gifts from lobbyists.
"He impressed me as someone who had beliefs but also understood that when you're trying to get something done,... you have to be prepared to compromise," Mr. Lawrence recalls.
When Democrats took over the legislature in 2002, civil rights bills that had been bottled up for years gained new momentum. Obama sponsored a bill requiring law-enforcement officials in Illinois to record the race of motorists for a study of racial profiling. He also pushed through legislation requiring police to videotape interrogations of murder suspects.
The measures involved thorny legal issues and a delicate balancing of interests. But police and civil liberties groups – often at loggerheads – say they came away feeling their voices had been heard.