The quest of Carol Moseley Braun

After taking on the war in Iraq, civil liberties, and healthcare here at New England College, Carol Moseley Braun steps out from behind the podium to deliver what is clearly a favorite line.

"The final reason to vote for me is that I'm the clearest alternative to George Bush," she says, turning on her signature smile and opening her arms wide to drive home the point. "I don't look like him. I don't talk like him. I don't think like him. And I certainly don't act like him."

The crowd, an eclectic mix of backpack-laden students, healthcare activists in purple T-shirts, and curious locals, laughs appreciatively. But a sense of restraint pervades the room, too. It's pouring rain outside, and many are just now drying off. And despite this being a presidential candidate, there is little novelty here. Ms. Moseley Braun is the sixth Democratic contender to pass through the college's Great Hall, jokingly referred to in Henniker (pop. 1,627) as "the launching pad of presidents."

In other words, it's a crowd you have to work for. But Moseley Braun, a longshot contender, has caught their attention.

It's a Sisyphean task that she undertakes with a singular determination at almost every stop, interview, and casual encounter - as though she knows that, as an African-American woman and a one-term senator under an ethical cloud, she has to work that much harder to be taken seriously.

"I'm convinced that given a chance to have a conversation with people, I'll prevail," she says, asserting what most Democrats consider an impossibility. "People are fair minded, they want to see progress, and that means my prospects for election are as good as anyone else's."

Symbol, substance, and a generational quest

Besides finding a way to have that talk when suffering a dearth of campaign dollars, Moseley Braun finds her challenge complicated by her role as a symbol for some women and blacks and by her insistence on being taken seriously as a substantive candidate in her own right.

The result is that her presidential run is applauded in some quarters as courageous, and credited with bringing new perspectives into the race - even as her bid is dismissed as improbable. She recently lost two staff members, but they've been replaced by Patricia Ireland, the longest-serving president of the National Organization for Women, who brings 20 years of political experience and a vast network of fundraising contacts. Indeed, many women hungry for a political voice rally to her around the country - yet most admit they'll vote for others.

Moseley Braun's Democratic rivals in the race treat her with a polite deference, which in political circles is tantamount to being dismissed. She's raised so little money she often drives herself to events in a rented car, as she did this grim wet Wednesday in New Hampshire. Her first stop was an editorial-board meeting at the Concord Monitor. As she left, with a single staff member in tow, she was greeted by Gen. Wesley Clark, surrounded by his entourage, who'd emerged from an imposing SUV and was followed by a network crew.

Just the night before, Moseley Braun was glowing in the national limelight after her performance in the national Rock the Vote debate. Indeed, while she's lauded for her articulate, well-reasoned responses, she's usually no more than a footnote in news coverage, an "also ran," if she's mentioned at all. "Of the three who have no chance at all, she has been by far the most appealing," says political analyst Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia. "But she has absolutely no chance whatsoever."

Moseley Braun dismisses those dismissals. During an interview at a cafe in Boston, with a single staff member hovering nearby on a cellphone, she insists that despite widespread skepticism of her campaign's viability, she can be president.

"Why me? Because I'm qualified for this job," she says. "I'm the only candidate who has international, national, and state and local governmental experience. And I have a platform that speaks to the public interest in ways that help us live up to our generational responsibilities."

Indeed, it is a reverence for generations past, and those to come, that prompted Moseley Braun to step back into the public fray after Sept. 11. She'd recently returned from New Zealand where, she likes to say, she was the "ambassador to Paradise." She was planning to leave the public arena for good, "go off to Walden Pond" by moving to a farm in Alabama that her grandfather had bought years ago. Her goal was to rehabilitate the scrub pine and "raise peonies and pecans."

But all that changed on Sept. 11, when Moseley Braun was on a college campus. Her first thought was for her son, a computer engineer in the Pentagon that day.Once assured he was safe, she was called on to reassure students in the college gym. "I remember saying to them, 'From this day forward, your world will be different,' " she says. "I told them this is the greatest country in the world, and it's going to come to each one of us to keep it that way."

Over the next few months, as the country went to war and Congress passed sweeping antiterror legislation in the Patriot Act, she says her words started to "resonate back," in part because of the oppression her grandfather faced. After fighting in World War I, he returned home to sit in the back of the bus. When a drunk driver killed his daughter - who would have been Moseley Braun's aunt - the local paper printed the grandfather's name entirely in lower-case letters.

Still, his patriotism never wavered. He was convinced his children and their children would eventually gain rights and privileges denied him. Protecting the fulfillment of that grandfather's dream is a driving force in Moseley Braun's campaign.

"I represent the first generation of African-Americans to enjoy the whole panoply of liberties that this great country offers," she says. "So I can't stand idly by and watch those liberties be eroded, I can't stand by and watch privacy be relegated to the past, I refuse to stand by and watch what it means to be an American be changed into something different from the dreams that I had and my parents had."

The dream, the shadow, and the bobolinks

In many ways, Moseley Braun has already lived the American dream: She's risen to one of the nation's highest offices, becoming the first black woman in the US Senate. But she lost her seat in a bitterly fought race fraught with charges of mismanagement and misuse of funds. To this day, she insists she did nothing wrong, and touts her legislative record as "second to none in my class."

Such triumphs and setbacks have marked her life. Moseley Braun was raised in a middle-class family. But when her parents divorced, she, her mother, and siblings moved in with her grandparents, and she was thrust into one of Chicago's toughest neighborhoods. Despite the shift in circumstances, she went to college, and then law school. She graduated and became a trial lawyer and homemaker, with no thought of running for public office.

Then the came the bobolinks. Officials wanted to build a golf course in a nearby park where the nesting birds flourished. She and her neighbors worried it would destroy one of the bobolinks' few habitats in Chicago. They fought, and lost. Then the district's state representative announced he was retiring. Half her neighbors urged her to run; the other half said it would be better if she didn't.

"They said, 'You can't possibly win, the blacks won't vote for you because you're not part of the Chicago machine, the whites won't vote for you because you're black and nobody's going to vote for you because you're a woman,' " she says, her smile lighting up in the retelling. "So I said, 'OK, where do I sign up for this job?' That tipped my scale and I put my hat in the ring and won."

A similar desire to take on the seemingly impossible marks this race. But she's trailed by the shadow of her failed reelection bid in 1998. It was a race she should have "easily won," says Mr. Sabato. "You have to really try to lose as a Democrat in Illinois."

Her challenger was a wealthy, conservative Republican who hired Karl Rove, now Bush's top political adviser, to help him take on the incumbent. From the start of the race, Moseley Braun was plagued by charges that her office was mismanaged; that she misused campaign funds, spending donated dollars on dresses and jewelry; and missed important Senate functions, like orientation.

In the end, she lost by two points. She was eventually cleared of all charges by the Federal Election Commission, the Internal Revenue Service, and other agencies involved in the probe. Yet ethical questions continued to dog her. When she was nominated to be ambassador in 1999, Sen. Jesse Helms (R) made sure the charges were aired once again. "In a way, I have him to thank for having all of the documentation in one place," Moseley Braun says, smiling. She was approved for her post by a vote of 98 to 2.

To this day, on the campaign trail, she carries an inch-thick dossier, one that she says outlines and discounts each charge. "Have at it," she says, pushing the folder across the table. In fact, her dogged self-defense leads some to suggest that the real reason she's running is just to clear her name. It's a charge she hotly denies.

'She made me proud to be a woman'

Among fans, at least, the past is the past. At a women's forum in Manchester, N.H., sponsored by Planned Parenthood and other feminist organizations, Moseley Braun was the crowd's clear favorite, eliciting the most applause for her responses about her role as a parent - "I'm a mother, I've done it all: sick babies to nursing to soccer practice, down to faxing homework when I was a representative." - and how she'd treat a First Husband or significant other. "You'll get me and my record of service, but you'll get no one for free," she said to laughs and applause.

Her role as a single woman endears her to this crowd.

"She made me proud to be a woman because she brought the spirit and values of feminism right up there on the stage," says Sheila Evans, from Henniker N.H. "The men were looking at her as if they were dumbfounded, they don't understand - it's as if a different language is being spoken." But at the same time Moseley Braun was being lauded, she was, on another level, being dismissed.

"It's a shame she couldn't overcome that ethical stuff and she's not still representing Illinois in the US Senate," says Jill June, who'd flown in from Iowa for the forum. "She's a powerful orator, clearly a good thinker, and much of what she said really resonated with me. It's too bad."

The Moseley Braun file

Born: Aug. 16, 1947.

Hometown: Chicago.

Parents: Joseph Moseley, a policeman; and. Edna Moseley, a medical technician.

Family: Son, Matthew Braun; divorced from attorney Michael Braun.

Education: University of Illinois at Chicago, BA, 1969; University of Chicago, JD, 1972.

Religion: Raised Roman Catholic, but attends an Episcopal church.

Other occupations: Lawyer, business consultant, and professor of political science.

Favorite books: 'The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher' by Lewis Thomas; 'Personal History' by Katharine Graham; and 'Foucault's Pendulum' by Umberto Eco.

Favorite TV show: 'Star Trek.'

Favorite song: 'You Gotta Be' by British soul singer Des'ree.

Favorite President: Abraham Lincoln.

Political hero: Harold Washington, first black mayor of Chicago.

a favorite braun line: 'It's time to take the "Men Only" sign off the White House door.'

firsts: First black woman to win statewide office from Cook County, Ill.; first female senator from Illinois; first black female US senator.

Political highlights:

• Assistant US attorney, Chicago, 1973-77.

• Member, Illinois House of Representatives, 1978-88.

• Recorder of deeds and registrar of titles, Cook County, Ill., 1988-92.

• US senator from Illinois, 1992-98.

• US ambassador to New Zealand, 1999-2001.

• Successfully sued the Democratic Party and the State of Illinois to win fair reapportionment for African-American and Hispanic citizens.

Campaign touchstones:

• Would eliminate most of Bush's tax cuts and raise state aid.

• Advocates an increase in national funding of elementary education, reducing reliance on property taxes.

• Would 'provide universal, comprehensive healthcare insurance to every American through a single payer plan that is not tied to employment.'

• Urges repeal of the Patriot Act, sweeping antiterror legislation post-9/11, and decries its effects on privacy and liberty.

Key legislative positions:

• Opposed the war to remove Saddam Hussein and argues against the Bush administration's policy of preemption. But she says she would have voted yes to some of the $87 billion for rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan; she believes it is 'critical that we not cut and run.'

• Supports affirmative action.

• Supports gay marriage.

• Supports abortion rights.

Sources: Compiled from wire services, C-SPAN, Project Vote Smart, Chicago Tribune, CNN, The Washington Post.

Interview/Carol Moseley Braun on...

... Why healthcare is a top priority:

A lot of small businesses aren't hiring now because the cost of healthcare is so oppressive. It has an anti-competitive effect on our whole business community. I talked with some executives at GM a couple of weeks ago. Six to seven hundred dollars additional goes onto the price of every car we sell just because of healthcare costs. If you've got an American car with those additional costs, versus a Japanese car that doesn't have those additional costs, who's going to prevail in the market?

... How to fix the healthcare system:

A single-payer system ... really does fit with the interests of a lot of groups, particularly businesses, that previously may not have seen it that way. A single-payer system essentially means that all of the money for healthcare will go to a single payer - that would be the federal treasury. [The money] would come from the income tax. But the administration of the plan would be through the same ... private insurers that currently exist.

... How to pay for it:

The most important economic part of the plan to me is to decouple healthcare payments from the payroll tax and put it on the income tax. You then bring in the 43 million uninsured, you provide comprehensive coverage.... You'll give working people a piece of their paycheck back, you'll take a burden off small business, you'll help our export sector. Even insurance companies will make some money.

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