Will Obama's race matter?

Three Obama associates, guests at Monday's Monitor breakfast in Denver, see challenges, opportunity in their candidate's African-American heritage.

Mary Knox Merrill – Staff
Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois said Monday at a Monitor breakfast in Denver that America is undergoing a 'transformation' in which race is not 'a major hurdle' to being elected to office.

Denver – Of all the questions hanging over the 2008 presidential campaign, there is one for which there is no historical precedent: Can an African-American major-party nominee be elected president of the United States?

At a Monitor-sponsored media breakfast with three figures who have known Barack Obama since long before he decided to run for president, it came as the final question, in a way more personalized to Senator Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee: Will race affect the outcome in November?

All three, as expected, framed the race issue in a positive way, but also quite differently. To Valerie Jarrett, a longtime friend of both Obama and his wife, Michelle, and who is herself African-American, the issue presents an opportunity.

"You know," said Ms. Jarrett, a top adviser in the campaign, "I think what will help him is his ability to talk about race in a way that perhaps we haven't done before in politics. And I would encourage everyone to go back and reread the speech that he gave in Philadelphia [in March] on race. I think it was one of the best speeches that's ever been given, and certainly on the topic of race.

"And I think it provides insight into how he views the issue of race and how we in a sense have a fork in the road. We have a choice – we can focus on race and what it means in terms of how it divides us and the wounds of the past ... or we can choose to have an honest and safe conversation about those wounds and what it takes to repair them, and figure out how to pull our country together and move it forward."

Richard Durbin, the senior senator from Illinois and someone who in 2006 encouraged Obama to run for president, said the race issue boils down to one of political calculation. Polls show that voters younger than 35 think it's an irrelevant issue, he says. But he does not have a quick answer on other voters. He speaks of going to Iowa during the pre-caucus period 12 to 14 times and meeting with Democratic activists behind closed doors – people he calls "very pragmatic."

"They were looking for a winner," Senator Durbin says. "They would look me straight in the eye and say, 'Do you honestly believe an African-American can be elected president of the United States?' This question was coming from voters in a state that has never had an African-American candidate statewide, and not that many African-Americans vote in that state. And I told them, 'yes,' based on our experience in Illinois ... especially downstate Illinois."

He notes that downstate Illinois is similar to Iowa, demographically, and yet African-Americans running statewide, including Obama, have done well there.

Fast forward to January and Obama's victory in the Iowa caucuses. "We found that they came to the conclusion that race was an issue that wouldn't bother them on a national basis," he says. "Is it going to be a problem in some places? I'm sure it will be. But I really believe, thank God, we're going through this transformation as a nation where this is not a major hurdle to being elected to public office."

Jerry Kellman, the community organizer from Chicago who hired Obama back in the 1980s, echoes the sentiments of Ms. Jarrett on this point: "The president of the United States has the potential to be a teacher. Barack has been teaching us all about race in a way that's a gift."

Earlier in the session, Mr. Kellman mused about Obama's unusual background – his mixed-race heritage, his youth in Hawaii where there are few African-Americans, and his four years as a child in Indonesia, where he also did not blend in. That experieince of being an "outsider" is one of the things that led Kellmen to hire Obama.

"When someone's an outsider, they often go one of two ways. They try to fit in and not be noticed and be like everyone else, or they choose to identify with other outsiders," says Kellman. "He used that experience to identify with people who didn't have much money, with people who faced racial discrimination...."

If Obama is elected president, he will be the first to come to the job with a background in community organizing – a point that Kellman finds relevant.

"His job then in some ways was not so different from what his job will be now," he says. "He had to take people who didn't necessarily agree with one another, who disagreed with one another and sometimes did not like each other, and find some way to get them to work together, and he was brilliant at a grass-roots level. And I think [that] part of what he'll be doing as president will be the same thing."

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