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All Da King's Men

How Obama The Uniter Got Started In Politics

By Da King Published: June 19, 2008

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Barack Obama claims to be a new kind of politician. He's a uniter, not a divider (hmmm, that sounds familiar). Obama is all about HOPE, and above all, CHANGE. We know all this because Obama tells us so, repeatedly.

It's a little bit ironic then that Obama won his first Democratic primary in 1996 by getting all four of his Democratic opponents thrown off the ballot. It's doubly ironic when you consider that Obama had run on a platform of expanding voter rights and empowering disenfranchised voters. Here's an excerpt from a Chicago Tribune article:

The day after New Year's 1996, operatives for Barack Obama filed into a barren hearing room of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.

There they began the tedious process of challenging hundreds of signatures on the nominating petitions of incumbent state Sen. Alice Palmer, the longtime progressive activist from the city's South Side. And they kept challenging petitions until every one of Obama's four Democratic primary rivals was forced off the ballot.

Fresh from his work as a civil rights lawyer and head of a voter registration project that expanded access to the ballot box, Obama launched his first campaign for the Illinois Senate saying he wanted to empower disenfranchised citizens.

But in that initial bid for political office, Obama quickly mastered the bare-knuckle arts of Chicago electoral politics. His overwhelming legal onslaught signaled his impatience to gain office, even if that meant elbowing aside an elder stateswoman like Palmer.

A close examination of Obama's first campaign clouds the image he has cultivated throughout his political career: The man now running for president on a message of giving a voice to the voiceless first entered public office not by leveling the playing field, but by clearing it.

One of the candidates he eliminated, long-shot contender Gha-is Askia, now says that Obama's petition challenges belied his image as a champion of the little guy and crusader for voter rights.

"Why say you're for a new tomorrow, then do old-style Chicago politics to remove legitimate candidates?" Askia said. "He talks about honor and democracy, but what honor is there in getting rid of every other candidate so you can run scot-free? Why not let the people decide?"

Why indeed ? Obama explains it this way:

In a recent interview, Obama granted that "there's a legitimate argument to be made that you shouldn't create barriers to people getting on the ballot."

But the unsparing legal tactics were justified, he said, by obvious flaws in his opponents' signature sheets. "To my mind, we were just abiding by the rules that had been set up," Obama recalled.

"I gave some thought to … should people be on the ballot even if they didn't meet the requirements," he said. "My conclusion was that if you couldn't run a successful petition drive, then that raised questions in terms of how effective a representative you were going to be."

Asked whether the district's primary voters were well-served by having only one candidate, Obama smiled and said: "I think they ended up with a very good state senator."

Seems pretty self-serving, not to mention, um, divisive. And as for whether Obama's main opponent, State Senator and legendary Chicago progressive activist Alice Palmer, should have been on the Democratic primary ballot that year, well, it's pretty disingenuous of Barack Obama to suggest otherwise. She was the incumbent and the frontrunner. He was the rookie.

Palmer served the district in the Illinois Senate for much of the 1990s. Decades earlier, she was working as a community organizer in the area when Obama was growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia. She risked her safe seat to run for Congress and touted Obama as a suitable successor, according to news accounts and interviews.

But when Palmer got clobbered in that November 1995 special congressional race, her supporters asked Obama to fold his campaign so she could easily retain her state Senate seat.

Obama not only refused to step aside, he filed challenges that nullified Palmer's hastily gathered nominating petitions, forcing her to withdraw.

"I liked Alice Palmer a lot. I thought she was a good public servant," Obama said. "It was very awkward. That part of it I wish had played out entirely differently."

His choice divided veteran Chicago political activists.

"There was friction about the decision he made," said City Colleges of Chicago professor emeritus Timuel Black, who tried to negotiate with Obama on Palmer's behalf. "There were deep disagreements."

Obama's rhetoric was detached from his actions from the beginning. Uniter ? Not hardly. Power seeker ? Absolutely. As Obama showed again in his primary against Hillary Clinton in 2008, disenfranchising voters is no problem to him if he gains from it. Meet your "new kind of politician".

Btw, Alice Palmer, who at one time had hand-picked Barack Obama to be her successor, endorsed Hillary in 2008.

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