Colleague: Obama is a 'political realist'
Barack Obama (D) Senator, Illinois
Born: 08/04/1961
Birthplace: Honolulu, HI
Home: Chicago, IL
Religion: United Church of Christ
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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - As an Illinois state senator, Barack Obama was a leader in helping to tighten state ethics laws -- up to a point. When a 2003 package seemed doomed in the Senate's final hours -- with his Democratic leader among the foes -- he left the chamber to tell advocates there was nothing more he could do.

"He wasn't going to stand on the desk and pound his shoe," said Cynthia Canary, director of the nonpartisan Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, and an admirer. "Barack is a political realist. You may know that in his heart he feels strongly, but he'll only go so far." Yet a compromise was salvaged, she added, and Obama helped to toughen it in subsequent legislative sessions.

The accomplishment was emblematic of the picture that emerges of the eight years Obama spent here: of a lawmaker of lofty, liberal rhetoric who nonetheless pragmatically accepted bipartisan compromises that won over foes -- and sometimes left supporters dissatisfied.

Now that he is running as a presidential candidate, after just two years in the U.S. Senate, most clues about what style of politics he would bring to the White House are here in Illinois' Statehouse.

Obama wrote in his recent, best-selling memoir that it was in Springfield that he learned "how the game had come to be played" between Democrats and Republicans: "I understood politics as a full-contact sport, and minded neither the sharp elbows nor the occasional blindside hit." The Obama campaign's tangle this week with that of Democratic rival Hillary Clinton shows a willingness to engage in intraparty spats as well.

Yet he also wrote that through his state Senate years he "clung to the notion that politics could be different," less combative, more bipartisan. He has put that notion at the heart of his presidential bid.

Illinois Republicans recall Obama as a committed liberal of no singular achievements, yet one they could work with to pass ethics, welfare and death-penalty revisions. "He's unique in his ability to deal with extremely complex issues, to reach across the aisle and to deal with diverse people," said Republican state Sen. Kirk Dillard. "If he surrounds himself with good people, I wouldn't lose any sleep with him as my president." As for sharp elbows, the scraps for which Obama is remembered -- including near-fisticuffs once on the Senate floor -- were with fellow black Democrats, some of whom were resentful of his ambitions and his successes.

In Obama's first term, in 1997-98, he joined with Dillard to pass Illinois' first ethics package in 25 years, and joined with Republican state Sen. Dave Syverson, then chairman of a health and human services committee, to overhaul the state's welfare law. Those earlier ethics overhauls grew out of a proposal from the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, an Illinois Democrat, for a four-member task force -- one representative of each party in the Illinois House and Senate -- to forge a compromise. Dillard represented Senate Republicans. Senate Democratic leader Emil Jones, like Obama, an African-American from Chicago, picked the young freshman on the advice of former federal judge Abner Mikva, who had known Obama as a constitutional-law teacher at the University of Chicago.

The panel's recommendations didn't go so far as ethics-revamp advocates wanted. To ease passage, for example, its ban on lawmakers' personal use of campaign funds exempted existing accounts. Still, Obama had a hard sell in Senate Democrats' caucuses.

"He was getting so beat up by the members, sometimes I felt sorry for him," said Jones, who became his mentor. "He would just listen to them, and then explain the reason why this particular issue was before us." When the Legislature revisited the ethics issue in 2003, Jones was among those who resisted changes Obama promoted. "He wouldn't buck Emil Jones," Canary said. The Senate and House agreed to a weaker bill.

Likewise, Syverson said the welfare-overhaul compromise he cosponsored with Obama riled both parties. "He took heat from some liberal groups" for welfare limits, Syverson said, "but I took heat from conservative groups," for the child-care and health-care aid to those who moved from welfare to work. When Democrats won a majority in 2003, for Obama's final two years, he succeeded Syverson as the health panel's chairman. Yet on his most ambitious initiative, for universal health-care coverage, the best he could do was pass a measure providing for a study.

On the Judiciary Committee, Obama wanted to co-sponsor Democratic Chairman John Cullerton's top initiative, a highway-safety measure allowing police to stop vehicles in which occupants weren't wearing seat belts. At the time, nonuse couldn't be the primary reason for stopping drivers.

But Jones objected. The Senate leader said a tougher seat-belt law would give police another ruse for racial profiling -- the practice of stopping and searching minority drivers for little reason. "Barack said, "Then let's do a racial profiling law,'" Cullerton recalled.

Obama and other Democrats had previously proposed antiprofiling bills, which would require police to keep data on the race of those they stopped. Police groups always were opposed. But they wanted a seat-belt law. Senators say Obama negotiated changes to the racial-profiling measure that allowed the police to remain neutral. Both bills were passed.

Meanwhile, the Legislature in 2003 was revamping death-penalty laws after evidence of numerous wrongful convictions. Obama wanted to mandate videotaping of interrogations of murder suspects, to guard against coerced confessions. Prosecutors and many Republicans were opposed, particularly to the prospect that unrecorded confessions would be inadmissible in court. They recall Obama's spending hours in negotiations on compromises, such as allowing for equipment failure and providing for judges' discretion. "Some people say the exemptions are too broad," Cullerton said, "but that's what you have to do to pass laws." The credit that went to Obama for the racial-profiling and videotaping measures stoked tensions among black colleagues who had sponsored similar proposals only to see Jones promote his protégé's efforts. One was state Sen. Rickey "Hollywood" Hendon, an outspoken Democrat, who once had to be separated from Obama in the Senate after confronting him for reasons that witnesses don't recall and Hendon won't discuss.

Hendon complained that he felt like the football player who had run 99 yards, only to see the halfback plunge the final yard for the touchdown and the credit. Earlier this month, he was outside the Old State Capitol in the cold, lending support as Obama announced his presidential candidacy.