The new faces of black political leadership
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Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama speaks to supporters at a fundraiser Monday, April 16, 2007, in Milwaukee. (AP File Photo/Morry Gash)
Barack Obama (D) Senator, Illinois
Born: 08/04/1961
Birthplace: Honolulu, HI
Home: Chicago, IL
Religion: United Church of Christ
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BOSTON — Early in Deval Patrick's run for governor, when few Massachusetts voters had heard of the maverick candidate with the odd first name, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama stopped by Cambridge for a class reunion at Harvard Law School.

Obama extolled the virtues of Patrick, a fellow Harvard Law School alum who, like Obama, faced better known and better financed opponents.

"He recognized that there was something very special about Deval and there were similarities in their experience," said Cassandra Butts, an Obama classmate who attended the reunion. "He wanted to give Deval the chances that he didn't have early on in his Senate race."

As Obama campaigns for president and Patrick works to shake off a rocky start as governor, observers are seeing in the two old friends the new face of black political leadership — figures as comfortable in the boardroom as on the picket line who can appeal to large swathes of white voters.

Both candidates share similar life stories, rising from modest means with the help of family and education.

They also share a political language ringing with themes of hope, new beginnings, and citizen-friendly government. At times they seem to be reading off the same script.

"They've moved beyond the rhetoric of the civil rights generation," said David Gergen, a former White House aide now teaching at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

"They accept the nobility of that generation ... but they believe there are new solutions," he said. "We are in a new age where these new black politicians are not just trying to appeal to a broad base of voters, but they are succeeding."

While Patrick welcomes the "new" label, he balks at the idea that the only reason he and Obama are seen as different is because they haven't focused exclusively on civil rights.

"It's an oversimplification. It's a dimension of him, it's a dimension of me," Patrick, who worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund early in his career, said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Black politicians haven't come solely from the civil rights movement. Not here in Massachusetts, not anywhere in the country.

Obama and Patrick share a friendship stretching back to Patrick's days heading the civil rights division of the Clinton era Justice Department, when Obama was trying to launch a political career in Patrick's home state of Illinois.

One sign of the bond between the two friends is an anecdote both enjoy telling.

In Patrick's version he gets a call from Obama asking for a political donation to his campaign while Patrick is earning a hefty paycheck at Coca-Cola.

"He called me up and he said, 'Deval, I'm running and I want you to support me.' I said 'Barack, I'm thrilled, I'll give it the max,' and he said, 'Deval, in Illinois there is no max' and I said, 'Brother, I'm sorry, there's got to be a max,'" Patrick said. Obama takes his campaign to Boston on Friday night.

While Patrick remains popular, his first months were plagued by missteps, from upgrading his official car to a Cadillac to placing a call to Citigroup on behalf of a struggling lending company on whose board he once served.

Critics of Patrick and Obama worry that voters are being swayed by personality and a lingering desire to right past racial injustices.

"My real issue is with voters who vote for a complete stranger just because he's nice looking and well spoken and makes them feel good for voting for a black candidate," said Barbara Anderson, an anti-tax activist who supported Patrick's Republican opponent. "They get too caught up in the charisma."

Anderson said she fears the same dynamic is playing out with Obama.

"Possibly our having made this mistake in Massachusetts will send a message to a rest of the country when it really matters," she said.

Abner Mikva, the former U.S. Court of Appeals chief judge, White House counsel to President Clinton and Illinois congressman, is credited by Patrick with introducing the two.

He remains one of their biggest fans.

"When you see Obama or Patrick in action they are talking about new places to go rather than commemorating the Selma march, no matter how important that was," he said. "They really come from the same part of the forest. They are both young, they have street smarts, but have a very idealistic view of government."




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