Friday, March 12, 2004

Why I'm supporting Barack Obama in the Illinois Democratic Senate primary

This column was published in the Third Coast Press, a new monthly that could have a long future in Chicago.

There are good Democrats and there are bad Democrats.

Or, at least, there are progressive Democrats and machine Democrats. Democrats that inspire and Democrats that bore. Those that make history happen and those that watch. Active crusaders for social justice and just another reliable vote.

It’s hard to tell the difference unless you pay close attention or get engaged with legislatures to improve public policies so you can see who works hard and who just shows up.

The Democratic primary election is a struggle to see which kind of a Chicago Democrat (and yes, all 7 candidates live in Chicago) we’ll select to help lead the Democratic Party, not just in Chicago, but in the whole country. Our election in March where 350,000 votes will win it will help to shape the direction of the country. Heady stuff.

Peter Fitzgerald, the incumbent Republican U.S. Senator who beat Carol Moseley Braun in 1998 has decided not to run again. This makes the race for the Senate an ‘open’ seat since there is no incumbent, and with Illinois increasingly a Democratic state, this is the number one opportunity for Democrats to pick up an additional seat in the Senate, where Republicans currently hold a majority of seats. Seven candidates are running for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat, and we ought to pick a crusader from Illinois, and not settle for a decent, or competent, or adequate Democrat.

Blair Hull, a very wealthy man who is worth at least $400 million, is the one you’ve seen. . .everywhere. He’s spending eight figures (that’s at least $10 million) of his own money to earn your vote, and so far, it’s working. He’s leading in the polls. He’s a very smart man and I believe that his heart is in the right place. I think he fancies himself like a New Jersey Senator Jon Corzine who similarly spent tens of millions of his own money to win the New Jersey primary, and is now a main fundraiser for the Democratic Party. He is not, however, a particularly good Senator. Neither will be Mr. Hull.

It’s hard to be a good United States Senator. There are only 100 of them, so each one can make a big difference. There’s a specific set of skills to be a legislator – how to develop good ideas that attract support, build a consensus for the specific legislation and manuever through parliamentary procedure to get the bill into law. Mr. Hull has never been a legislator. He’s never been elected or appointed to any public position. I don’t think he has the skills to be a great legislator, even though he’s a quick study. Mr. Hull would be a decent senator, but would remind people that government is for the wealthy and powerful, not for the rest of us, as without his tremendous wealth, he would not be a serious candidate.

Nancy Skinner is in a similar position as Blair Hull, but without the money. She’s a bright, passionate, articulate progressive radio show host who can compete on air with anyone from Rush to O’Reilly. But she’s never held any public office. Joyce Washington, a former health care executive who cares deeply about health care for everyone, is also seeking to start her public career as a U.S. Senator, without ever winning an election or serving in a public body. To borrow a John Kerry phrase, the U.S. Senate is no place for on-the-job training.

Maria Pappas is our Cook County Treasurer. She’s an engaging reformer who has helped to clean up one of the county’s offices, but she’s very light on federal policy. If she were a Senator, I think she’d be a small ideas type of legislator. She’d support Democratic bills and she’d vote the right way, but she wouldn’t be able to lead the nation in a more progressive direction through the force of her intellect and persuasion. That’s what great Senators can do, and Treasurer Pappas wouldn’t be one of them. After all, a monkey can vote the right way and hit the voting button. We deserve more.

Dan Hynes is similar to Maria Pappas – he is the state’s Comptroller, just as Ms. Pappas is the county’s fiscal officer. He has won statewide election twice, and built a reputation as a voice of fiscal prudence and smart management by Illinois Democrats, which (I believe) helped the Democrats win so many state offices in 2002. I think Governor Rod Blagojevich owes a lot of thanks to Dan Hynes for helping to convince voters that Democrats can run the state more effectively and efficiently than Republicans, and wouldn’t just spend money on wasteful projects. Dan Hynes would make an excellent governor – almost certainly better than Governor Blagojevich – and it’s too bad that somehow Blagojevich managed to clout Dan Hynes into staying in the Comptroller’s office in 2002. Remember, in 2001, Dan Hynes who was elected statewide overwhelmingly in 1998 looked like a more natural candidate for governor than then-Congressman Blagojevich, he of the funny name who had only been elected from a district with 5% of the state’s voters where his father-in-law, Alderman Dick Mell, commanded a massive patronage army. The inside story of how Blagojevich managed to keep Dan Hynes from running for governor is one I’d like to hear, but it had an unhappy ending. It left Dan Hynes without a natural promotion. Where does he go from Comptroller?

I get the sense that the U.S. Senate race is Dan Hynes’ second choice. Because he couldn’t run for governor in 2002 after Blagojevich clouted him out, he runs for the next available statewide seat: U.S. Senate in 2004.

Even if I’m wrong about that, I’m afraid the Mr. Hynes would become simply another reliable vote in the Senate. His core argument to progressives is that he is the most electable Democrat in November, as he is a proven vote-getter statewide with Downstate appeal. With the fuel behind John Kerry’s nomination almost exclusively the belief that Kerry is the most electable Democrat, Hynes hopes to tap into the same thinking. But Illinois is a much safer bet for Democrats in November than the nation as a whole. We in Illinois have the luxury of nominating a more progressive crusader for U.S. Senate than we do for President. Dan Hynes is not an inspiring candidate. He would be a competent and good U.S. Senator, but progressives deserve more.

That’s one of Gery Chico’s slogans: Expect More. Mr. Chico was the President of the Chicago School Board (appointed by Mayor Daley, who had previously hired Mr. Chico as his chief of staff). Gery Chico, with Paul Vallas, led the Chicago schools into a nationally-recognized revival in the late nineties, lifting the lives of tens of thousands of people and helping to keep Chicago strong. He’s extremely bright and forthright with his largely progressive views. He’s policy-oriented and accessible. But without any legislative experience, I think he’s not as capable as others at leading the nation as a Senator – and importantly, challenging the Republican majority. He’s my second choice candidate, as I think he’d made a good Senator. But not a great one.

State Senator Barack Obama has the potential to be great.

(Full disclosure: Obama was a professor of mine in law school and I have been campaigning for him as a volunteer for many months. This column lays out my thinking in deciding to volunteer for his campaign).

I’ve been lobbying the state legislature for a few years. I’ve seen how one legislator – committed, articulate, passionate – can almost single-handedly shape public policy. In fact, a surprisingly large amount of legislation is the product of one or two legislators working hard. And a lot of the progressive agenda that has recently been implemented in Illinois is the product of Barack Obama’s hard work.

Legislators work hard, build the consensus among electeds to invest in health insurance, and 100,000 more people are insured from medical bankruptcy. Every confession in the state is now videotaped so that rogue policemen won’t torture a suspect into a false confession. Tax relief for the people who are working for the lowest wages to lift more people out of poverty. These were bills championed by State Senator Barack Obama. Imagine what he can do in the United States Senate.

He is a constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago, so he will understands how important our civil rights and liberties are, and how to stop the government from getting more powers to spy on all of us in the name of fighting terrorism. He knows the dangers that extremist judges pose, and he knows how one Senator can block them from the bench. Especially since the Senate is likely to be controlled by the Republicans, we’ll need a Senator who already has mastered the skill of legislating.

There are some other obvious benefits. If elected, Barack Obama would be the nation’s only black U.S. Senator. The only one! He knows the centrality of organizing new voters to the future of the Democratic Party, instead of relying on the old interest groups for support. He’d combine the crusading of a Paul Wellstone with maverick reform appeal of a Russ Feingold. And he’d strengthen the progressive wing of the Illinois Democratic Party, since he doesn’t come out of any patronage organization.

I believe that the best vote we can cast in Illinois is for Barack Obama for the U.S. Senate nomination on March 16th. Because he’s not only a good Democrat, but he will be a great Democratic Senator.

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