The Magazine

Barack Obama's Lost Years

The senator's tenure as a state legislator reveals him to be an old-fashioned, big government, race-conscious liberal.

Aug 11, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 45 • By STANLEY KURTZ
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When it comes to issues like affirmative action and set-asides, Obama is anything but the post-racial politician he's sometimes made out to be. Take set-asides. In 1998, Obama endorsed Democratic gubernatorial hopeful John Schmidt, stressing to the Defender Schmidt's past support for affirmative action and set-asides. Although Obama was generally pleased by the U.S. Supreme Court's 2003 acceptance of racial preferences at the University of Michigan, he underscored the danger that Republican-appointed justices might someday overturn the ruling. The day after the Michigan decision, Obama honored the passing of former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson Jr., eulogizing Jackson for creating model affirmative action and set-aside programs that spread across the nation.

In 2004, a U.S. District Court disallowed the ordinance under which Chicago required the use of at least 25 percent minority business enterprises and 5 percent women's business enterprises on city-funded projects. In the immediate aftermath of the ruling, Obama and Jesse Jackson were among the prominent voices calling for a black leadership summit to plot strategy for a restoration of Chicago's construction quotas. Obama and his allies succeeded in bringing back race-based contracting.

Prominent among those allies were two of Obama's earliest and strongest political supporters, Hyde Park aldermen Toni Preckwinkle and Leslie Hairston. These two are known as fierce advocates of set-asides and key orchestrators of demonstrations and public-relations campaigns against businesses that question race-based contracting. When, in 2001, construction work was planned for South Lake Shore Drive, a major artery that connects Hyde Park to the rest of Chicago, Preckwinkle and Hairston seized the occasion to call for an extraordinary 70 percent minority quota on contracts for the project. They even demanded that, for the sake of race-based hiring, normal contractor eligibility requirements be waived. Then when work on South Lake Shore Drive was not awarded to minority contractors, a group consisting of Preckwinkle, Hairston, two neighboring aldermen, and numerous activists staged a surprise raid on the construction site, shutting it down and forcing the contractor to hire more blacks. A raid on a second construction site collapsed when several blacks were found already at work on the project. (The aldermen said these African-American laborers had been hired at the last minute to stymie their protest.)

Biographical treatments of Obama tend to stress the tenuous nature of his black identity-his upbringing by whites, his elite education, his home in Chicago's highly integrated Hyde Park, personal tensions with black legislators, and questions about whether Obama is "black enough" to represent African Americans. These concerns over Obama's racial identity are overblown. On race-related issues Obama has stood shoulder to shoulder with Chicago's African-American politicians for years.

Occasionally, Obama has even gotten out in front of them. In 1999, for example, he made news by calling on the governor to appoint a minority to the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC), a body that had previously attracted little notice among Chicago's blacks. In 2000, the Chicago Defender named Obama one of a number of "Vanguards for Change," citing him for "focusing on legislation in areas previously unexplored by the African-American community including his call that a person of color be appointed to the ICC." Obama did bring a somewhat different background and set of interests to the table. Yet the upshot was to expand the frontiers of race-based politics.

And the story doesn't end with Obama's support for set-asides. A Chicago Defender story of 1999 features a front-page picture of Obama beside the headline, "Obama: Illinois Black Caucus is broken." In the accompanying article, although Obama denies demanding that black legislators march in perfect lockstep, he expresses anger that black state senators have failed to unite for the purpose of placing a newly approved riverboat casino in a minority neighborhood. The failed casino vote, Obama argues, means that the black caucus "is broken and needs to unite for the common good of the African-American community." Obama continues, "The problem right now is that we don't have a unified agenda that's enforced back in the community and is clearly articulated. Everybody tends to be lone agents in these situations."