Cover Story: Barack Obama and Me

I used to talk to Barack Obama on a regular basis back when he was a rank-and-file state legislator in Illinois and I worked for a pair of community newspapers there. I lived two blocks away from him and worked in the same building that housed his favorite barbershop.

Obama’s rise from political unknown to political icon has been astounding. In 2004, when Obama was running for U.S. Senate, I followed him on a tour of small churches on the Chicago South Side. The pews were empty, and his speeches received lukewarm applause, at best.

Last Tuesday, 19,000 people packed Houston’s Toyota Center for Obama. Many waited outside for ten hours to hear him speak for 40 minutes. You should have heard the roar when he finally hit the stage.

Obama may well make an excellent president. But he was a largely ineffective lawmaker during most of his career in the Illinois General Assembly.

It isn’t well known that Obama built his entire legislative record in Illinois in a single year. Or that he spent most of his tenure evading leadership on key community issues in and around his district. Or that he first skated into elective office uncontested by using aggressive legal tactics to knock all other candidates off the ballot.

Wearing his ambitions on his sleeve, Obama has run for a more powerful political position every three years since being elected in 1996 to the Illinois legislature.

Four years ago, while writing for the Illinois Times in the capital city of Springfield – where Obama later announced his presidential bid – I broke a story about how black Chicago lawmakers who had worked with Obama resented him and supported other candidates in the U.S. Senate election that catapulted him to the national stage.

The morning after the story ran, Obama called me up and screamed at me. Today it’s tough to imagine Obama losing his cool – especially at some young reporter working for some obscure newspaper. But, then, things change.

To read more on Obama and me, click here. – Todd Spivak

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