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I spent three months sleeping on a friend's floor on the city's South Side. He was a broke grad student who had earned a mostly free ride at the University of Chicago, working toward a Ph.D. in comparative literature. His studio apartment in Hyde Park was tiny.
We joked that the only way I could stretch my legs at night was to open the oven in the kitchen. It was like the old blues lyric, "I got a gal she's long and tall, sleeps in the kitchen with her feet in the hall."
Obama, who then earned about $50,000 a year as a rookie state senator, lived in a small condo just two blocks away. I had never met or even seen his wife Michelle, though I'd heard she was employed at University of Chicago Hospitals. Their second daughter Natasha had not yet been born.
Every day, I walked past the Hyde Park Herald office, set upstairs from Obama's barbershop. The newspaper box out front said all I needed to know. It was dented, covered in graffiti and broken. The thing ate your two quarters and offered nothing in return.
I didn't want to work there. My aspirations were bigger than that.
Desperate, I finally swallowed my pride, climbed the steep, smelly staircase and submitted my shamefully thin résumé to the receptionist. To my dismay, the editor called later that afternoon with a job offer.
"Can you name any — can you name anything he's accomplished?" Matthews pressed.
"No," Watson, whose district includes Austin, finally admitted. "I'm not gonna be able to do that."
"Well, that's a problem, isn't it?" Matthews said.
Hillary Clinton recalled the incident with a chuckle during last Thursday's debate at the University of Texas.
When asked about his legislative record, Obama rattles off several bills he sponsored as an Illinois lawmaker.
He expanded children's health insurance; made the state Earned Income Tax Credit refundable for low-income families; required public bodies to tape closed-door meetings to make government more transparent; and required police to videotape interrogations of homicide suspects.
And the list goes on.
It's a lengthy record filled with core liberal issues. But what's interesting, and almost never discussed, is that he built his entire legislative record in Illinois in a single year.
Republicans controlled the Illinois General Assembly for six years of Obama's seven-year tenure. Each session, Obama backed legislation that went nowhere; bill after bill died in committee. During those six years, Obama, too, would have had difficulty naming any legislative achievements.
Then, in 2002, dissatisfaction with President Bush and Republicans on the national and local levels led to a Democratic sweep of nearly every lever of Illinois state government. For the first time in 26 years, Illinois Democrats controlled the governor's office as well as both legislative chambers.
The white, race-baiting, hard-right Republican Illinois Senate Majority Leader James "Pate" Philip was replaced by Emil Jones Jr., a gravel-voiced, dark-skinned African-American known for chain-smoking cigarettes on the Senate floor.
Jones had served in the Illinois Legislature for three decades. He represented a district on the Chicago South Side not far from Obama's. He became Obama's kingmaker.
I called Kelley last week and he recollected the private conversation as follows:
"He said, 'Cliff, I'm gonna make me a U.S. Senator.'"
"Oh, you are? Who might that be?"
Jones appointed Obama sponsor of virtually every high-profile piece of legislation, angering many rank-and-file state legislators who had more seniority than Obama and had spent years championing the bills.
"I took all the beatings and insults and endured all the racist comments over the years from nasty Republican committee chairmen," State Senator Rickey Hendon, the original sponsor of landmark racial profiling and videotaped confession legislation yanked away by Jones and given to Obama, complained to me at the time. "Barack didn't have to endure any of it, yet, in the end, he got all the credit.
"I don't consider it bill jacking," Hendon told me. "But no one wants to carry the ball 99 yards all the way to the one-yard line, and then give it to the halfback who gets all the credit and the stats in the record book."
During his seventh and final year in the state Senate, Obama's stats soared. He sponsored a whopping 26 bills passed into law — including many he now cites in his presidential campaign when attacked as inexperienced.
It was a stunning achievement that started him on the path of national politics — and he couldn't have done it without Jones.
Before Obama ran for U.S. Senate in 2004, he was virtually unknown even in his own state. Polls showed fewer than 20 percent of Illinois voters had ever heard of Barack Obama.
Jones further helped raise Obama's profile by having him craft legislation addressing the day-to-day tragedies that dominated local news headlines.
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