Barack Obama and Me

It was the year 2000 and I was a young hungry reporter in Chicago covering a young hungry state legislator

For instance. Obama sponsored a bill banning the use of the diet supplement ephedra, which killed a Northwestern University football player, and another one preventing the use of pepper spray or pyrotechnics in nightclubs in the wake of the deaths of 21 people during a stampede at a Chicago nightclub. Both stories had received national attention and extensive local coverage.

I spoke to Jones earlier this week and he confirmed his conversation with Kelley, adding that he gave Obama the legislation because he believed in Obama's ability to negotiate with Democrats and Republicans on divisive issues.

So how has Obama repaid Jones?

Last June, to prove his commitment to government transparency, Obama released a comprehensive list of his earmark requests for fiscal year 2008. It comprised more than $300 million in pet projects for Illinois, including tens of millions for Jones's Senate district.

Shortly after Jones became Senate president, I remember asking his view on pork-barrel spending.

I'll never forget what he said:

"Some call it pork; I call it steak."
_____________________

In Hyde Park, I eventually moved into a room a few blocks from the newspaper offices. For $150 a month, I lived in a former servant's quarters with a closet and a connecting bathroom set just off the kitchen in a dingy apartment occupied by several grad students. My eight-by-eight room fit a mattress on the floor and not much else.

During those rare moments when I wasn't working or hanging out with my new girlfriend, I sat on the apartment's crumbling back deck smoking cigarettes and drinking beer in cans with a very nice but drug-addicted homeless woman who crashed in a sleeping bag on the cement floor below. A couple years later, I wrote her obituary.

Hyde Park was the most racially integrated neighborhood in a city with a long, tortured history of segregation. Along 53rd Street, the neighborhood's main commercial corridor, chess players filled the parks, student activists chanted political slogans and women clad in bright colors and elaborate headwraps sang church hymns while strolling the sidewalks.

I would sometimes sit smoking on the fire escape outside my office and feel like I'd wandered into a Spike Lee film.

The communities surrounding Hyde Park were predominantly black and impoverished, marked by high crime, boarded-up storefronts and vacant lots. In some residential areas, banks and grocery stores were several miles away.

On the stump, Obama has frequently invoked his experiences as a community organizer on the Chicago South Side in the early 1990s, when he passed on six-figure salary offers at corporate law firms after graduating from Harvard Law School to direct a massive voter-registration drive.

But, as a state senator, Obama evaded leadership on a host of critical community issues, from historic preservation to the rapid demolition of nearby public-housing projects, according to many South Siders.

Harold Lucas, a veteran South Side community organizer who remembers when Obama was "just a big-eared kid fresh out of school," says he didn't finally decide to support Obama's presidential bid until he was actually inside the voting booth on Super Tuesday.

"I'm not happy about the quality of life in my community," says Lucas, who now heads a black-heritage tourism business in Chicago. "As a local elected official, he had a primary role in that."

In addition to Hyde Park, Obama also represented segments of several South Side neighborhoods home to the nation's richest African-American cultural history outside of Harlem.

Before World War II, the adjacent Bronzeville community was known as the "Black Metropolis," attracting African-American migrants seeking racial equality and economic opportunity from states to the south such as Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

Storied jazz clubs such as Gerri's Palm Tavern regularly hosted Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Josephine Baker and many others. In the postwar era, blues legends Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King all regularly gigged in cramped juke joints such as the Checkerboard Lounge.

When the City of Chicago seized the 70-year-old Gerri's Palm Tavern by eminent domain in 2001, sparking citywide protests, Obama was silent. And he offered no public comments when the 30-year owner of the Checkerboard Lounge was forced to relocate a couple years later.

Even in Hyde Park, Obama declined to take a position on a years-long battle waged by hundreds of local community activists fighting against the city's plan to replace the historic limestone seawall along Lake Michigan — a popular spot to sunbathe and swim — with concrete steps.

It would be comparable to representing Barton Creek in Austin, and sidestepping any discussion about conservation.

Obama's aloofness on key community issues for years frustrated Lucas and many other South Siders. Now they believe he was just afraid of making political enemies or being pigeonholed as a black candidate. Lucas says he has since become an ardent Obama supporter.

"His campaign has built a momentum of somebody being born to the moment," Lucas says. "He truly gives the perception that he could possibly pull us all together around being American again. And the hope of that is worth the risk when you look at the other candidates. I mean, you can't get away from old school when you look at Hillary."

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