The Take on Obama in Illinois
RACHEL MARTIN, host:
So all week, we've been talking about to journalists from the home states and cities of various presidential candidates to find out what the people who've known them longest have to say about them. We've covered Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee from the GOP, and Democrat John Edwards.
Today, it's Democratic candidate Barack Obama's turn.
Senator Obama started his political career in the Illinois State Legislature, winning a sit there in 1996. One of his Iowa campaign ads features former State Senate colleagues, both Democrats and Republicans.
(Soundbite of Senator Obama's campaign ad)
Senator KIRK DILLARD (Republican, Illinois): Senator Obama worked on some of the deepest issues we had, and he was successful on a bipartisan way.
Senator LARRY WALSH (Democrat, Illinois): The legislation that he carried, he believed it. He was not carrying it for a group. He was not carrying it for any lobbyist.
Sen. DILLARD: Republican legislators respected Senator Obama. His negotiation skills and an ability to understand all sides would serve the country very well.
MARTIN: Joining us now from Illinois to provide the local perspective on Obama is Ray Long, Chicago Tribune Springfield correspondent. Hey, Ray.
Mr. RAY LONG (Springfield Correspondent, Chicago Tribune): Hey, how are you?
MARTIN: Doing well. Thanks for being with us.
So you heard that ad, how accurate a representation is that of Obama's time in the State Senate?
Mr. LONG: Well, you know, that's an interesting ad because it's done there by Kurt Dillard who is a state senator from DuPage County which is the biggest Republican county in the state, really, and he used to be DuPage County Republican chairman. So, Dillard is one of the Republicans who worked with Obama on some of the tougher issues. One of them was ethics which became an issue that popped out twice during Obama's term in the Illinois State House. And also, tough issues like the death penalty, and, in particular, what Obama tackled in those series of reforms that Illinois did was to try to put together some sort of a way, and, in fact, pulled it together to have a taping of interrogations for suspects in murder cases.
MARTIN: So people do think of him in this way, as this person who can bridge the divide, as someone who's truly bipartisan. Is that accurate in Illinois? Is that how he's perceived?
Mr. LONG: Well, nobody is ever truly bipartisan in Illinois, but he - he did try to bridge the gap. And one of the reasons he had to do this and I think the reason he highlights that today is that he was in the minority party during the first six years he was in the state legislature, so if he wanted to get something done, he really needed to reach out to the other side.
MARTIN: Which is practical - he's only being practical.
Mr. LONG: Absolutely. Absolutely.
MARTIN: Yeah. He started running for national office in 2000. Was it clear from the beginning to folks on the ground - in Illinois that this was a man who has some lofty goals, had his sights set on Pennsylvania Avenue?
Mr. LONG: I believe that a lot of people thought that they viewed Barack Obama as a man who had a higher ambition than the Illinois legislature. And he went for Congress in 2000 against a well-entrenched congressman named Bobby Rush. Bobby Rush is a guy who was an Alderman in Chicago years before; he was also a Black Panther. So when he ran again for Alderman, it would be like with you than with you now, and he'd have his early picture while he was a Black Panther versus his picture as an Alderman - kind of a before and after that showed a difference but he was a guy who had grown up in the community, and he was going to be very difficult to beat. One of the things that Obama did was run against this well-entrenched incumbent and lost badly.
MARTIN: Mm-hmm. When you, as someone who's covered him from Illinois - from his home state, when you read the national press on Barack Obama, what really riles you? What gets your goat? What do you read that says - that indicates you - jeez, these people have no clue what they're talking about. If they would only - if they were only here they would understand the X-Y-Z.
Mr. LONG: Well, I think one of the things that he gets irritated about is that he doesn't have enough experience to be president, and a lot of people in Illinois wonder that, too. But the one thing that I think a lot of people overlook is that the Illinois legislature isn't just tiddlywinks. It's a tough, kind of rock 'em and sock 'em ruckus place where you have to learn how to play hardball politics to survive.
MARTIN: So there is not that perception that he's unqualified? Some people - is it mixed? People - some people say this guy needs a little more time to kind of marinate in the Senate before he takes on the White House.
Mr. LONG: Well, I think that's good way to put it. I mean, it is mixed. A lot of people think that, gee, he ought to be spending more time in Washington, but a lot of people think that, you know, Barack Obama is a smart guy and he didn't just earn his experience through the state legislature or the U.S. Senate, but he worked on the streets of Chicago as a community organizer and learned the needs of the people. And, really, when he went to the State Senate, he tried to do a lot of things that would help the people that he had been helping back as a community organizer.
Mr. LONG: For example, he was trying to do a lot of job creation programs or tax breaks for poor people, and he tried to carry a lot of the work from his previous jobs into the Illinois legislature.
MARTIN: Well, we started off this series talking about the fact that familiarity may breed contempt. Really quickly, is that something that rings true in Illinois?
Mr. LONG: As far as Barack Obama, he's got high approval ratings. There are some people - when he went into the Senate, there were a few lawmakers who viewed him as kind of a guy who really needed to earn his stripes. He was a smart guy - everybody realized that from the bat from — right off the bat from the get-go, and the Illinois Senate president and he was the minority leader at that time that Barack Obama arrived there - his name is Emile Jones, and he took Barack Obama under his wing and gave him a lot of tips and kind of pushed him on.
MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. LONG: And the Senate president now - Mr. Jones is the Senate president in Illinois, and he was able to give Obama a lot of assignments that really helped boost Obama's career. And his stature, as a result, some of the other lawmakers, who had been there in the trenches for years, resented it a little bit.
MARTIN: Yeah. Well, we are definitely going to follow this; we might check back with you. Ray Long, Springfield correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, thanks for being with us.
Mr. LONG: Good to be here.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.