Examining Obama's 'Present' Votes in Illinois Illinois Sen. Barack Obama has been criticized by his Democratic rivals for voting "present," rather than a more definitive "yes" or "no," when he was a state legislator. But Obama says these accusations do not take into account the nature of Illinois politics.
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Examining Obama's 'Present' Votes in Illinois

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Examining Obama's 'Present' Votes in Illinois

Examining Obama's 'Present' Votes in Illinois

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

In Monday night's debate between the Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards attacked Barack Obama's voting record from his days as an Illinois lawmaker.

(Soundbite of political debate)

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): In the Illinois State Senate, Senator Obama voted 130 times present. That's not yes, that's not no. That's maybe.

BLOCK: The actual number of Obama's present votes was 129 in his eight years in the Illinois Senate. Obama's campaign says anyone criticizing those votes doesn't understand how voting present is sometimes used in the rough-and-tumble give-and-take of the Illinois legislature.

NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER: To register a vote in the Illinois General Assembly, lawmakers have a choice of three buttons on their desks.

Mr. RICH MILLER (Writer, Publisher, The Capitol Fax): The yes button is green. The no button is red, and the present button is yellow.

SCHAPER: Rich Miller writes and publishes The Capitol Fax, a daily newsletter and blog on Illinois politics.

Mr. MILLER: And there's a saying in Springfield that there's a reason why the present button is yellow.

SCHAPER: But Miller says that not all present votes are cowardly, including those cast by State Senator Obama.

Mr. MILLER: After having put some thought into it, I don't think that Barack Obama was necessarily a coward for voting present on those bills. In fact, I think he believed that he was doing, you know, the right thing, because, you know, something may have been, to his mind, unconstitutional or not right.

SCHAPER: Miller points out that, at times, Obama was the only lawmaker voting present on bills winning near unanimous support. He did it even on issues he supported and on one he sponsored.

Chris Mooney is a political science professor at the University of Illinois, Springfield.

Professor CHRIS MOONEY (Political Science, University of Illinois, Springfield): A person, you know, as cerebral as Senator Obama might be prone to such a thing, thinking things through a little bit too carefully

SCHAPER: Mooney and other state capitol watchers and players say Illinois lawmakers often vote present as part of a larger party or issue bloc strategy.

Pam Sutherland, president and CEO of the Illinois Planned Parenthood Council, says Obama voted present at least seven times to provide cover to other abortion-rights supporters on bills such as the Born Alive Infant Protection Act.

Ms. PAM SUTHERLAND (President, CEO, Illinois Planned Parenthood Council): Senators didn't want to vote pro-choice anymore because they knew these were being used against them in their campaigns.

SCHAPER: Potentially more damaging for Obama is the Clinton debate attack about Tony Rezko. He's an indicted Chicago real estate developer and political fundraiser, whom Clinton characterized as a slumlord for whom Obama did legal work.

Billing records from Obama's former law firm show he did do five hours of legal work in the late '90s for community groups partnering with Rezko's development company, but not for Rezko directly.

Still, the two have known each other since Rezko tried to recruit Obama out of law school for a job. Cindy Canary of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform explains Rezko's place in Illinois politics.

Ms. CINDY CANARY (Executive Director, Illinois Campaign for Political Reform): He's kind of been like a virus in our political culture, if you will. And he has given money to candidates on both sides of the aisle.

SCHAPER: And that includes Obama's early state legislative campaigns. When Obama bought a mansion in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood in 2004, Rezko's wife bought the lot next door and then sold a portion of it to Obama to expand his yard. It happened at a time when Rezko was under federal investigation for his fundraising activities on behalf of Illinois Governor Rob Blagojevich and for his role on a couple of state boards and commissions.

Though there are no allegations of wrongdoing by Obama, Cindy Canary says the relationship may hurt him.

Ms. CANARY: You know, I think this will stand out in Senator Obama's, you know, career as the date he wishes he'd never gone on, you know?

SCHAPER: Tony Rezko goes on trial February 25th, three weeks after much of the country votes in the Super Tuesday Democratic primaries.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

BLOCK: For more analysis and fact-checking of the Democratic candidates' recent accusations, visit npr.org.

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