When newly elected state Sen. Barack Obama came to the Illinois Capitol in 1997, he didn’t exactly receive a warm welcome. Many of his new senate colleagues had been supporters of Alice Palmer, who Obama had knocked off the ballot during the election.
Plus, Democrats were in the minority in the Statehouse, making it difficult to pass legislation. Frustrated, Obama wanted to leave the state Senate by running for Congress in the 2000 election against a Chicago political legend — U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, who was a former Black Panther.
In episode four of Making Obama, hear the story of that race, which was Obama’s first and only defeat in a political campaign, and how he confronted his identity as a biracial, Harvard-educated lawyer.
Subscribe to Making Obama on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.
This podcast, from the producers of Making Oprah, tells the story of Obama’s rise from Chicago politics to the national stage.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart on his and Obama’s frustrating time in the Illinois legislature
Dart: Neither one of us were down there saying, “Thank god I’ve got this,” and, “This helps my law practice,” or “It’s so cool to have someone call you senator or representative.” No. I think underlying it was the notion that all of us are on this earth a limited number of hours and with that you want to be impactful. And I think both of us were very, very similarly of the opinion that this was not a place where you can be really impactful.
Magazine editor Hermene Hartman on Obama running against U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush in 2000
Hartman: I was one to say, “This is the wrong race for you. You’re going to lose your butt. Bobby’s gonna hand you your head on a silver platter,” and trying to make him understand the why.
You don’t know what Bobby Rush means here. You must remember, Bobby is a Panther. You all know Bobby as a congressman. I know Bobby as a Panther who became a congressman. There’s some real steps there. And you are not gonna take him on, and I thought he was not black enough. … Bobby is ingrained in the black community as a black American, as a black Chicagoan, as a black politician. I thought Barack was clueless on that.
Rush on his belief that Obama’s 2000 candidacy was a plot by white liberals
Rush: I have always had a problem with white liberals.
Jenn White: Did you feel in that race state Sen. Obama was thinking for himself or did you feel like...
Rush: Oh no, they encouraged him to run against me. They thought that this Harvard-educated lawyer, tall, handsome, light-skinned, looking good. They thought that they could take me out.
Media consultant Chris Sautter on Obama’s loss in the 2000 congressional race
Sautter: Normally the newspapers write obituaries for the losers in a race like that. But in reading some of the editorials in the Tribune, the Sun-Times, and some of the community papers, you almost would have thought that Obama won because they talked about what a great future he had.
I remember myself telling [Obama congressional campaign manager] Dan Shomon a couple of days after the race, I said, “This guy’s gonna be president one day.” And he says, “President? We can’t even get him elected to Congress!” … It was a bad race, objectively, for him. But I think, more than anything, he learned how difficult big-time politics was. Everything had come pretty easily for him up to that point. In short, I think Obama learned how to win by losing.
Obama on the aftermath of his 2000 loss against Rush
Obama: The interesting thing that happened, though, was this small silver lining, which is towards the end of the race, when I’d be shaking hands in front of a supermarket or knocking on doors or seeing folks at train stations or churches or what have you, you’d have folks in the African-American community, some elderly ladies. You’d give them your literature and they’d say, “Oh honey, we think you’re a very nice young man. We’d think you’d be excellent someday. We just didn’t think it was your turn yet. But you’re going to have your day.”
And that was an interesting insight. So that even though we did badly on election day, it actually gave me more confidence that if I were to run, not against such a well known African-American politician who had been around for so long, but rather if I were running in a race in which the African-American community could mobilize behind me, that I could get that vote.
Full list of people heard in this episode:
- Former President Barack Obama
- Douglas Baird, law professor at the University of Chicago
- Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart
- Former Illinois State Sen. Kirk Dillard (24th District)
- Hermene Hartman, editor and founder of N’DIGO
- Carol Anne Harwell, former campaign manager for Obama
- Former Illinois State Sen. Rickey Hendon (5th District)
- Al Kindle, political operator
- Rev. Alvin Love, Lilydale First Baptist Church
- Attorney General Lisa Madigan
- Newton Minow, lawyer, former FCC chairman, and Obama supporter
- Marty Nesbitt, close friend of Obama
- U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (1st District)
- Chris Sautter, media consultant to Obama
- Dan Shomon, former legislative aide and campaign manager for Obama
- Former Illinois State Sen. Donne Trotter (17th District)
These interview highlights have been edited for brevity and clarity by Bea Aldrich. Join the conversation at #MakingObama.
Don’t want to miss an episode? Subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen.