As I surveyed the throng gathered March 16 in Chicago’s Hyatt Hotel to celebrate the primary victory of Illinois State Senator Barack Obama I experienced a sense of déjà vu. In 1983, I had stood among a similar crowd when Harold Washington won Chicago’s mayoral primary. Both crowds were celebrating the victory of a black candidate who began the campaign as a prohibitive underdog. But the most striking feature of both events, and the primary reason for my feelings of déjà vu, was the crowd’s racial diversity.
It wasn’t diversity cobbled together by good intentions. This was people coming together with shared concerns and hopes — a genuine coalition. Illinois residents of all ethnicities seem to trust that Obama will speak to their specific issues without bias. It is a kind of trust that Washington also inspired.
Obama won a stunning victory. In a field of seven, the 42-year-old state senator captured more than 52 percent of the vote. His closest competitor, State Comptroller Dan Hynes, polled less than 24 percent. The third finisher, Blair Hull, won 10 percent of the vote. Hull had been leading the field after spending $29 million of his own money on the race, but his campaign ran aground after divorce records revealed an incident of domestic violence.
Obama’s triumph catapulted him into the national limelight, and he has become the newest rising star in the Democrats’ firmament. The Harvard Law School graduate and University of Chicago lecturer is favored to win the Senate seat now held by retiring Republican Peter Fitzgerald. The son of a black Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother, Obama embodies our multicultural zeitgeist and would be just the third African American elected to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction. The second was Carol Moseley Braun, also from Illinois.
Obama is favored to win in November. Illinois is leaning increasingly Democratic, and he demonstrated widespread appeal in the primary contest. Not only did he win Chicago and Cook County, where minority voters dominate, but he did surprisingly well in the predominately white “collar counties.”
But the election won’t be a cakewalk. Obama’s Republican opponent is Jack Ryan, a fellow Harvard graduate and novice politician, who defeated seven candidates to win the GOP primary. Ryan is a multimillionaire investment banker who quit his corporate job to teach in an inner-city high school.
The 44-year-old Ryan is an attractive candidate with a compelling personal story. But, pundits say, his moderate credentials don’t offer Republican voters much of a contrast with Obama, and he fails to excite the GOP base. What’s more, like Hull, his divorce records have been an ongoing source of controversy.
Obama’s candidacy took a while to catch on in the African-American community, but his popularity is growing fast. His campaign is being watched closely for what it may augur. Black candidates running in statewide elections traditionally face the dilemma of how to remain relevant to their base of support without alienating other voters: The black electorate demands their candidates push the same policies that turn off white voters needed to win. For a black candidate to win a statewide office requires that they maintain an exquisite political balance.
Some analysts argue that to win votes among the general electorate these new-school black candidates must move beyond racial grievance and civil rights modalities. Several black politicians have adopted this model, including Reps. Harold Ford Jr. (D‑Tenn.) and Gregory W. Meeks (D‑N.Y). Cory Booker, the Ivy League-educated candidate for mayor of Newark, N.J., also sought to embody this new-school mode in his unsuccessful run.
But many black voters are wary of such candidates and some initially withheld support for Obama because he was projected as such a post-race candidate. There even were rumors that he was cozying up to the Democratic Leadership Council.
But the candidate soon put those rumors to rest and — just as Harold Washington did 20 years earlier — mobilized significant support among Chicago’s influential Black Nationalist community. For Chicago’s African-American community, nationalist support generally confers political authenticity.
“I think it’s fair to say that the conventional wisdom was we could not win,” Obama told the packed hotel ballroom the night of his victory. “But we are here, from all across Illinois, suburbs, city, downstate, upstate, black , white, Hispanic, Asian.”
He was right, and the crowd cheered exuberantly. Among the cheers, I swear I heard the chant, “Harold, Harold, Harold.”