Obama as a State Senator: Does He 'Deserve a Promotion?'

Bold leader or unprepared to be president? Obama's record in Illinois examined.

ByABC News
October 15, 2008, 12:55 PM

Feb. 25, 2008— -- Over the weekend, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., stepped up her attacks against Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., claiming that he delivers great speeches but doesn't produce results. Campaigning in Rhode Island on Sunday, she mocked Obama as all talk and no action.

"I could stand up here and say, 'Let's just get everybody together, let's get unified,'" Clinton said, adding sarcastically, "The sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know that we should do the right thing, and the world will be perfect."

Much has been made of Obama's oratorical gifts, but some who worked with him during his years in the Illinois State Senate remember him not as a charismatic man who made booming speeches but as someone who worked hard, negotiated and produced results. Others, however, raise concerns about Obama's liberal voting record as well as the 130 times he voted "present" instead of taking a definitive stand on an issue.

Emil Jones, Illinois' Democratic State Senate president, remembers Obama's eagerness as a freshman senator in 1997.

"Soon after he got sworn in, he came to see me," Jones remembers. "He says, 'I like to work hard. So feel free to give me any tough assignments on bills and things of that nature,' and he'd do his best to carry out and make sure they are successful."

Jones, who knew Obama as an activist long before he was a state senator, did just that, putting him in charge of an ethics reform package along with Republican Sen. Kirk Dillard. Jones credits Obama with not only helping to win an unprecedented ethics reform bill but for passing groundbreaking legislation that requires police confessions to be taped.

Dillard, who has served in the state legislature for almost 15 years, said he hit it off with Obama right off the bat.

"He's intelligent, he's charming, somewhat of a breath of fresh air," Dillard said. Dillard is a delegate for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and while he believes McCain will make a better president, he has great respect for Obama and says he wasn't "just talk."

"His first five or six years here, he was not just a show horse but also a workhorse legislator," Dillard said.

Illinois Republican state Sen. Dan Cronin also said he admires Obama, calling him a "gentleman," but Cronin added that he doesn't think Obama accomplished much in his eight-year tenure as a state senator.

"It's not so much what he did, but you have to sort of look at what he didn't do in many respects," Cronin said. "There were no bold solutions, no effort to stand up to the Chicago public schools or the unions. There really wasn't, and there were opportunities to do so."

Cronin argued that Obama "played it safe" and often "went along with the program," not fighting for the kind of bold change that has come to define his presidential campaign.

"We took on the Chicago public schools, we came up with some pretty dramatic reforms, we promoted merit pay," Cronin said. "And Barack didn't pass them into law. He wasn't carrying the torch for that stuff."

"Illinois is sort of a mess these days," Cronin said, citing corruption in state politics. "Look at the experience here in Illinois -- does [Obama] deserve a promotion?"

Obama's campaign often cites his passage of what they call "sweeping ethics legislation" as evidence that he is tested and experienced.

The legislation, which included provisions that banned fundraisers from being held in the state capital and required that expenditures and contributions be published online for public viewing, received positive press but is sometimes criticized for not going far enough.

While Cronin admits that it was a bill that was much needed, he doesn't believe it to be a defining legislative achievement or proof that Obama has been "tested."

"I think it passed unanimously," Cronin said. "I don't think there was one dissenting vote; that was a lay up."

Dillard -- who co-sponsored the bill -- takes the opposite view, saying that convincing senators was no easy task. He called the passage of the ethics reform package "miraculous."

"Just like the United States Congress, or any legislative body, when you start talking about change in ethics, you don't make a lot of friends among your colleagues."

Jones said that senators were "jumping all over him" but that Obama "was able to convince them that this was the right direction to go."

Dillard, who believed that Obama's background as a constitutional law professor gave him an edge in dealing with questions on First Amendment rights for the campaign finance provision, said Obama worked hard and "dove right in like a veteran legislator."

"Most freshman legislators are to be seen, not heard. He actually spoke up and was listened to," Dillard said.

Cronin, a McCain delegate, described Obama as a "pro-defendant, ACLU, pacifist-brand liberal," whose votes on crime bills in the state Senate, some believe, leave him vulnerable to attack that he is "soft" on crime. In 2001, Obama voted against a measure that would have expanded the penalties for some gang activity to include the death penalty.

"I think he was sort of reluctant to impinge on some people, young people's civil rights," Cronin said. Obama, at the time, said the bill would unfairly target minorities.