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

Supporters Say Obama's Record Shows a Bold Leader; Critics Say He's Not Ready for Top Job


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.

Obama 'Playing It Safe'?

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.

Voting 'Present': Ducking Responsibility?

Obama has long been criticized by his opponents for voting "present" nearly 130 times as a state senator. Clinton accused Obama of "running away from honest discussion and debate" with such votes.

"You cannot achieve the kind of changes we want by voting 'present' on controversial issues," Clinton said in a speech in New York in February.

Obama's campaign has argued that he voted "present" either to protest bills that he believed had been drafted unconstitutionally or as part of a broader legislative strategy, often characterizing the practice as an Illinois Senate tradition. Senators in the minority often vote present as a way to force the majority party to negotiate. Obama was in the minority party for six of his eight years in the state Senate.

Illinois state Sen. Daniel Cronin calls that characterization a "big overstatement," and believes that voting "present" is a practice that is only "employed on rare occasions."

"You just have to vote 'yes' or 'no,'" Cronin said. "You got to stand up and be counted."

Cronin believes that Obama's votes demonstrate an indecisiveness that is at odds with being an effective commander in chief.

"I don't know whether he was planning for the future, whether he was calculating what his next move was," Cronin said. "Whatever it was, he didn't want to stick his neck out, he didn't want to risk alienating some group. And that sort of ambivalence is sort of scary when you think about a guy who wants to become commander in chief." Cronin has also voted "present" approximately 100 times.

Republican Sen. Kirk Dillard doesn't believe Obama's "present" votes are cause for concern.

"I vote 'present' on legislation often too; it doesn't concern me that Sen. Obama voted present," Dillard said. "He wanted a better piece of legislation, and sometimes you're not ready, and if you held off another week or two, you could get a better bill. I think that's probably why he voted 'present' on a number of those things."

Veteran Chicago Sun-Times Springfield reporter Dave McKinney said that while the practice is strange and does allow legislators to duck tough issues, it's not uncommon to vote "present" in the state legislature. He said he doesn't remember Obama employing the practice significantly more than other senators.

"As someone who covers this place, it's hard for me to understand why people vote present on something, because you're either for something or you're against it."

Obama has also been criticized for voting "present" on a measure to prohibit sex-related shops from opening near schools or places of worship because it would have interfered with home rule.

The Obama campaign points out on its Web site that Obama made clear his reasons for voting "present" on that bill: "When discussing the bill, Obama said, 'most of us would prefer not to have an adult bookstore or -- movie theater or something next to our residence, but that's exactly why we have local zoning ordinances. ... And it seems to me that if there's ever been a function that has historically been relegated to local control and is appropriately there, it's these kinds of zoning matters." The bill ultimately did not pass the Senate.

The Obama campaign told ABC News in a statement, "Our opponents can distort a few votes out of thousands, but that's the kind of old politics the American people are tired of. Voters care more about health care, the economy, and the war in Iraq. On those issues, Barack Obama will draw a clear contrast with John McCain's plan to keep us in Iraq for one hundred years and continue the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans that are saddling our children with debt and preventing us from investing in affordable health care and education."

Obama a 'Clean Legislator'?

Obama has been repeatedly attacked by the Clinton campaign for his ties to indicted political fundraiser Tony Rezko.

In 2005, Obama purchased a house for $300,000 less than its owners were asking, and Rezko simultaneously bought the adjacent lot from the same seller at full price ($625,000). Obama, who paid $1,650,000 for the home, has said that the price had been lowered because the home had been on the market for some time and that the price on the adjacent property did not move because there was a separate offer on the vacant lot for full price.

While Obama admitted involving Rezko in the purchase was a "bone-headed" mistake because Rezko was under investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office at the time, Obama has said that he "was confident that everything was handled ethically and above board."

McKinney said Rezko could come back to haunt Obama.

"It's problematic now because Obama day after day is now having to answer Rezko questions, now under indictment, facing trial during this election cycle," McKinney said, adding that any revelations during the trial would be "at best politically awkward for the senator."

Some new revelations appear to indicate Obama had involved Rezko at an earlier stage of his home buying than was previously known. The Obama campaign revealed last week to Bloomberg News that while Rezko was under federal investigation, Obama and Rezko toured the home and property together before submitting bids to the seller.

While McKinney considered Obama as a "pretty clean legislator" not unduly influenced by lobbyists, the campaign's handling of the Rezko matter makes him take a second glance. Identifying and returning or donating all the contributions associated with Rezko has proved a lengthy process, and when questioned by reporters in January, the campaign pointed to Obama's on-the-record statements that he didn't recall specific conversations with Rezko and was "not clear" how Rezko became involved in the purchase of the property.

"I don't understand why there wasn't clarity initially on those kinds of questions," McKinney said of Obama's ties to Rezko. "To have those kind of answers change has left me kind of wondering what the explanation for that is. I don't know."

Still, McKinney believes the Rezko relationship is out of character for Obama. "What I observed again was a guy that seemed to be ethical. I mean he seemed to be a guy that was at the center of these debates to toughen Illinois ethics laws," said McKinney. "I never saw evidence of him being wined and dined. I never saw evidence of him being bought off for votes."

Despite any negative associations one could draw from his connections to Rezko, Obama's state Senate colleagues on both side of the aisle acknowledge that he has an unusual ability to inspire people, and bring in new faces to the democratic process.

"It's amazing," Cronin said of Obama's ability to infuse enthusiasm into the electorate. "But once I get past that sentiment, and I go wait a minute, we're picking the guy that's going to be the next president of the United States, or the person that's going to be the commander in chief, the leader of the free world, I just want to be sure we got it right."