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Obama seeks U.S. Senate seat
by TRACY BAIM
2004-02-04

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Pictured Obama at a press conference announcing his GLBT support. Photo by Tracy Baim

Windy City Times is interviewing several of the top candidates for U.S. Senate. Leading up to the March 16 primary, look each week for candidate interviews and election news on the wide variety of posts up for grabs.

After Obama's WCT interview, he called to clarify that he opposes the proposed U.S. Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. He said he also opposed the two proposed state bills banning same-sex marriage.

WCT: Let's start with your background.

Obama: The first thing people usually want to know is where I got this funny name. My father was from Kenya, from Africa. My mother is from Kansas, which is where I got my accent from. They actually met as students in Hawaii. I came to Chicago after college, to work as a community organizer on the Far South Side of Chicago, an area that had been devastated by steel plant closings. There were a group of organizations in the area that wanted to see how they could rebuild their communities. So I was hired as a 23-year-old director to work on setting up job training programs, and after-school programs, and other programs for the area. After three and a half years of doing that, which was a wonderful experience and a great education for me, I realized that it was really hard to initiate some of the changes that were needed at a local level, because the economic forces that were hurting these communities were so big. I decided it was a good time for me to step back. So I went to law school. I went to Harvard, graduated in 1991. I was fortunate to be the first Black president of the Harvard Law Review there, and that gave me a variety of options. But I knew I wanted to come back to Chicago and work in public policy. So I ran a voter registration drive, called Project Vote, that registered 150,000 new voters to help get Bill Clinton and Carol Moseley Braun elected. I started working at a civil-rights firm ... that specialized in employment discrimination law and voting-rights law, and I started teaching at the University of Chicago, where I still teach constitutional law and voting rights law. In 1996, this seat here came up, and I ran, and was successful, and I've served in the legislature ever since.

WCT: You went right to the state Senate.

Obama: I phased out my legal practice, though I occasionally do some appellate work. But mostly now, in addition to the state Senate, I teach. I'm married, and I have two kids.

WCT: What appealed to you about the state Senate particularly?

Obama: I'm not one of those people who planned on being President at the age of 12. I was interested in being involved in public policy in some capacity, that would have an impact. I ran for Senate primarily because this Senate seat came up, people who I worked with in various communities thought that I could be an effective advocate for progressive issues in the Senate, and asked me if I would be willing to run. So that's really why I ran for the Senate.

WCT: What are the boundaries of your district?

Obama: It's entirely in the city. It stretches from 99th Street south all the way up through the Gold Coast, along the lakefront. Which means that I've got some of the wealthiest zip codes in the state, as well as some of the poorest. The district changed since the most recent re-map. It used to run east-west, Hyde Park, South Shore, and then it would run west, through some very poor areas like Englewood. Most of my representation, historically, has been on the South Side.

WCT: I remember seeing you at gay and lesbian events, if not before you were elected, certainly after you were elected.

Obama: Before and after.

WCT: And yet, your district at the time, stereotypically, people would not consider having a large gay presence.

Obama: That probably dates back to my college days. My favorite professor my first year in college was one of the first openly gay people that I knew. This was back in 1979. He was a terrific guy, though we've lost touch. He was a political science professor. ... Because of my friendship with him, I became, early on, attuned to some of the issues and struggles that were facing the gay and lesbian communities. I think, because of those personal relationships with people like him, friends of mine I've known and worked with in various capacities, I've always been concerned and interested in how we promote social justice for all people.

WCT: Have you ever experienced any backlash, in terms of your re-election, when you supported gay issues?

Obama: I have not. I'm really pleased with the cultural shift that's taken place just in the last decade in our society. I think that Chicago, and Illinois, in a lot of ways have been leaders in the country, particularly in the Democratic Party, where I think there has been a lot of progress made. We don't have a lot of gay-bashing taking place within the Democratic Party, from any camp.

WCT: One of the things that supporters of the state gay-rights bill have been saying is that some of the supporters of certain Senate candidates, yourself included, were not coming out full force for the Senate bill this time. Do you feel there's a litmus test for people whose supporters aren't fully 100%?

Obama: You raise an important point. Although your initial question was whether there's been a backlash against me, I see none of that within the Democratic Party. I think there are still geographical differences in terms of attitude toward gay and lesbian issues. I think downstate, there is a difference. On the Southwest Side, the Northwest Side of Chicago, where the Catholic Church is still a significant institution, there is a difference. And, to a certain extent, within the African-American community, because of the strong affiliation with the church, there is still some resistance.

My attitude is that candidates for office, persons in elected office, are ultimately responsible for what they say and what they do. I think the question is, are they forceful, clear, strong advocates on behalf of these issues. Are they doing everything that they can to lobby on behalf of these issues. They're not always going to be successful, even within the Democratic Party. And there are going to be people in this U.S. Senate race who support me who may not feel the same way I do on gay and lesbian issues. That's going to be true of the other candidates as well. The important thing is, what do people see me saying publicly, how am I acting publicly, how am I voting publicly. Because what I do think is unacceptable is saying one thing in one forum, and saying something else in another. What you do have to expect is consistency, and not playing to a particular audience.

WCT: Can you talk about the supporters of you who do not support the gay-rights bill [ SB 101 ] . Is it your sense that the choice they are making is a moral choice for them, or is it a political choice?

Obama: The overwhelming majority of my supporters not only support SB 101 but are co-sponsors. There are going to be some of my supporters who may not have voted for it yet ... . I think it probably varies. I think there are some downstate Democrats who are just making a political calculation, that this is really a tough one. That they will experience significant political backlash in districts that are closely aligned, and in which the Republican Party is very much using this as a wedge issue. I think there may be other supporters of mine who are still asking questions about the contents of the bill. I'm confident that if we can get this to the floor, and get close, that I can change some minds.

WCT: You have done a lot on HIV and AIDS funding.

Obama: That's been a top priority for me, partly because I'm in charge of the Health and Human Services Committee in the Senate. I try to work very actively with the AIDS Foundation and other advocacy groups to improve our response here in Illinois. This year, a lot of our focus was on testing pregnant women ... . It involves not just testing, but more importantly, counseling of pregnant women. So that was a significant victory. I've been a strong advocate, consistently, for increasing AIDS funding throughout my tenure in the state Senate. We still do not provide enough resources for the kinds of community-based prevention programs that are necessary, and I think as a consequence we've seen AIDS rates creep back up, particularly among young people. One of the things I'm constantly interested in is making sure that we're fighting complacency on this issue, because we're a long way from being out of the woods on the AIDS crisis.

WCT: Is there more the state can do in making up for a lack of federal funding?

Obama: Part of the reason I'm running for the United States Senate is because we need more money from the federal government. The state is in a genuine budget crisis, despite the reports of an improving economy. The reports that we just received this month indicate that the state is still going to be anywhere between $1.5-3 billion in the hole. So it's going to be hard, simply relying on state dollars, to see significant increases in social service and health funding across the board. ... Unlike what's happening at the state level, the federal government can afford such funding if it re-prioritizes its policies.

WCT: What are your top five mainstream agenda items?

Obama: What's striking to me, as I travel across this state, is the degree to which the healthcare crisis is affecting all people, across region, across race, across sexual orientation, and in some cases, across income levels. When I first came in seven years ago, we already had a crisis of the uninsured. We had a crisis with respect to prescription drugs. We already had a significant crisis in terms of AIDS funding and other prevention issues. What we're seeing now, though, is because of the continuing double-digit inflation in the healthcare industry, we're seeing people who have jobs unable to afford health insurance, because their co-payments, their premiums and deductibles are going up so much faster than their incomes. So one of my top priorities is moving in the direction of universal healthcare. At the state level, I've been a sponsor of the amendment which would make healthcare a constitutional right, and would mandate the legislature to arrive at a form of universal healthcare in the state. We haven't been able to push that forward, but we continue to work on it. I'm working with Campaign For Better Health Care to move a bill called the Healthcare Justice Act at the state level, which again, would force the legislature to address this issue.

At the federal level, what we've already proposed is that we immediately expand a program that I helped shape here in the state, the Kid Care program. At the federal level, it's called the children's health insurance program. This would cover all persons 24 and under, which would only cost us $37 billion, but would immediately cover approximately half of the uninsured. At the other end of the spectrum, we've proposed that we allow 55- to 64-year-olds to buy into the Medicare system. Those two programs together, for far less than we spent on Iraq, on the war and reconstruction, would cover the majority of persons who are currently uninsured. In the long-term, I think we need to move in the direction of a national healthcare program.

WCT: What are the other issues you consider important?

Obama: Jobs and the economy are always important. Illinois' economic base continues to erode, particularly with regard to manufacturing. Although no single U.S. Senator is able to have singlehanded influence over the state of the U.S. economy, we can make better choices than we're making right now to encourage job growth in our communities. Dealing with the healthcare crisis will go a long way toward improving our economy, because I think small businesses are getting hit very hard by rising healthcare costs, and your readership not only has a lot of small business owners in it, but it also has a lot of people who may be self-employed, and they're typically more likely to be uninsured.

But I think jobs are a critical issue. Part of what I think we can have an impact on, legislatively, is how the the tax code is written up. Right now we have given incentives to companies that are opening up offshore accounts in Bermuda to avoid U.S. taxes, instead of providing incentives for companies that are investing in research and development and worker training here in the U.S.

Education continues to be a top priority. The area that I'm most interested in is expanding access to early childhood education. I think the schools, right now, are oftentimes dealing with children who are going into the school system already behind. ... Access to higher education is a big issue. In the mid-'80s, the Pell Grant program, the primary grant program under the federal government, covered 98% of the costs of a four-year public university. It now covers 57%, so you're seeing a lot of young people who are making the decision not to go to college because they can't afford it, and aren't interested in loading up a $50,000-$100,000 debt.

So those are top priorities. But my other top priority is making sure that we reframe the debate on civil rights and civil liberties in this country. I have been a consistent critic of the Patriot Act. As a constitutional lawyer, I am deeply concerned with the kinds of judges that have been promoted by the Bush administration. I think that it's important for progressives and the Democratic Party to go on the offensive with respect to the agenda that's being promoted by the Radical Right, when it comes to intrusions into our civil liberties.

WCT: Have you taken a position on whether you would have voted for the war resolution?

Obama: Yes. I'm proud of the fact that a year ago, I was one of the key speakers at the first anti-war rally in Chicago, at the Federal Plaza. I was one of two elected officials at the rally, myself and Julie Hamos from Evanston. I said at that time, six months before the war was actually launched, that it was ill-conceived, that there was no evidence of an imminent threat from Saddam Hussein, that there was no connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, that Hussein was a dangerous and brutal dictator, but that working unilaterally, we could contain him and ensure our security. And I anticipated that an invasion of Iraq was going to cost us billions of dollars, and thousands of lives. ... Nothing that has happened since that time has disabused me of that position.

WCT: You have a large list of gay and lesbian supporters.

Obama: I've been a strong supporter of gay and lesbian issues for a long time, which means I have a lot of personal relationships in the gay and lesbian community. Initially, our committee formed of its own volition and is continuing to expand.

WCT: Can you talk about your plan on domestic and international AIDS issues?

Obama: On issues like prevention and care, we need to significantly increase funding, and we put out proposals to increase funding by at least $1 billion.

WCT: If Bush does get re-elected, and the Republicans maintain control, how can Democrats have an impact?

Obama: It depends on what the margins are in the Senate and the House. If the Democrats continue to be the minority in both Houses and the Republicans control the White House, we have less leverage. Part of our job, at this stage, is to lay the groundwork for a long-term working majority. This country is at a crossroads. Whether it's an issue of AIDS funding, or tax policy, or healthcare, or the environment, we have a 5- to 10-year task ahead of us in rebuilding a working, progressive Democratic majority that can win elections. So on issues like AIDS funding, I see my job as not only getting more money and passing bills, but also changing and reframing the debate. I want to be able to reach out into the African-American community, where there may still be resistance and homophobia, and talk as a U.S. Senator about the importance of funding.

WCT: Is there a comparison to when Republican Pate Philip was heading the state Senate and you were trying to get bills through?

Obama: Absolutely. The Republican Party has its own tensions. There are very conservative, intolerant wings, and then there are mainstream wings. My experience is that if you're clear and principled, they are also willing to work with anybody and seek common ground. You can actually win some occasional victories. You're not going to win everything, you'll probably going to lose on most issues. But on issues of AIDS funding, I think it appeals to people's core decency and values. I think that even voters and elected officials who may object to SB 101, can still be persuaded that we need to make sure that people are healthy and safe.

WCT: What about the military's 'don't ask' policy?

Obama: I think it needs to be eliminated. ... I think it is safe to assume that we have a significant number of gay and lesbian soldiers in Iraq. The notion that somehow they should be treated differently is contrary to what this country is about.

WCT: Do you have a position on marriage vs. civil unions?

Obama: I am a fierce supporter of domestic-partnership and civil-union laws. I am not a supporter of gay marriage as it has been thrown about, primarily just as a strategic issue. I think that marriage, in the minds of a lot of voters, has a religious connotation. I know that's true in the African-American community, for example. And if you asked people, 'should gay and lesbian people have the same rights to transfer property, and visit hospitals, and et cetera,' they would say, 'absolutely.' And then if you talk about, 'should they get married?', then suddenly ...

WCT: There are more than 1,000 federal benefits that come with marriage. Looking back in the 1960s and inter-racial marriage, the polls showed people against that as well.

Obama: Since I'm a product of an interracial marriage, I'm very keenly aware of ...

WCT: But you think, strategically, gay marriage isn't going to happen so you won't support it at this time?

Obama: What I'm saying is that strategically, I think we can get civil unions passed. I think we can get SB 101 passed. I think that to the extent that we can get the rights, I'm less concerned about the name. And I think that is my No. 1 priority, is an environment in which the Republicans are going to use a particular language that has all sorts of connotations in the broader culture as a wedge issue, to prevent us moving forward, in securing those rights, then I don't want to play their game.

WCT: If Massachusetts gets marriage and this gives momentum to the proposed federal Constitutional amendment against gay marriage?

Obama: I would oppose that.

WCT: Talk about your record on hate crimes.

Obama: I have been a strong advocate for hate-crimes legislation at the state level. I would continue to be an equally strong advocate at the federal level. I absolutely think that sexual orientation has to be included in all hate-crimes legislation.

WCT: Gender identity as well?

Obama: Absolutely. The transgendered community has to be protected. I just don't have any tolerance for that sort of intolerance. And I think we need to legislate aggressively to protect them.

WCT: Do you support adding gender identity to the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act?

Obama: Yes. I think this is a difficult question because it touches on, for example, the rights of schools or other public institutions that may be concerned about a transgendered person in positions of authority. I would think the political resistance on that would be fierce. I'd have to look at the language.

WCT: Adoption and family law is very inconsistent. Is this a federal or state issue?

Obama: I think that's really a state issue. I think that one of the things, as an advocate on behalf of gay and lesbian issues, I would like to be able to do, is throw issues of state's rights back in the face of Republicans who, for example, try to pass constitutional amendments or federal laws that prevent states from adopting their own policies.

WCT: As a constitutional lawyer, do you have a comment on the dozens of state anti-gay marriage acts—will they survive a constitutional challenge?

Obama: I think that there is a complex issue that is going to be percolating in the courts with respect to 'full faith and credit' and how those cases are treated. The federal government has the capacity to override state laws, through the supremacy clause. It is unusual for a federal law to override an underlying principle that states should recognize each other's laws. So I don't know how the federal government is going to come out on this. I think it's going to be argued all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

WCT: On immigration—there is an HIV ban, and there is no ability for gays to marry and thus have their partners stay in the U.S.

Obama: I haven't studied either of those issues carefully. I would object instinctively to a ban on visitors with HIV. I think that that's a remnant of initial fears about HIV transmission that were inaccurate. I would want to examine the immigration law in the broader context of the immigration policy.

WCT: Why do you feel the LGBT community should support you over another candidate for the U.S. Senate?

Obama: I think that the Democratic Party in Illinois, particularly in Chicago, has made enormous strides in embracing the issues that confront the LGBT community. I think that any of the Democratic candidates would be an improvement—or would better serve the LGBT community—than the Republican counterparts. But ultimately, I think one of the questions that this community has to look at is, who's not just going to be a good vote, but who's going to be a passionate advocate on behalf of their issues? Who's got the capacity to reframe the debate, who's able to articulate and present these issues in ways that change people's hearts and minds? That's something that I have consistently been able to do in the state legislature. I'm not just talking the talk or filling out questionnaires, I've walked the walk on every single issue that's been important to the LGBT community. And oftentimes I've delivered. I have never shied away from these issues. It's that kind of consistency and willingness to fight that is what I think is needed in Washington right now. Particularly because no matter what happens in this next election, there are still going to be forces at work that are promoting intolerance and are resistant to change. One of the skills that I think I have is an ability to translate my passion for equality and justice into a language that a broad audience can relate to and understand, and I think that's going to make me effective when I get to Washington.

WCT: Gery Chico says he wants to be a senator because the U.S. Senate is not diverse. What about you?

Obama: We've got 100 U.S. Senators. Not one is African-American. Not one is Latino. I guess there are two persons of color as a consequence of the state of Hawaii. There are very few women and very few non-millionaires. Obviously, I'm not running a race-based campaign. I'm rooted in the African-American community but not limited by it. But I think all of us who are concerned with issues of equity and justice and diversity are troubled by the lack of diversity in the U.S. Senate. I think it makes for a body that consistently tilts in favor of the powerful rather than the powerless.

One of the qualities I think I do bring to this race is as an African-American, my entire politics is based on a desire to fight for people who are disadvantaged. And that is not just a cause of this campaign. It's been the cause of my life.

Up next: Gery Chico, Blair Hull.


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