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The Friends of O

(page 3 of 4)

After deciding against a clerkship or a position at a big, high-powered law firm, in 1993 Obama launched his law career at a small Chicago firm then known as Davis Miner Barnhill & Galland. Judson Miner, who had been corporation counsel under Mayor Harold Washington, remembers calling the Harvard Law Review to recruit Obama. When the receptionist asked if he'd like to leave a message, he said, "Sure; this is a recruiting call." She said, "Well, let me warn you that you're going to be 650th on the list." Miner laughed at the exaggeration and pursued Obama anyway.

Miner's firm specialized in civil rights litigation and in representing not-for-profits. "The 'game of law' irritated [Obama] more than fascinated him," Miner says. "There are people who just like the game. Barack didn't like the game."

Allison Davis, a former partner in Miner's firm (and the son of a prominent U. of C. professor), occupied an office next to Obama's at 14 West Erie Street. "He spent a lot of time working on his book [Dreams from My Father]," Davis recalls. "Some of my partners weren't happy with that, Barack sitting there with his keyboard on his lap and his feet up on the desk writing the book."

Davis speculates that Obama never joined a blue-chip Loop firm out of concern that he would then end up representing the sort of wealthy corporate interests that might appear unsavory from the point of view of a Democratic politician. One time, Davis worked with DePaul University to draw up a proposal to redevelop the Cabrini-Green public-housing area. "I asked Barack if he wanted to represent this entity," Davis recalls. "And he said no, because this is going to result in poor people being moved out." (The proposal never went anywhere.)           

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Still, if Obama's aim was to avoid unsavory clients, he fell short of the goal, considering Antoin "Tony" Rezko's trial this year on charges of influence peddling in state government. Rezko's development firm joined the long line of recruiters while Obama studied at Harvard, and later at Davis Miner Barnhill, Obama did some legal work for nonprofits partnered with Rezko's firm. "If you look at Rezko through a 1994-1995 lens, you're going to get a different picture," says Miner, defending Obama's relationship with Rezko. "He was more like the poster child for low-income housing development. At that point, [Rezko] was well thought of." (However, Rezko was known to be under federal investigation by the time Obama made a tangled deal with him involving the purchase of the senator's new Hyde Park home in 2005—a transaction that still darkens Obama's presidential campaign.) As early as July 31, 1995, Rezko became the first $1,000 donor to Obama's 1996 campaign for the state senate, his entry into elective politics (for more donors to Obama's early political runs, see "Network Ties").

From the start, Obama "was very attractive to traditional progressive activist Hyde Park types," says the Illinois House majority leader, Barbara Flynn Currie, whose district includes parts of Hyde Park. Founded in the mid-1800s as a suburban resort town for Chicago's rich, Hyde Park—along with South Kenwood, Woodlawn, South Shore, and Chatham (roughly speaking, the Fourth, Fifth, Seventh, and Eighth wards)—has a storied political history. The First Congressional District, which encompasses much of the area, is the historical seat of black political power in the United States. William L. Dawson, the first African American elected to Congress in the 20th century, represented the district from 1943 to 1970. [Correction alert: The first African American elected to Congress in the 20th century was Republican Oscar DePriest of Chicago, who represented the First Congressional District.] Harold Washington, a Hyde Park resident, represented the district before serving as mayor from 1983 to 1987. Carol Moseley Braun also came from Hyde Park with University of Chicago connections. She earned her law degree at the university and served a single term, 1993 to 1999, before making a brief run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. (In fact, three presidential candidates have emerged from a few square blocks in Hyde Park. Besides Obama and Moseley Braun, the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, who ran for the Democratic nomination in 1984 and 1988, operates RainbowPUSH Coalition at 930 East 50th Street. Jackson's home is in South Shore.)

Over the years, the neighborhood cradled Chicago's liberal and reformist politics—not that reformists can claim many victories in local government. The 100-year-old Leon Despres, Fifth Ward alderman from 1955 to 1975, remains a renowned champion of progressive thought—but he and a few other independents rarely bested the Daley camp in their days on the city council. Dan Shomon, a top aide to Obama in the 1990s, says, "Barack understood that Hyde Park was an insular political community. Hyde Park is not considered the real South Side; it's an island unto itself." For that reason, Shomon says, Obama made a point of placing his first state senate office in grittier South Shore, at 71st Street and Cottage Grove Avenue.

To get there, Obama had to knock out Alice Palmer, the incumbent state senator from the Hyde Park area. At the time, she was also a prominent member of the merged Independent Voters of Illinois–Independent Precinct Organization—the IVI-IPO or, in a shorthand phrase describing a type of doctrinaire liberal, the IVIs. Palmer decided to run for Congress, so she blessed Obama as her successor in the state senate. But when Palmer lost in a special election for the U.S. House, she decided to reclaim her seat in Springfield and tried to run in the 1996 primary. Obama refused to step aside, and his supporters kicked her off the ballot with legal challenges, a move that still rankles some IVIs. In the recent February presidential primary in Illinois, Palmer ran as a delegate for Senator Hillary Clinton against Obama's delegates. (Palmer declined to comment.)

Obama's aggressive political tactic in that race gets cited often as a sign that, for all his elite connections, he could play hardball, Chicago style. As Obama himself put it while campaigning for the Pennsylvania primary in April, "I'm from Chicago. I know politics. I'm skinny, but I'm tough." However tough he was, Obama's 1996 campaign had another lingering repercussion. Palmer initially made the rounds of Hyde Park to introduce Obama to the neighborhood liberals. Among them were William Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, members of the violent Weatherman group during the Vietnam War, now respected college educators. In the heat of the presidential campaign, Obama has minimized his relationship with Ayers, describing him as a mere neighborhood acquaintance while denouncing violent tactics for change. Actually, their paths have often crossed. Asked by a Tribune reporter in 1997 what he was currently reading, Obama mentioned Ayers's analysis of the juvenile court system. The two men served on the board of the philanthropic Woods Fund from 1999 to 2002. In the tight world of Hyde Park, it was inevitable that Obama would know the couple. "I don't know the nature of Barack's relationship with Bill and Bernardine, but they are people who are very well known to residents of Hyde Park, active in the community," says Geoffrey Stone. "Nobody who has lived there for any extended period of time wouldn't know them—Hyde Park is a small community." (Neither Ayers nor Dohrn replied to requests for comment.)

Apparently, however, Obama kept his political, social, and academic lives in separate compartments. Stone says he does not recall Obama's ever discussing Ayers, Rezko, or the Reverend Wright while Obama was at the university.

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