In the final, climactic buildup to November’s general election, with George Bush gaining ground on Bill Clinton in Illinois and the once-unstoppable campaign of senatorial candidate Carol Moseley Braun embroiled in allegations about her mother’s Medicare liability, one of the most important local stories managed to go virtually unreported: The number of new voter registrations before the election hit an all-time high. And the majority of those new voters were black. More than 150,000 new African-American voters were added to the city’s rolls. In fact, for the first time in Chicago’s history-including the heyday of Harold Washington-voter registrations in the 19 predominantly black wards outnumbered those in the city’s 19 predominantly white ethnic wards, 676,000 to 526,000.
The election, to some degree, turned on these totals: Braun and Clinton had almost unanimous support among blacks. But just as important, if less obvious, are the implications black votership could have for future city and state elections: For the first time in ten years, more than half a million blacks went to the polls in Chicago. And with gubernatorial and mayoral elections coming up in the next two years, it served notice to everyone from Jim Edgar to Richard M. Daley that an African-American voting bloc would be a force to be reckoned with in those races.
None of this, of course, was accidental. The most effective minority voter registration drive in memory was the result of careful handiwork by Project Vote!, the local chapter of a not-for-profit national organization. “It was the most efficient campaign I have seen in my 20 years in politics,” says Sam Burrell, alderman of the West Side’s 29th Ward and a veteran of many registration drives.
At the head of this effort was a little-known 31-year-old African-American lawyer, community organizer, and writer: Barack Obama. The son of a black Kenyan political activist and a white American anthropologist, Obama was born in Hawaii, received a degree in political science and English literature from Columbia University, and, in 1990, became the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. In 1984, after Columbia but before Harvard, Obama moved to Chicago. “I came because of Harold Washington,” he says. “I wanted to do community organizing, and I couldn’t think of a better city than one as energized and hopeful as Chicago was then.” He went to work for a South Side church-affiliated development group and “was heartened by the enthusiasm.” But barely three years later, Washington died, and Obama, convinced he needed additional skills, enrolled at Harvard Law School. The African-American community he left, rent by political divisions and without a clear leader, went into a steep decline. By 1991, when Obama, law degree in hand, returned to Chicago to work on a book about race relations-having turned his back on the Supreme Court clerkship that is almost a given for the law review’s top editor-black voter registration and turnout in the city were at their lowest points since record keeping began.
Six months after he took the helm of Chicago’s Project Vote!, those conditions had been reversed.
To understand the full implications of Obama’s effort, you first need to understand how voter registration often has worked in Chicago. The Regular Democratic Party spearheaded most drives, doing so using one primary motivator: money. The party would offer bounties to registrars for every new voter they signed up (typically a dollar per registration). The campaigns did produce new voters. “But bounty systems don’t really promote participation,” says David Orr, the Cook County clerk, whose office is responsible for voter registration efforts in the Cook County suburbs. “When the money dries up, the voters drop out.” Nor did the Democratic Party always vigorously push registration among minorities, Orr says. “It’s not that they discouraged it. They just never worked hard to ensure it would happen.”
All of that changed with the ascension of Harold Washington. In the months just prior to his 1983 Democratic primary win, 120,000 new black voters were registered, most by registrars who received no bounty.
Off in Washington, D.C., those efforts were scrutinized with great interest by the founder of a new voter-registration organization. Sandy Newman, a lawyer and civil-rights activist, had founded Project Vote! the year before to promote registration among low-income and minority voters. At the time, his operation was still centered in the nation’s capital, pioneering such now-commonplace practices as registering people at food-stamp and welfare offices. While Project Vote! was indirectly involved in the Harold Washington registration effort, donating money to the black wards’ voter-registration drives, it did not start a branch in Chicago. “The group already at work there was fine,” Newman says. “We decided to support them with funds, rather than compete with them.” Even after the minority-registration effort in Chicago fell apart following the death of Washington, Project Vote! opted to avoid Illinois. “The Democratic Party in Cook County was still actively using a bounty system for most registrations,” Newman says, “and we didn’t wish to get associated with that.”
Carol Moseley Braun’s upset primary victory over Alan Dixon last March altered Newman’s feelings. “It’s not that I wanted to influence the Senate race,” Newman says. “Project Vote! is nonpartisan, strictly nonpartisan. But we do focus our efforts on minority voters, and on states where we can explain to them why their vote will matter. Braun made that easier in Illinois.” So Newman decided to open a Cook County Project Vote! office and went looking for someone to head it.
The name Barack Obama surfaced. “I was asking around among community activists in Chicago and around the country, and they kept mentioning him,” Newman says. Obama by then was working with church and community leaders on the West Side, and he was writing a book that the publisher Simon & Schuster had contracted for while he was editor of the law review. He was 30 years old.
When Newman called, Obama agreed to put his other work aside. “I’m still not quite sure why,” Newman says. ‘’This was not glamorous, high-paying work. But I am certainly grateful. He did one hell of a job.”
Within a few months, Obama, a tall, affable workaholic, had recruited staff and volunteers from black churches, community groups, and politicians. He helped train 700 deputy registrars, out of a total of 11,000 citywide. And he began a saturation media campaign with the help of black-owned Brainstorm Communications. (The company’s president, Terri Gardner, is the sister of Gary Gardner, president of Soft Sheen Products, Inc., which donated thousands of dollars to Project Voters efforts.) The group’s slogan-"It’s a Power Thing"-was ubiquitous in African-American neighborhoods. Posters were put up. Black-oriented radio stations aired the group’s ads and announced where people could go to register. Minority owners of McDonald’s restaurants allowed registrars on site and donated paid radio time to Project Vote! Labor unions provided funding, as, in late fall, did the Clinton/Gore campaign, whose national voter-registration drive was being directed by Chicago alderman Bobby Rush.
“It was overwhelming,” says Joseph Gardner, a commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and the director of the steering committee for Project Vote! “The black community in this city had not been so energized and so single-minded since Harold died.”
Burrell agrees. “We were registering hundreds a day, and we weren’t having to search them out. They came looking for us. African Americans were just so eager to have a say again, to feel they counted.”
“I think it’s fair to say we reinvigorated a slumbering constituency,” says Obama. “We got people to take notice.”
The question now, of course, is what lasting impact Project Voters efforts will have on Chicago and Illinois politics. Joseph Gardner says it will be considerable. “In this town, numbers talk,” he says. “Who can afford to ignore 600,000 voters?” He says he is confident turnout among black voters in Chicago will remain at nearly that level during future elections. “We tasted victory in November. It was intoxicating. We won’t go back to being silent.”
Other observers are more skeptical. “Turnout was high because of Braun and because people, especially minorities, were so angry and ready for change at a national level,” Orr says. “It’s not likely we’ll see the same levels in local elections.”
One Daley insider says the Mayor took particular note of the increase in black participation. “How could he not? But does that mean he starts looking over his shoulder for a rising black political star to run against him? No.” Before his 1989 victory, the Mayor received contributions from many black-owned businesses and black voters. “I think he’s pretty comfortable with his support among blacks,” this insider says. “But he’s not complacent. Look what happened to Al Dixon.”
As for Project Vote! itself, its operations in Chicago have officially closed down. Barack Obama has returned to work on his book, which he plans to complete this month. He also is teaching a class at the University of Chicago law school, and is an attorney at Davis Miner Barnhill & Galland. But he continues to consult with the church, community, and political groups involved in the monumental registration drive. “We won’t let the momentum die,” he says. “I’ll take personal responsibility for that. We plan to hold politicians’ feet to the flames in 1993, to remind them that we can produce a bloc of voters large enough that it cannot be ignored.”
Nor can Obama himself be ignored. The success of the voter-registration drive has marked him as the political star the Mayor should perhaps be watching for. “The sky’s the limit for Barack,” says Burrell.
Some of Daley’s closest advisers are similarly impressed. “In its technical demands, a voter-registration drive is not unlike a mini-political campaign,” says John Schmidt, chairman of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority and a fundraiser for Project Vote! “Barack ran this superbly. I have no doubt he could run an equally good political campaign if that’s what he decided to do next.”
Obama shrugs off the possibility of running for office. “Who knows?” he says. “But probably not immediately.” He smiles. “Was that a sufficiently politic ‘maybe’? My sincere answer is, I’ll run if I feel I can accomplish more that way than agitating from the outside. I don’t know if that’s true right now. Let’s wait and see what happens in 1993. If the politicians in place now at city and state levels respond to African-American voters’ needs, we’ll gladly work with and support them. If they don’t, we’ll work to replace them. That’s the message I want Project Vote! to have sent.”