- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 26, 2007

CHICAGO — Barack Obama — whose meteoric rise to the U.S. Senate and the top tier of presidential candidates seems, in retrospect, almost preordained — nearly failed to win the community organizer’s spot that became the first step on that climb.

“He wasn’t my first choice,” said Gerald Kellman, the man who was looking for a director of the Developing Communities Project (DCP), a group of about 10 poor and small black churches that were part of the Calumet Community Religious Conference.

Mr. Kellman was looking for someone with experience, but his first choice was white and was rejected by the DCP’s founding board as being out of touch with the communities that the group would represent. Mr. Obama won the job and parlayed it into a law degree, a state Senate seat, a speaking slot at the 2004 Democratic convention, a U.S. Senate seat and a good shot at the Democratic presidential nomination.

“Life is accidental that way,” Mr. Kellman said. “If I hadn’t put an ad in the paper in New York … this probably would never have happened.”

“But,” Mr. Kellman, a white Catholic layman, says, “if you are a spiritual person, then you know that there are no accidents.”

Back in 1984, Mr. Obama was a fresh-faced and admittedly “lost” young man of 24 living in New York and still looking for a job two years after he graduated from Columbia University.

Chicago, meanwhile, was facing an economic decline as the nation’s largest steel-producing region and second-largest industrial region saw its mills and plants closing for good. It was into this fracas that Mr. Obama stepped to try to help lead the people of these struggling communities in reclaiming their streets, dignity and social empowerment.

Loretta Augustine-Herron, a semiretired teacher who worked with Mr. Obama in Chicago, called it a strange coincidence that the candidate is sometimes — including at the presidential debate Monday night — questioned about his “blackness” after living 20 years in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. But in 1984, he had never lived in a predominantly black community, and yet his skin color and a willingness to learn was all that was necessary to convince a group of skeptical inner-city blacks.

“He was bright and idealistic and very personable. And I would say about his demeanor: He was cautious, although it was not a cautious thing to come here to Chicago and take a job in community organizing at such a young age, to a place where he didn’t know anyone,” Mr. Kellman said.

Mr. Obama did have a few things going for him, namely a life experience that spanned from Hawaii to Indonesia, from Kansas to Kenya, and finally from New York to Chicago, where he was still searching for meaning in his life and found it in the hearts, minds, experiences and struggles of his co-workers.

“I think that by the time Barack left to go to law school, he had made the decision that he would go into public life,” Mr. Kellman said.

The work of community organizing didn’t yield significant improvements in the lives of the people he was trying to serve, and Mr. Obama surmised that an “insider” was needed to make a real difference.

There were some small successes, such as stopping the city from expanding its car lots and waste-management facilities in the Altgeld Gardens section. The expansion along the Calumet River would have destroyed valued wetlands, and residents were also concerned about chemicals and other pollution seeping into the groundwater.

But more often, Mr. Obama ran into city bureaucracies and entrenched powers, and requests to fund job-training programs, improvements to public housing and enhanced safety drew scant resources.

“Certain grants had to have the stamp of approval of a politician, and some bills had to be introduced by a particular politician to get something done, and he had to know who these people were, work with them, and it frustrated him [and] all of us,” Mrs. Augustine-Herron said.

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