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“I think that is why he took the turn to go back to law school and work more to get to the political side. I think he knew that he had to take it a step further than organizing,” she said.

Law school meant Harvard University, where Mr. Obama excelled, becoming the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. When he returned to Chicago for good in 1990, having met his wife-to-be, he was still an activist, but now he had a path to the other side, including his 1995 book, “Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.”

In 1996, he would win a seat in the Illinois state Senate, and proved himself to be, according to Republican state Sen. Kirk Dillard, “one of the smartest gentlemen ever to serve in the history of the Illinois General Assembly.”

Mr. Obama began work on ethics reforms, claiming leadership in helping to pass the state’s first major ethics overhaul in 25 years. He also took a top role in reforming the state’s death-penalty laws, including adding a requirement that police have a video record of interrogations and confessions in homicide cases.

He also had a knack for translating news headlines into regulations, pressing for new rules to govern nightclubs after a 2003 stampede left 21 persons dead at E2 nightclub in Chicago and sponsoring the Ephedra Prohibition Act after the deaths of athletes, including a Northwestern University football player.

He did have setbacks, including failing to pass a universal health care plan. But Mr. Dillard said Mr. Obama had already carved out a reputation for being able to work with Republicans on issues where they could find agreement, such as ethics.

“Very few people come into a rough-and-tumble state like Illinois and make an immediate impact on ethics, death-penalty reform or racial profiling like Senator Obama did,” Mr. Dillard said. “Barack was well-respected by Republicans and people from an incredibly diverse cross-section of the cities, suburbs and rural Illinois, and also in the opposite chamber, the House of Representatives.”