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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
By Elaine Donnelly
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