Sen. Barack Obama will portray himself Thursday night as an agent of change for mainstream America, but his eight-year voting record in the Illinois Senate shows the Democrat was on occasion an agent of isolation who took stands - particularly on anti-crime legislation - that put him to the left of his own party.
Mr. Obama was the only member of the state Senate to vote against a bill to prohibit the early release of convicted criminal sexual abusers; was among only four who voted against bills to toughen criminal sentences and to increase penalties for “gangbangers” and dealers of Ecstasy; and voted “present” on a bill making it harder for abusive parents to regain custody of their children, a Washington Times review of Illinois legislative records shows.
“On the one hand, I give him credit for being true to his beliefs. But certainly with concerns that there were, even for his own party in Illinois, he would be to the left on some of those key votes,” said Illinois state Sen. Dave Syverson, a conservative Republican.
The pattern has continued since Mr. Obama joined the U.S. Senate, according to National Journal magazine.
Its respected legislative scorecard rated the Illinois Democrat, based on his 2007 voting record, as the most liberal member of the Senate, even more liberal than Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, a self-described “democratic socialist.” Mr. Obama ranked No. 16 and No. 10 in the previous two years.
His running mate, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, ranked third in the 2007 National Journal survey, with only Sen. Edward M. Kennedy between him and Mr. Obama.
Mr. Obama’s left-leaning pedigree has concerned some of his party’s moderate and conservative members. Rep. Dan Boren of Oklahoma has publicly refused to endorse Mr. Obama, describing the presumptive presidential nominee as the “most liberal senator” on Capitol Hill.
“I think this is an important time for our country,” Mr. Boren has told reporters. “We’re facing a terrible economic downturn. We have high gasoline prices. We have problems in our foreign policy. That’s why I think it’s important.”
Although Mr. Obama has talked about working with Republicans, Mr. Boren said, “unfortunately, his record does not reflect working in a bipartisan fashion.”
Mr. Boren, however, said he plans to support the Democratic ticket on Election Day and will celebrate if his party succeeds in seating the first black president.
The Obama campaign has dismissed concerns about their candidate’s voting record and accused Republicans of trying to “distract, deflect and distort” the record by improperly characterizing votes he cast on several issues, including hot-button criminal justice matters.
The campaign said Mr. Obama was a “strong proponent of tougher measures to fight crime,” such as supporting efforts to increase funding and support for local law enforcement.
His aides said Mr. Obama sponsored laws to remove the statute of limitations for first-degree murder and to extend the statute of limitations for sexual assault; to protect victims of domestic violence; to increase penalties on drunken drivers and white-collar criminals; and to protect victims’ rights.
They also said Mr. Obama has worked on legislation to crack down on sex offenders and drug dealers, and repeatedly voted to lengthen sentences for criminals.
Some Obama critics point to his opposition to the Illinois version of bills to protect babies who were born alive after botched attempts at abortions, requiring a doctor to assist any child who survived.
In 2001, Illinois lawmakers offered three such bills and Mr. Obama voted “present” on each of them, arguing that under the Equal Protection Clause, the proposed laws would “essentially bar abortions.” A year later, he voted “no” on the reoffered bills.
In 2003, after Mr. Obama became chairman of the State Health and Human Services Committee, a new bill was referred to this committee but lost in a 6-4 vote and was never sent to the Senate floor for a full vote. Mr. Obama, according to state records, voted against that bill.
Mr. Obama’s opposition to such a law put him the minority of his own party nationally.
The federal version - the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, which guaranteed that live-born infants are afforded full legal rights under federal law, regardless of their stage of development or whether their live births occurred during an abortion - passed the House by a 380-15 vote on Sept. 26, 2000. It was killed later that year in the Senate.
The legislation was reintroduced and passed the House on March 12, 2002, by a voice vote, On July 18, 2002, it cleared the Senate by unanimous consent. President Bush signed the bill into law on Aug. 5, 2002.
“This important legislation ensures that every infant born alive - including an infant who survives an abortion procedure - is considered a person under federal law,” Mr. Bush said at the time. “Today, through sonograms and other technology, we can see clearly that unborn children are members of the human family, as well.”
Billing himself on the 2008 presidential campaign trail as the law-and-order candidate who consistently supported and voted for bills aimed at strengthening the nation’s criminal justice system, Mr. Obama doesn’t mention several votes from his eight years in the Illinois state Senate that Republicans are determined to use to paint a different picture.
On numerous occasions, according to a compilation of his state legislative votes, Mr. Obama voted “present,” “no” or not at all when several major crime bills were offered. For instance, Mr. Obama was the only member of the Illinois Senate who:
cDid not support a bill permitting the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to report suspected child abuse while protecting the identity of the facility or person providing the information. The bill, SB-853, was approved by the Senate by a vote of 54-0-1, with Mr. Obama voting “present,” and 117-0-0 in the House. Known as the Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act, it was signed into law by Illinois Gov. James Edgar in July 1997.
cVoted “present” on a bill in committee requiring criminals to serve consecutive sentences for separate crimes involving convictions for severe bodily harm or sexual assault but didn’t vote at all when the measure came to the floor. The bill, HB-1558, was passed in the Senate by a 54-0-0 vote and the House by a 118-0-0 vote. Mr. Edgar signed the bill into law in July 1997.
cVoted “present” on a bill making it harder for abusive and neglectful parents to regain custody of their children. The bill, HB-1298, passed in the Senate by a vote of 57-0-1 and the House by a vote of 99-4-22. Gov. George H. Ryan signed the bill into law in January 2000.
cDid not vote on legislation to prohibit convicted sex offenders from serving on school boards. The bill, HB-338, was approved by the Senate by a 58-0-0 vote and the House by a 106-0-0 vote. Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich signed the bill into law in May 2003.
The records also show Mr. Obama voted “no” on a bill allowing police officers to execute warrants and enter buildings without knocking if there was a reasonable belief a weapon would be used against them; voted “present” on legislation requiring that minors who commit gun crimes on or near a school be prosecuted as adults; and did not vote on a bill requiring fingerprint background checks on school bus drivers.
Mr. Obama was the only member of the state Senate to vote against a bill to prohibit the early release of convicted criminal sexual abusers; and was among only four who voted against bills to toughen criminal sentences, increase penalties for criminals whose offenses were committed in the furtherance of gang activities, and increase penalties for the delivery of Ecstasy and other designer drugs.
Mr. Obama, according to the records, voted “present” more than 125 times during his eight years as a state senator. His voting performance prompted Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, his rival during the Democratic primary campaign, to suggest on the campaign trail that Mr. Obama was a “talker rather than a doer.”
At one point, Clinton campaign launched a Web site known as www.votingpresent.com to criticize Mr. Obama, portraying the Illinois Democrat as cowardly in opting to vote present when it came to contentious legislation.
“I don’t think people want a lot of talk about change,” Mrs. Clinton said during a December campaign trip through Iowa. “I think they want someone with a real record - a doer, not a talker. After eight years of incompetence, they don’t want false hope; they want real results.”
It was neither the first nor the last time Mrs. Clinton would question Mr. Obama’s record as an Illinois senator or to suggest that the numerous present votes showed that he was a man of words, not action.
The Obama voting records have been gathered by numerous Republican opposition researchers over the past few years, including those of Jack Ryan, whose 2004 U.S. Senate campaign against Mr. Obama ended after unseemly details of his marriage were made public in divorce court.
Obama campaign officials, queried about their candidate’s Illinois voting record, cautioned that a present vote can be a signal to other legislators that a bill needs to be corrected or that other concerns had to be addressed.
They also dismissed suggestions that Mr. Obama was attempting to duck the issues, saying he cast more than 4,000 total votes in the Illinois Senate.
“Over more than a decade in public office, Barack Obama has successfully led the way on difficult issues from welfare reform, to the reform of a broken death penalty law in Illinois to a battle for long-overdue ethics reforms in Washington,” campaign spokesman Bill Burton said.
“Among the thousands of votes he cast in the Illinois Senate, he used the ‘present’ vote on occasions when he believed bills were drafted in an unconstitutional manner,” he said. “On other occasions, he voted ‘present’ as part of legislative strategies, such as ones crafted by pro-choice forces in Illinois to thwart maneuvering by the opponents of a woman’s right to choose.”
In response to written questions about his voting record on criminal justice bills, the Obama campaign said he voted “present” or did not support several of the bills because many either breached the state’s confidentiality laws, allowed false reports to be made to law enforcement authorities for swifter police response, exposed citizens to unnecessary liabilities, lacked specific definitions, or failed to offer the necessary background information to accomplish what they were supposed to do.
The campaign also noted that it was “not necessarily a protest to not be present for some votes within eight years of service.” It said the use of the “present” vote was a common way for state legislators to express disapproval of a measure without registering a “no” vote.
Mr. Obama’s supporters also have sought to distance the candidate from criticism by noting that as a member of the U.S. Senate, Mr. Obama voted for and Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, voted against banning “cop-killer bullets.”
They said the Arizona Republican also opposed bipartisan crime bills in 1994, 1992, 1991 and 1990; “repeatedly voted against” the landmark Brady Bill aimed at preventing handgun violence; and opposed extending the 1994 ban on assault weapons, opposed a gun buyback program to get guns off the streets.
They also said Mr. McCain voted against requiring criminal background checks at gun shows, voted against closing assault weapon ban loopholes, and voted against including the assault weapons ban in the 1994 Crime Bill, all positions Mr. Obama supported.
Mr. McCain, the campaign said, was among only 20 senators to vote against reauthorizing a school-improvement bill that provided $12.7 billion to aid the country’s schools, “especially those in impoverished districts.” It said the bill cracked down on school violence, by requiring local school districts to adopt a one-year expulsion policy for students who take guns to school.
A spokesman for Mr. McCain did not immediately respond for a request for comment.