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Laura Washington

Obama's got perfect pedigree to take over Senate race

January 20, 2003

BY LAURA WASHINGTON

I hate making predictions. I don't like being wrong. But this time, it's a good thing. Last month, after a long talk with Carol Moseley-Braun, I predicted in this column that she would be a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2004.

On Friday, after months of speculation, she said she wouldn't run. That leaves one person well-positioned to win the Democratic primary: state Sen. Barack Obama. This week, Obama will announce for the Democratic primary for the seat held by Republican Peter Fitzgerald. Obama is joining a field that will include former Chicago School Board President Gery Chico, state Comptroller Dan Hynes, Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas and financier Blair Hull.

They'll all be singing the same tune: Fitzgerald is too conservative, a do-nothing obstructionist. Obama's biggest distinction would appear to be that he is the sole black candidate. But Obama can be much more than that.

He can prove that a black candidate can win high office by appealing beyond ''the black base.'' His name is not well-known or easy to pronounce. But two months after Gov. Blagojevich's electoral triumph, many voters still cannot pronounce, much less spell, his name. It hasn't hurt Blagojevich.

Obama possesses a near-flawless pedigree. The civil rights attorney was the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review, teaches constitutional law at the University of Chicago, and was a political organizer in Chicago and Harlem. He has served on the boards of community groups and foundations and appeals to a multiracial coalition of white liberals, professionals, good-government types.

His laid-back charm can be alluring. Muriel, my aunt by marriage, is Jewish and a lifelong North Shore resident. She met Obama recently on the set of the Jeff Berkowitz show. Her reaction: ''Wow.''

She's not alone. Obama will unveil an exploratory committee that includes Illinois Senate President Emil Jones Jr. and pragmatic and youthful voices such as U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and state Sen. James Meeks of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and Bishop Arthur Brazier of the Apostolic Church of God. He also has support from suburban and Downstate honchos.

Financial backers include former FCC Commissioner Newton Minow; Bettylu Saltzman, a former top aide to Sen. Paul Simon; Penny Pritzker of the real estate and hotel empire; former Sara Lee CEO John Bryan, and Evanston philanthropist Marjorie Benton. African Americans including Northern Trust Bank executive Lyle Logan and investment manager Lou Holland also are behind him.

With Moseley-Braun out, there's more money and endorsements to come. Obama will need every bit.

Obama admits he needs to ''consolidate my own base,'' and estimates that his name recognition among African Americans is only at ''50 or 60 percent.'' Obama's one big political loss was to South Side U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, in an unsuccessful challenge in 2000. Whispers abounded that Obama was ''not black enough.''

Aunt Muriel may be captivated. But in political talk over Christmas dinner, my Uncle Leland, an African American and retired railroad worker in South Shore, recalled seeing Obama wearing ''a thousand-dollar coat'' on a visit to a public housing project. He dismissed him as an ''elitist.''

Whether that's true, perception can be reality. The charge is a challenge that Obama will have to overcome if he is to snare the Senate nomination. His weakest appeal is to the working class. He has to balance his time between the shops and community centers of Bronzeville, the churches in Chatham and the diners in Cairo, and the money pitches in the boardrooms of the Loop.

Getting Aunt Muriel's vote is a damn good start. Uncle Leland is going to need some work.





 
 












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