The Next Generation

“Boy, this is really standing-room only,” complained a man outside the AFL-CIO hall in Peoria, Illinois, on a bright Tuesday morning in late June. U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama was set to start speaking soon to the diverse crowd, and a line of people dozens deep wended its way into the packed union hall. They'd come to see the man most political observers think is destined to be the next senator from Illinois, and only the third black senator since Reconstruction.

And see him they would: Obama was hard to avoid on the news that day. His opponent, Republican millionaire Jack Ryan, had just released divorce papers the night before, in which his ex-wife, actress Jeri Ryan, accused him of dragging her to sex clubs. The press thronged around Obama, shouts of “sexual fetish” and “scandal” filling the air as cameras edged out supporters in search of a juicy quote. But Obama wanted nothing to do with that. “Campaigns are obviously fun horse races to watch,” he said. “They're great to report on, but ultimately the reason to be involved in politics is to get something done.”

He ended the press conference without getting sucked into the media game. With Illinois one of the five states that has seen a net job loss in the past year, this tour of the southern part of the state was focused on the same problems that Obama started fighting two decades earlier, when he was a community organizer in Chicago. “There have been a lot of statistics recently saying the economy is picking back up,” Obama told the union-hall crowd. “[But] that's not what I'm hearing from ordinary people.”

Three local blue-collar workers shared the stage with Obama, telling their stories of job loss and speaking about their fears for the future. It was the same down in Carbondale (population 25,597), near the Kentucky border, a place fragrant with magnolias and the scent of growing fields, miles of corn stretching out across the distance. Up north, heat lamps were still being used to warm outdoor diners, but down here, when former Georgia Senator Max Cleland joked that it was nice to be back in the South, he got a round of knowing applause and laughter from the audience at an Obama fund-raiser he headlined.

Obama is not an unfamiliar face here. Back in 1997, the freshman state senator from the south side of Chicago and aide Dan Shomon piled golf clubs into Obama's beat-up Jeep Cherokee and went on a downstate tour, meeting with farmers, greeting small-town mayors, and learning what life was like. Obama won an impressive 25 percent of the more conservative downstate Democratic vote in that primary and made many friends who support him to this day.

“Illinois is very friendly to Chicago guys if you come down here,” says Shomon, now Obama's political director. Steve and Kappy Scates, corn and bean growers who own of one of the largest family farms in the state, explained why. “He was very outgoing and very honest and very interested in what was going on,” recalled Steve Scates of their meeting with Obama some seven years ago in Shawneetown, where the Scates' son is now mayor. “He relates with all individuals.”

If Obama wins his Senate race, he will be the most accomplished of a new generation of African American political leaders and the sole black member of the U.S. Senate. His supporters tell me repeatedly that Obama is an “individual.” And certainly, as the biracial son of a Kenyan father and Kansan mother, raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, he has an unusual biography, which he details in his wonderfully written 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. But Obama is also very much a member of his generation, a new generation of black political leaders.

In recent decades, the background of black politicians gaining elective office has changed dramatically. A whopping 76 percent of black elected officials over age 65 had attended segregated high schools, according to research by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, but only 34 percent of black elected officials under 40 did. Nearly 70 percent of those over 65 attended historically black colleges, as compared with 37 percent of those politicians under 40.

“It gives them advantages that older generations of African Americans did not have,” says David Bositis, a senior scholar at the center. Obama repeatedly reminded voters of this during his primary campaign, telling them, “I'm of the African American community, but not limited by it.”

Where older black politicians tended to be products of a segregated communities and local political cultures, the new leaders, thanks to the gains of the civil-rights movement, grew up in an integrated world (though not always easily so). Many attended elite, white educational institutions. Though still rooted in and nurtured by predominantly black political districts, the new generation's comfort in a highly competitive, integrated world may well allow its members to reach out across the racial lines they have been bridging their whole lives and gain support in white districts as well.

“The African American community is not divorced from larger trends in the country,” Obama tells me as we roll past fields of Illinois corn in his campaign suv. “It's harder to obtain leadership positions in a modern, highly technological society without some familiarity with the institutions of leadership.” Today, the new African American leaders have the statewide and national ambitions to match the backgrounds their political forebears couldn't have imagined.

Obama graduated from Columbia University and was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. He then went on to become a civil-rights attorney and University of Chicago Law School instructor. His wife, Michelle, is also an attorney; they met at Harvard Law School. Obama wrote in his memoir of his ambition to “learn power's currency in all its intricacy and detail.”

In the past decade, the new political class has repeatedly challenged the older generation for seats representing largely black districts, and with increasing success. Artur Davis, who was a first-year student at Harvard Law School when Obama was in his third year, challenged incumbent Earl Hilliard in the 2000 primary to represent the 63-percent black district in central and western Alabama. He lost that fight, but came back in 2002 to win the seat. This year, he easily won his primary, which will return him to office in the heavily Democratic and impoverished congressional district, the third poorest in the nation. “I'm very encouraged by what's happening,” says Davis, 36.

Obama challenged then four-term Congressman and former Black Panther Bobby Rush in 2000 -- a move Obama now attributes to “impatience” -- and got walloped by 30 percentage points in the primary. But this year he saw an opportunity that allowed him to do some things Rush probably could never do: appeal across racial lines to the collar counties around Chicago and forge a coalition among white liberals, moderates, and blacks to become a U.S. senator.

Today, Obama is trying to marry the downstate appeal of the late, beloved Senator Paul Simon -- whose children have endorsed him, campaigned for him, and given him one of Simon's bow ties, which Obama now carries in his pocket wherever he goes -- and the Chicago base of former Mayor Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor.

Obama is not blazing this trail alone. Representative Harold Ford Jr. was a young man in a hurry when he won his father's congressional seat in Tennessee at age 26, just months after earning his law degree at the University of Michigan (his undergraduate degree is from the University of Pennsylvania). He makes no secret of having ambitions to run for statewide office in Tennessee. In Alabama, meanwhile, Davis hopes to run for governor or senator one day.

Attorney Corey Booker, 35, went to Yale Law School and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford before joining the Newark City Council in Newark, New Jersey. He, too, lost his first major race against a member of the older generation, five-term Newark Mayor Sharpe James. Booker plans to run again for mayor in 2006. In Washington, technocrat Anthony Williams -- who graduated from Yale College, Harvard Law School and the Kennedy School of Government -- trounced the Reverend Willie Wilson, an ally of former Mayor Marion Barry, in the 2002 mayoral primary (and has tried hard to undo Barry's legacy of racial distrust since first winning office in 1998, drawing heavy support from the city's white wards). Nor are the new mayoral leaders -- and would-be leaders -- limited to majority black cities like Washington and Newark; 58 percent of the nation's black mayors lead cities that are mostly white.

In an era in which ethnic and racial diversity are heralded as the result of liberal values, it's also important to recall that the presence of large numbers of African Americans in some regions of the United States and not in others is, in fact, a legacy of America's most illiberal chapter. When it comes to black elected officials, geography has for too long been destiny.

Despite nearly a century's worth of movement away from the former Confederacy, where 90 percent of blacks lived until 1910, today 55 percent of blacks continue to reside in the South, and most live in just 22 states. Thus it should come as no surprise that, in 2001, of the top 10 states with the highest number of black elected officials, only two were in the north: Michigan and Illinois, the Land of Lincoln.

This demography has created unique challenges for African American politicians with national or statewide ambitions. Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana may lead the way in the election of black officials, but they are also places where white voters are less likely to vote across racial lines.

Illinois, however, is different. It has both a fairly middle-of-the-road voting public and -- unlike many liberal northern states -- a fairly substantial black population, close to 14 percent. “Illinois has probably elected more black statewide officials than any state in the country,” says Bositis.

That makes Obama's task somewhat easier. His election would not be entirely without precedent: African American Senator Carol Moseley Braun forged that path in 1992. But where Moseley Braun was a pure product of the Cook County Democratic machine and stumbled from office in a swirl of ethics charges, Obama has the background and connections that should allow him to flourish. Already, he has raised more money -- $4 million in the second quarter -- for his general-election contest than any Senate contender in Illinois history, plus he has found former President Bill Clinton and current Senator Hillary Clinton to be ready allies (both have helped him raise funds).

Moseley Braun once said during her recent run for the presidency that she wants her political epitaph to be that she did the best she could with what she had. It's a sentiment that may be true of Obama, as well. The critical difference is that he has had so much more.