Stateline Story

Obama's Record in the Illinois Senate

  • August 25, 2008
  • By Daniel C. Vock

Uncanny timing and thorough preparation have propelled Barack Obama's political career forward - even when Obama served in the Illinois state Senate, from 1997 until his swearing in as a U.S. senator in 2005.

Obama's time in Springfield is a key component of his biography, which his campaign is focusing on in speeches Monday (Aug. 25) at the Democratic National Convention. The Illinois state Senate is the first place Obama served in elected office, it was his longest-held political position and it was the perch from which he launched his U.S. Senate bid.

The bulk of Obama's accomplishments in Illinois' upper chamber came in 2003, the first year Democrats held a majority in the Senate during Obama's career and the first time in 26 years that Democrats controlled Illinois government.

It also coincided with the start of Obama's U.S. Senate campaign, for which he had the backing of powerful Illinois Senate President Emil Jones Jr. That support allowed Obama to take the lead on several high-profile issues ahead of other state legislators.

In 2003, Obama had two major tasks: writing a law to require police to record their interrogations of murder suspects and negotiating a measure to study whether Illinois police treat motorists differently because of their race.

In both cases, Obama stepped in on issues earlier championed by other legislators. House Speaker Michael Madigan (D) tried numerous times to pass a videotape interrogation measure, but couldn't get it out of his own chamber, while Sen. Rickey Hendon, another Chicago Democrat, was a vocal proponent of the racial-profiling study.

Deep flaws in Illinois' death penalty system that sent more than a dozen innocent men to death row put pressure on lawmakers to enact several reforms, including the recording requirement for interrogations.

Leaders of the new Democratic majorities made clear that they wanted to move ahead with both interrogation recording and the racial profiling study, clearing a path for Obama.

But he also made concessions that eased law enforcement's concerns, according to people involved in those talks. For example, on the recording requirement, Obama helped police departments get money from the state to buy video equipment and specified that murder cases wouldn't unravel because of a faulty video recorder, said Laimutis Nargelenas, deputy director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.

Joe Birkett , an elected county Republican prosecutor from the Chicago suburbs, said Obama helped forge the final agreement, but his role was limited. "He was not the nuts-and-bolts guy. He got credit for it, but he did not put it together. This was a lot of hard work and negotiation between lawyers and law enforcement."

A thorny issue for police in the racial profiling study was how to correctly identify the race of drivers they stopped. So Obama suggested that police mark down the race they thought a driver was to determine whether patrolmen were disproportionately stopping people they thought were minorities, Nargelenas recounted earlier this year.

The study found last year that blacks are three times as likely as whites to be stopped for vehicle searches.

Another of Obama's signature legislative accomplishments - major ethics reform - came when he was still a newcomer to the Illinois Senate.

The late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, a Democrat revered for his integrity in Illinois political circles, urged state lawmakers in 1998 to overhaul Illinois campaign and ethics laws for the first time in 25 years. Obama served as his caucus' point man in those negotiations, which led to the Gift Ban Act.

Obama often points to that law as an example of how he works across party lines. His Republican co-sponsor of the measure, McCain supporter Kirk Dillard, even appeared in an Obama TV ad (see "Carry" above) in Iowa last summer to highlight their relationship.

The 1998 law prohibited politicians from using their campaign funds for personal use, banned fundraisers in Springfield during legislative sessions and required candidates to file their fundraising information online, so the public could see who was paying for a campaign before the election. Lawmakers, including Obama, revisited the campaign finance laws again in 2003, adding restrictions on lobbyist activities and beefing up enforcement of ethics laws.