THE aroma of frying fish hangs in the evening air outside a meeting hall in Sherman, Ill., a tiny town about a stone's throw from Springfield, the state capital. A handful of local people are standing around chatting amiably about nothing in particular.
As the midnight blue Cadillac eases up the driveway and rolls to a stop at the building's entrance, all heads turn. Carol Moseley Braun, the newly elected Illinois Democratic Senate nominee, steps from the sedan and is blinded by TV camera floodlights and mobbed by well-wishers who have left their fish dinners in the hall to come outside for a glimpse of the rising political star.
In an instant, she is inside and up on the stage waving to the crowd that is chanting, "WE WANT CA-ROL! WE WANT CA-ROL!"
"You want Carol?" she responds, paraphrasing Chicago's late mayor Harold Washington and flashing her megawatt smile. "You got Carol!" The hall erupts in applause.
She delivers a brief stump speech on opening up government to all people, greets Black and White supporters and then heads off to yet another campaign stop where she will pump more hands and deliver her message of hope.
This has been Braun's routine since March when she shook modern American politics to its foundations by becoming the first Black woman nominated to the U.S. Senate by a major political party. If she wins the general election in November, she will become the first Black woman, and only the fourth Black American, to serve in the Senate.
"This nomination is history-making," Braun says with the same quiet, self-assurance that helped her overcome great political odds. "But history is a fluid situation. The real test is what kind of human being you are and what kind of mark you make."
Weighing her words carefully, Braun continues. "To the extent that there will be other women and Black people who will see the possibilities because of my candidacy, then I think that being nominated is a contribution that I can be proud of."
Although Braun may be modest about her political breakthrough, her upset victory has lifted the hopes of inner-city Blacks seeking a political voice, Whites fed up with incumbents and women still irked by the Senate's handling of the sexual harassment case involving then-Supreme Court nominee Judge Clarence Thomas and University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill.
Braun was among millions of television viewers who tuned into the hearings and saw, what she calls, "an elitist club made up of mostly White male millionaires over 50."
"To be honest, I couldn't bring myself to watch the hearings full-time," Braun says, a residue of anger still lingering in her voice. "The whole thing was an embarrassment. I mean, it was an embarrassment from the very beginning and by the time it got to the sexual harassment issue, it was beyond embarrassing, it was mortifying."
The anger felt by many Illinoisans after Democratic Sen. Alan Dixon voted to confirm Thomas fueled a movement to draft Braun to run for the Senate. "People were writing and calling me saying, 'You should run for the Senate. Our senator votes like a Republican. Our senator isn't really a Democrat,'" Braun recalls. "By the time I got a letter from a White man in a Republican county urging me to run, I knew there was something up and I really ought to consider this seriously."
So with no money ("You really know who your friends are when times are tough"), no organization and no political backing, Braun launched her old-fashioned grassroots campaign. Her announcement that she would give up her low-profile office as Cook County Recorder of Deeds to run for the Senate barely made the six o'clock news.
Although Braun grew up on Chicago's South Side, attended city schools, the University of Illinois, the University of Chicago Law School and served as an assistant U.S. attorney and a state legislator for …