"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, meet ins 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 States 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. …