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Obama played hardball in first Chicago campaign

  • Story Highlights
  • Sen. Barack Obama used the rule book to win first race for Illinois state Senate
  • Democrat challenged opponents' petitions and forced them off the ballot
  • Opponent says Obama's move "wasn't honorable"
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By Drew Griffin and Kathleen Johnston
CNN's AC 360°
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(CNN) -- When the Democratic National Committee meets Saturday on the thorny issue of seating the Florida and Michigan delegations at its August convention, party officials will have to fashion a solution that satisfies supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton and presidential nominee front-runner Sen. Barack Obama.

Sen. Barack Obama showed he was willing to use bare-knuckle tactics during his first race in Chicago.

It may take a Solomon-like decision to appease both candidates.

Clinton has argued that the primary results of two of the nation's largest states should count because, otherwise, millions of voters are being disenfranchised. Obama has said he is willing to work out some compromise.

But he is insistent that the primary results are invalid because the two states failed to follow party rules and that the rules are the rules.

The DNC has not seated the Florida and Michigan delegates because the two states violated party edicts in holding their primaries early.

Although neither candidate campaigned in the two states, Clinton won about 50 percent of the Florida vote, compared with 33 percent for Obama. She won 55 percent of the vote in Michigan, where Obama's name was not on the ballot.

In his first race for office, seeking a state Senate seat on Chicago's gritty South Side in 1996, Obama effectively used election rules to eliminate his Democratic competition.

As a community organizer, he had helped register thousands of voters. But when it came time to run for office, he employed Chicago rules to invalidate the voting petition signatures of three of his challengers.

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The move denied each of them, including incumbent Alice Palmer, a longtime Chicago activist, a place on the ballot. It cleared the way for Obama to run unopposed on the Democratic ticket in a heavily Democrat district.

"That was Chicago politics," said John Kass, a veteran Chicago Tribune columnist. "Knock out your opposition, challenge their petitions, destroy your enemy, right? It is how Barack Obama destroyed his enemies back in 1996 that conflicts with his message today. He may have gotten his start registering thousands of voters. But in that first race, he made sure voters had just one choice." Video Watch how Obama shut out challengers in his first race »

Obama's challenge was perfectly legal, said Jay Stewart of the Chicago's Better Government Association. Although records of the challenges are no longer on file for review with the election board, Stewart said Obama is not the only politician to resort to petition challenges to eliminate the competition.

"He came from Chicago politics," Stewart said. "Politics ain't beanbag, as they say in Chicago. You play with your elbows up, and you're pretty tough and ruthless when you have to be. Sen. Obama felt that's what was necessary at the time, that's what he did. Does it fit in with the rhetoric now? Perhaps not."

The Obama campaign called this report "a hit job." It insisted that CNN talk to a state representative who supports Obama, because, according to an Obama spokesman, she would be objective. But when we called her, she said she can't recall details of petition challenges, who engineered them for the Obama campaign or why all the candidates were challenged.

But Will Burns does. Now running himself for a seat in the Illinois legislature, Burns was a young Obama volunteer during the presidential candidate's first race.

Burns was one of the contingents of volunteers and lawyers who had the tedious task of going over each and every petition submitted by the other candidates, including those of Alice Palmer.

"The rules are there for a reason," Burns said.

He said that challenging petitions is a smart way to avoid having to run a full-blown expensive race.

"One of the first things you do whenever you're in the middle of a primary race, especially in primaries in Chicago, because if you don't have signatures to get on the ballot, you save yourself a lot of time and effort from having to raise money and have a full-blown campaign effort against an incumbent," Burns said.

Burns said he believed that Obama did not enjoy using the tactic to knock off Palmer.

"It was not something he particularly relished," Burns said. "It was not something that I thought he was happy about doing." Video Watch Burns describe how Obama used the rules to his advantage »

But Obama did it anyway, clearing the field of any real competition.

Obama's staff would not comment on what the senator thinks about that petition challenge now. Instead, they referred CNN to this 2007 comment made by Obama to the Chicago Tribune.

"To my mind, we were just abiding by the rules that had been set up," the senator is quoted as saying in the Tribune. "My conclusion was that if you couldn't run a successful petition drive, then that raised questions in terms of how effective a representative you were going to be."

But in that same newspaper story, Obama praised Palmer.

"I thought she was a good public servant," he said.

Palmer, who has campaigned for Clinton, told CNN that she did not want to be part of this story.

Obama supporters claim that Palmer has only herself to blame because she indicated she would not run for the 1996 state Senate and instead aimed for Congress. After losing in that bid, she returned to running for the state Senate seat, a move Obama supporters claim amounted to reneging on a promise not to run.

But Palmer supporters, who did not want to be identified, said that she never anointed Obama as her successor and that the retelling of the story by Obama supporters is designed to distract from the fact he muscled his way into office.

One other opponent who Obama eliminated by challenging his petitions, Gha-is Askia, said he has no hard feelings today about the challenge and supports Obama's presidential aspirations.

But back at the time he was running for state Senate, Askia said, he was dismayed Obama would use such tactics.

"It wasn't honorable," he said. "I wouldn't have done it."

He said the Obama team challenged every single one of his petitions on "technicalities."

If names were printed instead of signed in cursive writing, they were declared invalid. If signatures were good but the person gathering the signatures wasn't properly registered, those petitions also were thrown out.

Askia came up 69 signatures short of the required number to be on the ballot.

Kass, the Chicago Tribune columnist, said the national media are naive when it comes to Chicago politics, which is a serious business.

He said they have bought into a narrative that Obama is strictly a reformer. The truth, Kass says, is that he is a bare-knuckled politician. And using the rules to win his first office is part of who Obama is.

"It's not the tactics of 'let's all people come together and put your best ideas forward and the best ideas win,' " Kass said. "That's the spin; that's in the Kool-Aid. You can have some. Any flavor. But the real deal was, get rid of Alice Palmer.


"There are those who think that registering people to vote and getting them involved in politics and then using this tactic in terms of denying Alice Palmer the right to compete, that these things are inconsistent. And guess what? They are. They are inconsistent. But that's the politics he plays."

And this weekend, DNC delegates will have to decide what kind of rules it will invoke in helping choose its next candidate.

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