Progressives had a lot to be hopeful for at last week's Democratic National Convention. The Kerry campaign emerged from Boston with a powerful message and a unified base - ready to pound the pavement to elect a new President this November. But the biggest surprise came from the Keynote Address by Barack Obama, who until last week was just a little-known state senator from Chicago.
Both political parties routinely promote their young politicians as "rising stars," but Obama is unusual not just for his race (he would only be the third black senator since Reconstruction), but for his progressive politics. While the Democratic Party usually designates their rising stars to be pro-business centrists like Evan Bayh and Gavin Newsom, it was heartening to see Barack Obama get trumpeted by even Joe Lieberman! Democrats still mourning the death of Senator Paul Wellstone have a lot to be hopeful about soon-to-be U.S. Senator Obama, and what his rise means for the future of progressive politics in America.
I grew up in Chicago -- just three doors down from Barack Obama's apartment in Hyde Park, the most racially integrated neighborhood in the most segregated city in America. Located on the City's South Side, and home of the University of Chicago (where my father taught for 20 years), Hyde Park bears a unique position as an academic liberal community surrounded by some of the nation's worst urban ghettoes. Anyone who lives or grew up in Hyde Park quickly develops a deep understanding of urban poverty - and an awareness that we bear an urgent responsibility to address our growing class divide and racial strife in America.
Politically, Hyde Park boasts a strong tradition of being the liberal standard-bearer for both Chicago and Illinois politics. In 1948, University Professor Paul Douglas was elected to the U.S. Senate, and went on to be a liberal legend in Washington. During the reign of Mayor Richard J. Daley and his notorious machine, Hyde Park Alderman Leon Despres led the progressive opposition on the Chicago City Council. In 1983, Hyde Park resident Harold Washington was elected the first black mayor of Chicago, accomplishing what many had thought to be impossible.
When Barack Obama made his first run for the state senate in 1996 (during my senior year of high school), Hyde Parkers were still mourning the death of Mayor Washington, and the lack of a strong liberal voice in Chicago. When Obama made his campaign announcement at the Hyde Park Hilton, he mentioned how politicians were some of the least-trusted professionals. "We're down there with used-car salesmen," he quipped, and then went on to explain how as a public official he would re-establish trust with voters. We were all excited hat this young man with a Harvard Law degree would represent us in the state legislature.
After winning his first race, Obama quickly drew the attention of party leaders down in Springfield. He drafted the state's first comprehensive campaign finance reform bill, with the help of former Senator Paul Simon. When Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on the death penalty, Obama worked to reform the criminal justice system.
When the federal government mandated Welfare Repeal in 1996, Obama fought to ensure that it be implemented in the most humane way possible - by providing as many health care, child care and education opportunities to lift families out of poverty. And unlike many Democrats under siege by the right-wing assault on the progressive agenda, Obama strongly opposed the war in Iraq - and pushed for universal health care.
Moreover, Obama is unique not only for his progressive politics - but his activist background. After graduating from college, and before heading to law school, Obama worked for a number of years as a community organizer on Chicago's South Side, employed by a consortium of church and neighborhood groups that hoped to save manufacturing jobs. There are many progressive politicians in Washington D.C. with a good head and a good heart, but most got there by working for other members of Congress (like Tom Harkin) - or having a distinguished legal career (like John Edwards) or a lucrative business career (like Jon Corzine).
Obama has actually worked with poor people, and his life has been touched by their plight, their struggles and their accomplishments. When Congress considers another punitive measure similar to Welfare Repeal, Obama will be a voice on the Senate floor who can humanize such consequences, and instinctively understand and appreciate the value of grass-roots community organizing. Other than the late Senator Paul Wellstone, I know of no other Democrat in Congress today with that type of experience.
Last week, I had the privilege of watching Obama's speech from the Convention floor. As I sat with the Illinois delegation, Obama was able to unify Democrats from all sides of the political spectrum with his broad appeal, but with a distinctive progressive voice. Other than Dennis Kucinich, he was the only speaker who I can recall mention providing housing for the homeless, and his call to end anti-Arab discrimination drew the largest applause of the night.
Of course, Obama's Republican opponent has dropped out of the race - so he is almost certain to win the election in November. As I heard him speak, I hoped that the Democratic Party will promote him nationally, so that his type of appeal can help other progressive Democrats running in marginal races whose outcome is still uncertain. Talk of him being the first black President are still premature, but there is no doubt that Senator Obama can be a powerful force at reviving the democratic wing of the Democratic Party.
I have always wondered whether I did the right thing eight years ago, moving to California and starting a political life here in the Bay Area, never to return to Illinois. But when I heard Barack Obama speak last week, I knew that Illinois was in excellent shape. Once again, he made me so proud to be a Hyde Parker.