CHICAGO – Barak Obama’s historic, landslide victory in the March 16 Illinois Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate is a victory for independent, grassroots, coalition politics over money and machine politics. Obama now opposes millionaire Republican Jack Ryan in a must-win race if the Democrats are to retake the Senate.
The primary victory was a vindication of Obama’s issue-oriented campaign and represents a serious blow to racism. It catapults Obama, an African American, into the national spotlight. If elected, he would be only the fifth African American elected to the U.S. Senate and the third since Reconstruction.
Obama, a three-term state senator and former civil rights attorney, won with a very broad appeal. Voter turnout was the highest for an Illinois primary in 12 years (37 percent). Obama won 66 percent in Chicago, over 90 percent in the African American community, and split the Latino vote with a Latino candidate, Gery Chico.
Obama received over 35 percent support from white voters and won nine predominantly white north side wards in Chicago. He also swept the suburban counties around Chicago, where he received more votes than Ryan. He won 23 percent of the downstate vote.
There has been a general decline in racist voting patterns in Illinois that benefited Obama. More African Americans have been elected to statewide office than in any other state. The late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and other statewide office holders have blazed the trail for African American and Latino candidates.
The unprecedented results reflect broad shifts among the electorate who responded to the economic and health care concerns and growing opposition to the war. Voters defeated nearly half of local education funding referendums and passed by 84 percent a non-binding tax-the- rich referendum to fund public education. In addition, voters overwhelmingly passed referendums in Chicago’s 48th and 49th wards to repeal the Patriot Act, end the occupation of Iraq and for universal health care.
Obama’s unquestioned integrity sharply contrasted with millionaire Blair Hull, who tried to buy the election but was dogged by allegations of verbal and physical abuse toward his former wife, and Dan Hynes, an uninspired candidate backed by the bulk of the machine, who ran on his family name.
A clear progressive legislative record and opposition to the Iraq war and Patriot Act drew peace and justice activists to his campaign and distinguished Obama. He received endorsements from most of the big city newspapers across the state.
Obama assembled a multiracial coalition that overwhelmed the machine. Although the State AFL-CIO and Chicago Federation of Labor backed Hynes, Obama was endorsed by Service Employees, American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, Illinois Federation of Teachers, Chicago Teachers Union, Unite!, Hotel Employees, and Teamsters Local 705.
Obama also had strong support from the political organizations of Reps. Jackson, Davis and Schakowsky and of key independent Latino elected officials, many progressive organizations, peace activists and a brigade of youth and students. He effectively utilized an endorsement from the late liberal Sen. Paul Simon’s daughter to broadly associate himself with Simon’s legacy.
The campaign became an avenue for a growing grassroots and independent political movement. Veterans of Harold Washington’s campaigns and other battles reemerged as grassroots precinct workers. The victory heralds a new day in Illinois politics and will likely spur a greater turnout in November.
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