Star Power: Sound bites are overshadowing substance in the U.S. Senate campaign

Oct 1, 2004

If next month's election turns out the way just about everyone expects, Illinois will send one Harvard-educated African American to Washington, D.C., and another back to Maryland.

In education and race, Barack Obama and Alan Keyes share common backgrounds. But the similarities stop there with these two competitors for the state's open U.S. Senate seat.

Once an obscure state senator, Obama captured a crowded primary contest in March and captivated observers as the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention in July, about the same time he became an undisputed front-runner. His ascent was aided by that impressive performance on the national stage, but Obama's elevation to almost untouchable status came in part because the state Republican Party was still scrambling to field a challenger.

And so entered Keyes, a candidate who adds new breadth to the term ultra-conservative. After about a half dozen less prominent candidates declined, and GOP leaders failed to draft Mike Ditka, the ex-football coach still beloved among Illinoisans, the state Republican Party bent to the wishes of conservatives and imported Keyes.

A former Maryland talk show host and twice-failed presidential candidate, Keyes offers firebrand rhetoric driven by deep Roman Catholic beliefs. He replaces Jack Ryan, the GOP primary victor ousted after unsealed divorce records alleged that he took his wife to sex clubs.

The outgrowth of that embarrassing ordeal threatens to further fractionalize an Illinois GOP already encumbered by the ongoing federal corruption scandal of former Gov. George Ryan.

While the Republican Party is flexing muscle in Washington, D.C., and most states, it is anemic in Illinois. So it's not entirely surprising to see the state GOP put forth a long-shot candidate for one of just eight races that will determine whether Republicans maintain their 51-48 edge in the U.S. Senate. (The chamber has one independent, Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords, who usually votes with the Democrats.)

While the national party largely has written off Illinois, state operatives expect their Senate candidate to energize the electorate and bolster the bottom of the ticket, namely legislative races in conservative downstate districts and the heated battle for southern Illinois' open state Supreme Court seat.

Yet Keyes freely espouses opposition to abortion and homosexual relationships, unwavering ideological stances that tend to drown out debate on the economic issues both parties say voters are waiting to hear about. This undue emphasis on social issues has proved an unwelcome distraction for the state Republican Party, and its moderates increasingly respond to Keyes' rhetoric with clenched teeth, if not clenched fists.

"There are some folks, and I don't want to go into names, who did not want me to come in," Keyes says. "They voted against it and were then outvoted. They have been there from the very beginning, kind of sniping and carping and they're the same suspects that are doing it now."

For the Democrats, that sort of baggage was lost on the way to Boston. They spent the balance of the summer bickering over the state budget, but ended the dispute just in time to coalesce at their party's national convention.

Back in Springfield for the traditional State Fair political rally, the Democrats kept to their game face.

"We take nothing for granted," says Gov. Rod Blagojevich. "We work very hard and we've got to put aside whatever squabbles we've had in the past, unify as a family does and get behind our candidates."

For the Illinois Democratic Party, family unity means supporting a Senate candidate some consider almost as liberal as Keyes is conservative. 

A state senator since 1997, Obama was especially busy last year. He successfully sponsored legislation requiring police officers to tape criminal interrogations, a feat accomplished only after countless hours spent convincing the state law enforcement lobby to remain neutral, rather than use its considerable clout to kill the bill. Obama also was a driving force behind a new law aimed at curbing racial profiling by requiring officers across Illinois to record the race of motorists they stop.

Both issues would seem to resonate with voters in Obama's 13th state Senate district, a swath of lakefront territory on Chicago's South Side that is primarily home to African Americans.

But the question, until recently, was what sort of reception the Harvard Law School graduate could expect from the rest of Illinois. He got an unsettling preview in 2000 when he took on incumbent U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush of Chicago.

"I was working some precincts outside polling places," Obama recalls. "As these senior citizens would come up to vote, they would all come up to me and shake my hand and pat me on the back and say, ‘You know, you seem like a really nice young man. You've got a bright future ahead. We just think it's not quite your turn yet.' I knew at that point that I wasn't going to win the race."

He was decimated by a two-to-one margin. And Rush repaid the younger Democrat's affront by backing millionaire trader Blair Hull rather than Obama in the primary last March. But neither that endorsement nor the record $30 million in personal fortune Hull spent could propel him past divorce records alleging he once struck his ex-wife on the shin.

Other competition fell by the wayside, too. Despite winning 81 of the state's 102 counties, Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes, Chicago's Democratic organization candidate, couldn't compete in the state's population center. This time it was Obama's turn. He dominated in Cook and the collar counties on his way to doubling Hynes' statewide vote total, signaling, at least among Democratic voters, that he's not too far to the left.

"When I'm accused of being liberal, really, what's focused on is maybe a handful of votes and in each of those cases I think the position that I took was the right position," Obama says. "Abortion is a good example of an issue in which I respect the differences that exist on both sides of that argument."

Obama, a Christian, supports abortion rights, but says the state should be able to prohibit late-term abortions as long as there is a health exception for the mother.

That stance, according to Keyes, means Obama could not secure the vote of Jesus Christ. This inscrutable declaration followed statements in which Keyes likened abortion to acts of terrorism.

"They involve the same principle, which is disrespect for the claims of innocent human life," he says. "When you kill babies, you are doing something that is especially repugnant to conscience and, obviously, in abortion we are targeting innocent human life."

Such statements show the religious fervor of a candidate who refuses to contort his positions in the court of public opinion. When asked about his opposition to gay marriage, Keyes bluntly explained that a sexual relationship without the possibility of procreation amounts to "selfish hedonism." He would not qualify the answer when asked if it applied to the vice president's gay daughter.

"When I made the statement I wasn't criticizing her or especially talking about her in any way," Keyes says. "We can't say that, because somebody is vice president, Senate candidate or anything else, their children are exempt."

While sincere, those statements have inspired much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth from the state Republicans who voted Keyes onto the ticket in August. State Sen. Dave Syverson, a Rockford Republican who helped bring Keyes on board, says the party was in a bind after Jack Ryan bowed out and in-state Republicans such as veteran state Sens. Kirk Dillard and Steve Rauschenberger declined.

"It's not like we had Rauschenberger or even Mike Ditka," Syverson says. "People have to remember where we were with less than 90 days to go at the time. We needed someone that had name I.D. and someone who could energize. And certainly Keyes has done that, not necessarily the way we would have liked him to, but he still certainly has done that."

While Keyes' wife and three children remain in Maryland, he has settled into the second-floor apartment of a two-flat in Calumet City, a blue collar Chicago suburb. He says he has yet to find a favorite local restaurant but has frequented the neighborhood White Castle after long days campaigning. His unfamiliarity with certain aspects of Illinois was evident at a Springfield rally, where he repeatedly referred to the state's lower third as "south Illinois" rather than southern Illinois.

But Keyes, who has a Ph.D. in government from Harvard and was an ambassador to the United Nations Economic and Social Council under President Ronald Reagan, says it's his values that will reach across "every line of race, color, creed and party."

"I think the key to victory in this election is, in fact, the majority of believers in the state. And that is actually a very strong majority," Keyes says. "The problem, I think, has been that very often they are lured into an understanding of themselves and their vote and their politics where they don't vote their faith. But I will be appealing to them to do just that, to vote their faith and to remember when they go into the voting booth that that faith is supposed to govern their choices."

At the same time, both sides of the aisle argue that Keyes' preponderance of faith is obscuring other issues.

"He's got to stay on the economic message and get off of the social issues," says Syverson, the Rockford Republican. "Every poll that we've done, the No. 1 issue is the economy and jobs, by far. The social issues, on every poll this election season, are way at the bottom."

If the debate does shift to economics, voters will learn that Keyes favors replacing the federal income tax with a national sales tax, arguing that government should not get control of their dollars until they decide to spend them.

Obama, like most Democrats, would like to repeal President George W. Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest citizens. He subscribes to the Democratic position that a cleaner tax code can keep companies from exporting jobs overseas. And Obama says he would reward companies that locate 90 percent of their production and jobs here, invest half of their research budget domestically, pay pensions, offer affordable employee health insurance and limit CEO compensation.

Obama's positions on social issues have not drawn much attention, unless his opponent is on the attack. Keyes accused him of tailoring his message on gay marriage to fit the audience, but Obama says he has consistently supported civil unions and opposed gay marriage while rejecting the need for a constitutional amendment to ban the practice.

At the same time, whether it's gay rights, abortion or his belief that citizens should have the right to carry concealed weapons, Keyes' comments have a way of attracting attention.

In early September, Obama was on the road touting a plan to offer tax cuts to small businesses that provide workers with health insurance. The story was buried when Keyes called a press conference to attack his opponent's position on abortion. He also criticized Obama, who a few days earlier, citing Keyes' negative campaigning, told supporters "I don't want to just win. I want to give this guy who is running against me a spanking." He made the remark while introducing a plan for bankruptcy reform aimed at retired southern Illinois coal miners who risk losing their benefits.

"That got picked up and nobody mentioned the entire conversation that we had about coal miners and pensions, which was a useful lesson for me," Obama says. "I was making a humorous remark in what I think everybody would acknowledge has been an almost entirely positive campaign, both in the primary and into the general, and that was suddenly something that was in the news."

While Obama played the role of media darling during the Democratic National Convention, his opponent seems to possess an innate ability to attract headlines. Keyes says the remnants of his 2000 and 1996 presidential bids provide pre-existing pockets of strong voter support in Illinois. Failing that, Keyes' media courtship could come in handy against an opponent with a huge head start on fundraising.

Keyes has never held elected office, having twice mounted unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaigns from Maryland. Obama has yet to win federal office, the 2000 primary loss to Rep. Rush his only attempt.

One of the two well-educated men will replace U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, the one-term conservative Republican known for bucking his party's establishment, especially in his effort to thwart expansion of O'Hare International Airport.

Obama is the clear favorite — ahead 41 points in one poll — a signal that the Democratic Party is poised to maintain its dominance of Illinois politics for at least two more years. Keyes is the stand-in, but he's clearly not of the cardboard cutout variety. At the very least, he shows there is a discernable pulse in the conservative arm of the Illinois Republican Party. And if Keyes can turn the attention to economic issues and away from his social views, his campaign may, at least, propel him and his conservative message enough in the polls to send ripples across the 2006 Republican ticket.


Senatorial debates

Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Alan Keyes, candidates for U.S. Senate, will face off in three live debates this month. 

October 12, Springfield, Old State Capitol. 7:06 p.m. to 7:59 p.m. Hosted by the Illinois Radio Network, available on affiliates WBBM-AM in Chicago and WTAX-AM in Springfield.
October 21, Chicago. 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Broadcast live on ABC 7 Chicago television.
October 26, Chicago. 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Broadcast live on WTTW11 Chicago television.


The back story:

Barack Obama
Barack Obama's story became a best-seller this summer. His prime-time appearance as keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention sent curious readers scurrying to get a copy of his 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance

The buzz prompted a reprinting of the biography in which he discusses growing up as the son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas. His parents met as students at the University of Hawaii.

Obama's father eventually returned to Kenya. His mother, Ann Dunham, remarried and moved the family to Indonesia, the homeland of her new husband. Obama returned to Hawaii, where he was raised by his mother?s parents.

In his book, Obama discusses his use of marijuana and cocaine during his youth as he struggled with issues of race and personal identity.

When Obama was 21, his father died. He then took his father's first name, Barack, a Swahili derivative of the Arabic word for 'blessed.'

Obama went on to Columbia University in New York City. In 1983, he arrived in Chicago to become an organizer in the black community on the city's far South Side. He wrote an essay on that experience for Illinois Issues (see August & September, 1988, page 40), which was subsequently included as a chapter in After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois, published by the magazine in 1990 (see

Obama then was accepted by Harvard Law School, where he was the first African American elected president of the Harvard Law Review. He graduated in 1991.

Five years later, he was elected to the Illinois Senate from a lakefront district on Chicago's South Side. Obama has served in the state Senate since, though he unsuccessfully challenged incumbent U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush in 2000.

In his current U.S. Senate campaign, Obama, 43, has taken leave from his senior lecturer position at the University of Chicago Law School. He and his wife, Michelle, live in Chicago?s Hyde Park neighborhood. They have two young daughters. 

Pat Guinane


The back story: 
Alan Keyes

Alan Keyes started out as an "army brat." His father, Allison, served 33 years in the U.S. Army and the family moved every few years, with stops in New York, New Jersey, Georgia, Italy, Virginia and Maryland. Keyes spent his high school years in San Antonio.

He was accepted at Harvard but opted for a Cornell University program that offered a Ph.D. in six years. When he got to Cornell, he decided to slow that pace, spending a year there, then studying under the university's auspices in Paris. Upon returning, Keyes transferred to Harvard, where he would earn undergraduate and doctorate degrees in government.

Keyes was United States ambassador to the United Nations Economic and Social Council under President Ronald Reagan. He later served as assistant secretary of state for international organizations.

In 1989, Keyes became president of Citizens Against Government Waste and, in 1991, he served as interim president of Alabama A&M University in Huntsville.

In 1988, Keyes was Maryland's Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, having been appointed after the primary. He won the Maryland GOP Senate primary in 1992 but again was unsuccessful in the general election. He has twice been a candidate in the presidential primary. In Illinois, he captured less than 4 percent of the Republican vote in 1996 and nearly 9 percent in 2000.

In the 1990s, Keyes published two books, Masters of the Dream: The Strength and Betrayal of Black America and Our Character, Our Future: Reclaiming America's Moral Destiny.

He hosted the syndicated radio show "America's Wake-Up Call" and in 2002, MSNBC's "Alan Keyes is Making Sense."

Keyes, 54, met his wife, Jocelyn, an Indian American, during his foreign service in Bombay. They have two sons and a daughter. Keyes lives in Maryland, though he is currently renting an apartment in Calumet City.

Pat Guinane

Illinois Issues, October 2004