Favorite Son

Barack Obama, America's latest political star, is expected to become the next black U.S. senator. Could his victory put him on the path to the White

Comptroller Dan Hynes, the leading candidate, to win the primary in March. Instead, Obama beat out all six Democratic hopefuls by an incredible 53% of the vote. “Frankly, a lot of people in Washington were dismissive of Barack’s candidacy; a lot of people in D.C. believed that if you can’t win a House seat, how are you going to win a Senate seat?” (In 2000, Obama lost by a 60% to 31% margin when he challenged incumbent Rep. Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther, for a seat in the House of Representatives.)

If Obama wins, it will be a milestone for African Americans. To date, there have been two African American senators since Reconstruction–Edward William Brooke, who represented Massachusetts when he was elected in 1966, and Carol Moseley Braun, another Illinois politician who held office for one term after she was elected in 1992. Rep. Denise Majette is also looking for a seat after winning the Democratic nomination in Georgia. Says Davis: “I think that Denise has a difficult race. Georgia is a state that has never elected a black to the position of U.S. Senator. Illinois has, and there are certain historical advantages in the state of Illinois that I think certainly favor Barack’s candidacy.”

Obama ran a smart campaign in the primaries. He brought together white liberals and African Americans, gaining endorsements from Carbondale City Council member Sheila Simon, daughter of the late Sen. Paul Simon, the most respected liberal Democrat in downstate Illinois, and former Sen. Max Cleland from Georgia, a popular veteran who lost both legs and an arm in the Vietnam War and who introduced Kerry at the Democratic National Convention. Obama also gained votes from heavily Republican and predominantly white areas in the southwestern and northern portions of the state–places like DuPage County, where a black candidate was never expected to get backing.

If Obama wins and becomes the only African American in the U.S. Senate, Braun warns that he will have demands placed on him by both Illinois voters and a “national constituency.”

“He won’t be able to get away with just representing his state, which most senators can do,” explains Braun, who didn’t endorse any candidate during the primary. “[Other senators] can represent their state and that’s really the only expectation that anybody has of them. [Obama is] going to have to learn to balance the needs of his state against the larger national constituency right off the bat, and without necessarily having the resources or staff to do the job. But I’m sure he’s up to it.”

But not every African American believes this notion of a national constituency. Maintains Vernon E. Jordan Jr., senior managing director at Lazard L.L.C. and a member of BE’s Top 50 African Americans on Wall Street: “His constituency is the people of Illinois. They elected him and it is them he will be responsible to. [He's not being elected to be] the representative of all black people. He’s being elected to be the Democratic senator to represent the people

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