Editor’s note: With a contentious national election approaching, the U.S. Senate race in Illinois between two Harvard Law School graduates, apparent rising stars in their respective parties, seemed a timely subject for a feature in this magazine’s “Alumni” section. Unfortunately, days after the magazine’s July-August issue went to press, the Republican candidate chose to withdraw after his divorce records were made public. We regret causing any inadvertent confusion to our readers.
On a temperamental May evening, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton flew to Chicago on a political mission, arriving late at a downtown hotel where the main ballroom had reached its 500-person capacity. “Excuse me, I’ve got the senator here,” said an aide, convincing a doorkeeper to admit the actual beneficiary of all that attention: state senator Barack Obama, J.D. ’91, the Democratic candidate for the open Illinois seat in the U.S. Senate.
Although it was the former First Lady who attracted the movie-star whistles, the usually soft-spoken Obama greeted the crowd’s cheers with a war whoop after his introduction onstage. After a few genial remarks, he couldn’t resist a sober law-professor admonition: “The Constitution matters. We have a mutual obligation to each other that expresses itself in good government.”
Meanwhile, in Oak Park, a Chicago suburb known for liberal politics, Republican candidate Jack Ryan, J.D.-M.B.A. ’84, discussed medical malpractice and education concerns with businesspeople and doctors in a supporter’s living room. Ryan, who quit an investment-banking career to teach in an urban school, engaged in spirited conversation before rising to address the group. Standing before an ornate fireplace, he challenged the guests: “How do we make life better for everyone?”
Although the architects of the Great Society may have had good intentions, their 35-year-old experiment has clearly failed, Ryan argued. Half a century after Brown v. Board of Education, he declared, most of this country’s children are still studying in segregated schools, and minorities generally attend the worst ones. “This is the biggest civil-rights issue of our time,” he declared, adding that solving that problem is not only a moral imperative, but a practical necessity.
The Illinois race began when incumbent Peter G. Fitzgerald — a Republican who narrowly defeated Democratic incumbent Carol Moseley Braun in 1998 — opted against running for a second term. His decision prompted 15 Democratic and Republican candidates to square off in the March 16 primaries. The victorious nominees, Ryan and Obama (neither an initial front runner) make this a national story. Both appeal to independents as well as party regulars. Both are bright, articulate, and telegenic — literally tall, dark, slender, and handsome — running on social-justice records that defy not only party stereotypes, in Ryan’s case, but those of modern politicians in general.
Each challenged himself intellectually at Harvard Law School. Ryan, now 44, remembers the verbal sparring encouraged by law professor Alan Dershowitz, “who could successfully argue any side of any argument.” Obama, 42, recalls assembling a special Harvard Law Review tribute about U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan’s impact on the American legal system. “He sent back a letter expressing his gratitude,” Obama says. “I still have that letter framed in my office.”
Beyond that, their paths diverge. Ryan, a graduate of Dartmouth, is a self-made multimillionaire. After his marriage to TV star Jeri Ryan broke up, he switched from finance to education, teaching history, English, and SAT preparation skills in an all-black Catholic high school for boys on Chicago’s South Side. He has never held elective office. Obama, a graduate of Columbia, is a former community activist and lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. A married father of two, he is in his seventh year as a state legislator. If elected, he would be the only African American in the U.S. Senate, and only the fifth in U.S. history.
The son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, Obama describes his background as “exotic.” His parents met as students at the University of Hawaii. When Obama was 2, his father left Hawaii for Harvard (he earned a master’s in economics in 1965). Obama saw his father only once again, when he was 10. In the meantime, his parents had divorced and his mother had moved the family to Indonesia, her second husband’s homeland, where Obama experienced a Muslim culture and a Catholic school. But the region’s volatile political situation strained this marriage, and eventually Obama, his mother, and a new sister returned to Hawaii, where his Midwestern-born grandparents played a major role in his upbringing.
At Columbia, Obama majored in political science with an emphasis on international affairs, while developing a strong interest in community activism. After graduating, in 1983, he accepted a job working with displaced steelworkers in Chicago. In 1988, he enrolled at Harvard Law School, where he became the first African-American president of the Law Review and, in his last semester, ran for the Board of Overseers as one of three (unsuccessful) petition candidates backed by Harvard-Radcliffe Alumni/ae Against Apartheid. (Media attention led to a book deal that became Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, a thoughtful reflection on his unique heritage.) After law school, he served as the Illinois state director for Project Vote Smart, an organization that enlisted more than 100,000 new voters in the state, mostly in minority communities, in 1992.
Obama first ran for office in 1997 and has represented the Thirteenth Illinois Senate District, a social and economic mix of urban constituents, ever since. He chairs the health and human services committee and serves on the judiciary and local government committees. While campaigning, he is on leave from the University of Chicago, where he has been a senior lecturer since 1993. He lives near the campus in the city’s Hyde Park neighborhood with his wife, Michelle (Robinson), J.D. ’88, an attorney and executive director of community affairs at the University of Chicago Hospital, and their two young daughters. (The couple met in 1989 when Obama took a summer job at a Chicago law firm where Robinson was a new associate.)
His only political misstep: running unsuccessfully against congressman (and former Black Panther) Bobby L. Rush in the 2000 Democratic primary, a decision that burned some bridges in the African-American community. This time, Obama is running a methodical, centrist campaign emphasizing his legislative record on education, healthcare, civil rights, criminal justice, and insurance reform as he stumps the state.
“Part of what’s wonderful about Illinois generally is it’s a microcosm [of the United States] — it’s urban and it’s rural and it’s downstate, it’s northern, it’s southern, it’s black, white, Hispanic,” Obama says. “It has all the trends and cross-currents.” Working in the state capital, 200 miles southwest of Chicago, has taught him some important lessons. “Most of the time in Springfield, you are working in obscurity, so the emphasis is on substance rather than hype,” he says. “The substance of politics is to extend healthcare for children who didn’t have it [as Obama has done through legislation] or reform the death penalty.”
Ryan, a native of the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, was one of six children born into an upper-middle-class family. His father “spent 40 years in the pit” of the Chicago Board of Trade; his mother, as a parent activist, helped save an all-black Catholic girls’ school in the city. Ryan played basketball for New Trier High School, then played football at Dartmouth. A 1981 Phi Beta Kappa graduate, he enrolled in Harvard’s joint J.D.-M.B.A. program. After graduating he spent six months working with Central American refugees in Texas before joining Goldman, Sachs in Chicago. He eventually made millions specializing in mergers and acquisitions.
In 1994, he married Jeri Lynn Zimmerman, a former Miss Illinois whom he met at a charity event. They have a son, now 9, who lives in Los Angeles with his mother, an actress best known for her roles as the cat-suit-clad Seven of Nine on Star Trek: Voyager and a lawyer-turned-teacher in Boston Public. After their divorce in 1999, Ryan decided to make his dramatic career change. He opted against public-school teaching when he learned he’d need two more years of education courses to qualify — a requirement that he calls “crazy.” The Roman Catholic archdiocese of Chicago, on the other hand, welcomed his interest and, in the fall of 2000, he began teaching in the all-black, all-boys Hales Franciscan School. The school emphasizes high standards and rigorous discipline, including “daily checks of the gig line,” Ryan told supporters in that Oak Park living room. “It means lining up the zipper on their khaki pants, the buttons on the shirt, the tie…It shows someone is paying close attention.”
In 2002, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) tried to recruit Ryan to oppose Democratic senator Richard Durbin. But Ryan declined, saying he wanted to give his teaching experiment more time. (Critics note that it’s a better gamble to run for an open seat than to oppose an incumbent.)
In this campaign, Ryan is appealing directly to African Americans, who for decades have tended to vote almost exclusively Democratic. At both his announcement and primary victory celebrations, he was surrounded by black supporters, including former students and ministers in whose pulpits he had preached. He’s also reaching out to Latino, working-class, poor, and student voters, urging them to abandon a party that he says hasn’t helped them economically or educationally.
Hillary Clinton is among those calling high turnout critical to this election’s outcome. “It is not enough to just be here sipping, mingling, socializing,” she told revelers at the May campaign event. “You have to get out the vote.”
She also urged Illinois voters to “make history” by electing Obama, who would become only the third African American to serve in the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction. Edward Brooke, a Republican from Massachusetts, was the first; Braun the second. Obama identifies himself as African American, but it is his mixed-race background that others want to make into a metaphor for the United States in the twenty-first century. “Obama is the very face of America’s broadly embraced vision of democracy,” best-selling novelist Scott Turow, J.D. ’78, wrote in an article published on Salon.com in March. Tyler professor of constitutional law Laurence H. Tribe agrees, recalling that, at Harvard, Obama “inspired students of every ideological stripe and inclination.”
Obama has received endorsements from sports superstar Michael Jordan and former Democratic senators Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Bill Bradley of New Jersey. A crucial endorsement that helped him downstate came from Carbondale city councilor Sheila Simon, daughter of the late, beloved Paul Simon, the former U.S. senator, who died last December before his support for Obama was publicized.
Among those endorsing Ryan are former secretary of education William J. Bennett, J.D. ’71, former congressman and secretary of housing and urban Development Jack Kemp, and the Reverend Christopher Bullock, an African-American Baptist minister and current Bush-Cheney convention delegate who agrees with Ryan’s assessment that Democrats have failed to help minorities. “The Democratic Party offered an eight-course meal, but we’ve only gotten the appetizers,” he says. “Instead of waiting at the table to be served, let’s get in the kitchen and do our own cooking.”
As a new teacher, Ryan was taken aback when his freshmen students turned in essays filled with incomplete sentences and erratic punctuation. He went back to basics, “drilling on vocabulary and grammar,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Okay, each week we’re going to start memorizing 50 words.’
“Remember that Helen Keller play?” he continues, referring to William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker. “I told them Helen Keller was a very smart person, but she didn’t have the words to communicate. Even though she had great thoughts here” — he taps his skull — “[she had] no way to get them out.”
The Republican candidate gets excited when he talks about what worked in the classroom and the bonds he’s forged there. But his grasp of legislation is far less sure, and even some supporters say he has to come to grips with government minutiae before he tries to debate Obama.
“Ryan needs to get to the middle of the road as quickly as possible,” says Illinois GOP chairwoman and state treasurer Judy Barr Topinka. “Obama gets national attention because he’s a very personable fellow, very charming, very skilled….He has the advantage of having worked in the legislature, which Jack has not done, but Jack has had business experience that Obama has not.”
Nonpartisan analyst Christopher Mooney, executive director of the Institute for Legislative Studies at the University of Illinois-Springfield, says, “Ryan is a very attractive candidate in the sense that he’s got this good story, he’s young, he’s good-looking, he’s energetic, he’s made millions, and he’s pitched in a little public service in the inner city — it gives him a patina of holiness, all that good stuff.” On the minus side, he adds, Ryan is a first-time candidate debuting in a particularly high-profile race. As for Obama, “he’s really, really smart, he’s a very good speaker, and he has a compelling story, too,” Mooney says. “He oozes empathy.”
Scott Turow says he’s most impressed by Obama’s “penetrating intelligence, a kind of princely dignity — not arrogant at all, but serenely composed — and exceptional candor. If he can keep the last trait intact in today’s American political scene, he will be a rare figure indeed.”
Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, sees even greater potential for the Democratic candidate. “If Obama is elected, overnight he will become the single most important African-American elected official in the country,” she asserts. Because the Senate is smaller than the House of Representatives, she says, Obama would be more visible and likely to receive immediate appointment to important committees.
Republicans are likely to outspend Democrats in contesting the seat. “Illinois is tough for Republicans, but Jack Ryan offers us a good opportunity this year,” says NRSC committee spokesman Dan Allen. “He brings a unique perspective to the education issue and has very strong views on taxes.”
Earlier this year, many observers said the race was Obama’s to lose, and polls in early June showed him leading Ryan by 22 points. But the Republicans aren’t conceding anything: Ryan has pledged that he will match every dollar donated to his campaign with 50 cents from his own pocket. So even though Yale seems assured of the presidency, Harvard appears to have at least one Senate seat wrapped up.
Nancy Day, Nf ’79, chairs the journalism department at Columbia College Chicago. Previously a journalism professor at Boston University, she has covered government and politics for more than three decades.