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Carol Felsenthal

Carol Felsenthal

Posted: July 1, 2008 05:16 PM

Barack Obambi? Not Quite; Just Ask Alice Palmer


But getting to Alice Palmer isn't easy. She is the former Illinois state senator who, in 1995, deciding to run for an open congressional seat, anointed Obama as her successor. It was from that relatively lowly position that Obama launched his incredible political career.

Palmer lost in a special congressional election in November 1995 -- the seat was open because its occupant, Mel Reynolds, was convicted on sex charges -- to the victor, Jesse Jackson, Jr., and to the runnerup, Emil Jones Jr., who became state senate president and Obama's mentor in his unlikely road to the nomination for the White House.

When she was humiliated with a third-place finish, Alice Palmer mistakenly assumed that Obama, more than 20 years her junior, would gallantly step aside so she could run for her old seat in the legislature. But Obama, who had already begun to organize his troops, said nothing doing, and, when Palmer decided to jump back into the state senate primary anyway, he successfully challenged her petitions, as well as the petitions of three other candidates for the democratic nomination. Obmama ended up running unopposed in the March 1996 primary in the district that encompasses Hyde Park, the home of the University of Chicago where Obama lived, South Shore, where Palmer lived, and Englewood, where residents are largely poor. Chicago Tribune reporters David Jackson and Ray Long wrote a first-rate account of this episode in April 2007 when Hillary Clinton was still "the inevitable."

I spent most of yesterday trying unsuccessfully to find a working number for Alice Palmer. This morning, I did reach her husband, Buzz Patterson, a founder of the African-American Patrolman's League, now a senior associate at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Palmer told me that his wife will not talk about what he says they both call "past cards." He said that they are involved with a lot of "international things." (Buzz Palmer was, according to his bio, a "confidante to Michael Manley, the late Prime Minster of Jamaica.") When I pushed my request to interview him and/or his wife, he hung up on me.

Alice Palmer, who holds a Ph.D. in Educational Administration from Northwestern University, went on to immerse herself in school reform, particularly charter schools, to work at Malcolm X College, the University of Illinois at Chicago where she was a special assistant to the president, and as an associate dean of students at Northwestern. But she is still "angry," says Timuel Black, a professor emeritus at the City Colleges of Chicago, now nearly 90, who was one of her advisers in that failed primary race for congress. Black recalls that he and his fellow advisors told Palmer not to worry about the loss; just run for your old state senate seat. Black and his colleagues then set up a meeting with Obama, assuming he'd withdraw after they pointed out to him that Palmer, who took her state senate seat in 1991, had some seniority. They promised Obama to support him in whatever political office he tried for next.

It was then that they were shocked to learn that Alice Palmer had secretly -- in what Black says was probably a "handshake agreement" -- promised Obama that he would be her successor. He relied on that promise to organize his campaign and, he told Black and the others that he would not back down.

Black, an Obama supporter now -- he did not support Obama in that state senate race or when Obama brashly and disastrously ran against Bobby Rush for Congress -- is not surprised that Alice Palmer campaigned for Hillary. (She campaigned in Indiana, for example, with Chelsea.)

Timuel Black says he sees Palmer often but the subject of Obama is still a sore one that they don't discuss. Black says that he imagines that Palmer, now 69, ponders Obama's rise and thinks, I could be running for president.

Still, Black maintains that Obama's actions back then were not surprising; especially given his secret agreement with Palmer. "I understand his reason as a person who had been promised some kind of support, goes ahead to work, expending effort and money" -- and that the challenge to Palmer's petitions was politics as it's commonly practiced in Chicago and Illinois. "There are few political races that don't have a challenge to signatures," Black explains.

Historian and Chicago activist Hal Baron, who chaired Palmer's failed congressional campaign, agrees that Obama's treatment of Alice Palmer was perfectly acceptable. "He said publicly, `If she isn't going, I'm going.'"

Timuel Black speaks highly of four of the figures from Obama's past that his opponents have used to try to stain his character: the Rev. Jeremiah Wright ("better than most Americans in heritage and achievement"), Father Michael Pfleger (who risks his safety by "going into crime-ridden neighborhoods"), Weather Underground veterans Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn ("I've been friends with them going back to 1968, since long before I knew Barack").

One Chicago-based political writer and strategist told me yesterday that people in the the Obama campaign suspect it was Alice Palmer who "gave to the press" the relationship between Ayers/Dohrn and Obama. Palmer did introduce Obama to the married activists, in 1995 at their Hyde Park home, when Obama and Palmer first laid plans for Obama to take over Palmer's senate seat.

If I ever succeed in sitting down with Alice Palmer, my first question would be, "Who are you going to vote for in November?" Somehow I cannot imagine that Palmer, solidly left of center; like Obama, a community organizer early in her career, would be in the 25 percent of Hillary supporters who tell pollsters they're voting for John McCain.

Still, says Hal Baron, "some of Alice's friends" see Barack's behavior in 1995, as "a betrayal." The two, I'm told, have not spoken since.