But while the situation has certainly gotten much worse during the past year, street violence is nothing new in Chicago. And Obama was often at the forefront of opposing new laws intended to crack down on violent gangs in the city.
In 1998, Obama’s first year in office, he was of only three legislators to vote against a bill creating a misdemeanor offense for persons on probation, on conditional discharge, on supervision for a criminal offense or on bail to “knowingly or unknowingly” have contact with a gang member if that is a condition of their release.
After a gang murder in 2001, Obama was one of only nine senators to vote against a bill that aimed to toughen penalties against those who commit crimes “in furtherance of gang activity,” and took to the floor to question what the term “in furtherance of gang activity” meant.
Republican Gov. George Ryan later vetoed the bill, which would have made gang-related murder a capital offense. Ryan, a staunch death-penalty opponent, would later go to prison on corruption charges.
According to Rauchenberger, Obama’s crime-policy votes are indicative of the struggle he faced bridging the gap between the Senate’s black caucus, which was suspicious of laws that could be seen to target African-Americans, and the white urban liberals who favored tougher anti-crime laws.
“Barack had pressure from one side to stay in line with the black caucus and the kind of extreme left of the Democratic Party,” Rauchenberger told TheDC. “At the same time, he represented a college campus where much of his financial support and supporters were not black [and] who saw themselves as enlightened and wanting strong anti-gang and anti-drug crime legislation.”
“So Barack’s votes on criminal justice issues were interesting to watch,” he added. “He kind of vacillated and bounced around a lot, a lot of ‘present’ votes complete with a lecture to the rest of us.”
Obama also voted “present” for a Columbine shooting-inspired bill written to require the state to try as adults teens age fifteen and older who fired guns in schools. However, he voted against a law allowing persons under a protection order from carrying a gun, against a bill permitting police officers to carry guns while off-duty, and against a bill aiming to authorize lawful gun owners to shoot intruders in their homes.
In 1999, Obama was the only member of the state Senate to vote against a bill that would have prohibited convicted sex abusers who had targeted family members or persons younger than 18 from getting out of jail early for “good behavior.” Two years later, he would vote “present” on the Sexually Violent Persons Commitment Act, which was designed to toughen laws on prisoners and criminals.
Obama summarized his feelings on new crime legislation in an interview with the Copley News Service in 1999. “It’s very hard for elected officials to resist a bill that enhances penalties for drug offenses because nobody’s pro-drug,” Obama said at the time. “For the same reason, it’s very hard to vote against a bill that makes life tougher on sex offenders. Nobody likes sex offenders.”
Particularly in the lead-up to his unsuccessful challenge of left-wing U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, the only race Obama ever lost, the future president also cast a series of “outlier votes” in which he sided against the majority of his own caucus, either alone or with a handful of far-left state senators.
TheDC has reviewed these votes, which were only barely reported during the 2008 Democratic primary, and will be releasing their contents in later installments.