Editor’s note: The following report is the first in a Daily Caller series revealing the opposition research Republican Jack Ryan planned to use in his short-lived 2004 campaign for U.S. Senate against then-Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama.
CHICAGO — “Obama Research,” reads the front covers of 22 three-ring binders containing every ounce of opposition research prepared in 2004 by Republican Jack Ryan’s campaign in his effort to stop then-Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama from ever rising to the ranks of the U.S. Senate — and perhaps, by extension, to the presidency.
But Ryan’s campaign never made it off the ground, dragged to its knees by a Chicago Tribune-led lawsuit that publicly revealed Ryan’s messy 1999 custody proceedings with actress and ex-wife Jeri Ryan. Those documents showed that Jeri Ryan claimed her wealthy husband, a former investment banker, had brought her to sex clubs around the globe, which led her to fall in love with another man.
Jack Ryan’s presumed engagement in strange sexual activities with his own wife wasn’t a typical sex scandal, but it was enough to doom his campaign. Under bipartisan pressure to leave the race, and with collapsing poll numbers, he soon stepped aside.
Alan Keyes, a Maryland resident and stalwart social conservative, was chosen as his replacement, and Obama won the race in a landslide. Soon the future president was gracing the cover of weekly news magazines, promoted by the media as a transformative pragmatist who could bring a deeply divided nation back together.
What remains from Ryan’s doomed campaign is a time capsule of information about President Barack Obama, found in the many thousands of pages that make up Ryan’s opposition research. The Daily Caller has obtained that collection.
The little-seen information within the binders represents a comprehensive documentation of Obama’s voting record in the state Senate; his many political donors, endorsers and affiliations; a list of the known clients represented by the law firm where he worked; known details about Obama’s life derived from his books; and a litany of press clippings that include quotes from the Democrat dating back to 1992.
The information reveals what Ryan’s line of attack might have been, had he taken the chance to fight, and brings to light the most exhaustive study of Obama’s voting record before he came to Washington, D.C.
In the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election, supporters of then-Senator Barack Obama could point to press accounts of his time in the Illinois legislature as proof that he was, by nature, a bipartisan-minded pragmatist. But Ryan’s review of Obama’s time in Springfield reveals a more complicated picture, one of an ambitious and gifted political upstart unlikely to buck his party’s leadership on key legislation except when allying with the far left wing of the Democratic caucus.
From abortion to gun rights and anti-crime legislation, Obama, who from 1998 to 2004 represented one of the most diverse districts in what remains perhaps America’s most segregated major city, worked to serve the powerful constituencies and special interest groups that still dominate Illinois politics. An eloquent speaker and ever mindful of his public’s perceptions, he often voted “present” on bills where taking a position could hurt his political future, while staying loyal to the state’s entrenched Democratic machine.
“Barack Obama was [in 2008] presenting himself as some kind of a centrist reformer, and the truth of the state Senate voting record is anything but,” Eric Kohn, an Illinois based libertarian activist and former communications director for the Cook County GOP, told The Daily Caller.
“I mean, here’s somebody who never failed to vote with the far left, who cast a lot of votes that are questionable at best, from the ones that highlighted the votes about making things tougher on domestic matters, making things tougher for child sex offenders, the infant protection act — even if you’re somebody who’s pro-choice that is a pretty radical vote,” Kohn continued.
Mainstream media reports from the 2008 election tend to portray Obama as Springfield’s consummate bridge builder, a well-liked intellectual and reformer eager to reach across the aisle. A Wall Street Journal article published shortly after Obama announced his candidacy for president described him as “a lawmaker of lofty, liberal rhetoric who nonetheless pragmatically accepted bipartisan compromises that won over foes — and sometimes left supporters dissatisfied.”
“[H]e emerged as a leader while still in his 30s by developing a style former colleagues describe as methodical, inclusive and pragmatic,” The Washington Post also wrote at the time. “He cobbled together legislation with Republicans and conservative Democrats, making overtures other progressive politicians might consider distasteful.”
And even an Associated Press article from late 2007 titled “Obama’s Record May Be A Gold Mine For Critics” stated that his legislative career was “focused more on building consensus to improve the justice system and aid the poor” than fighting opponents on hot-button issues.
“Well, I don’t think [Obama’s state Senate career] was covered at all in the 2008 race; it was one of the disappointments I had with the press coverage,” Republican state Sen. Steve Rauchenberger, who left office in 2007, told TheDC. “Just like he got a fairly soft review when he ran for the United States Senate.”
“State Sen. Barack Obama was a relatively disengaged legislator,” Rauchenberger added. “He seemed to focus more on his lecturing at the University of Chicago at the law school and local politics and perhaps congressional ambitions than he did on public policy in the State of Illinois.”
“That strikes me, from what I know of Barack Obama’s time in the state senate, as just being pure mythology and pure public relations invention,” Kohn told TheDC when asked about press accounts of Obama’s tenure in Springfield.
Perhaps Obama’s best-known and most controversial votes during his time in the state Senate were the ones he cast against the Infant Born Alive Protection Act, which would have mandated care for children who were delivered after an unsuccessful late-term abortion.
At the time, Obama argued that the bill was unconstitutional and would serve to undercut the Roe v. Wade decision, and questioned whether hospitals were actually allowing infants to die after failed abortions. He voted “present” on the legislation and changed his vote to “no” the following year.
Obama also voted “present” — and then, later, “no” — on bills that would have outlawed so-called “partial-birth” abortions in Illinois unless the life of the mother was threatened, and “no” on two bills that would have prohibited the use of state funds to pay for abortions. He voted “present” on a parental-notification law for minors seeking abortions.
The “present” votes, he later explained to Illinois Planned Parenthood CEO Pam Sutherland, were a strategy “to protect members [of the state Senate] and women.”
“What it did,” Sutherland told ABC News, “was give cover to moderate Democrats who wanted to vote with us but were afraid to do so. … A ‘present’ vote would protect them. Your senator voted ‘present.’ Most of the electorate is not going to know what that means.”
Obama’s flawless pro-choice voting record earned him a 100 percent approval rating from Planned Parenthood, which remains one of the most powerful organizations in Democratic politics at both the state and local level.
Other Obama votes that would appear to put him outside the mainstream of majority opinion on hot-button issues include his record on criminal enforcement, which received far less attention despite stories on his potentially problematic record, most notably in The Hill newspaper.
Chicago is currently caught in its worst wave of gang-related violence in decades. Despite having some of the strictest gun control laws in the nation, at least 240 people were shot dead in the first half of 2012 alone, a number far outpacing the number of Americans killed in combat in Afghanistan over the same period. Fatal stabbings, meanwhile, are up 78 percent since 2011.
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.