Editor’s note: The following report is the latest 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.
The opposition research file of Republican Jack Ryan includes 253 pages dedicated solely to media clippings about Barack Obama.
A page titled “Worst Hits on Barack Obama” serves as a table of contents for the most controversial stories involving the future president by 2004.
The first section — and by far the densest — is called “Shamefully Soft on Crime and Drugs,” and provides a window into Obama’s character liabilities, brought into focus by his willingness to vote either against or “present” on an array of anti-crime legislation. It includes accounts of his failing to support laws meant to protect battered women, ensure the privacy of rape victims and prevent the murder of witnesses.
Starting in 1997, the Chicago Tribune reported Obama was critical of a bill aimed at juvenile felons that would have created “a state database, complete with fingerprints,” given victims the right to testify during sentencing, added aggravated battery with a firearm to the list of crimes that would require trial as an adult, given police a full 24 hours to hold suspects without charges and converted youth convicts to adult sentences if they failed to “complete a juvenile sentence satisfactorily.”
“What we haven’t addressed in this bill is the preventative side that prevents kids from getting into the system in the first place,” Obama insisted then, in explaining his opposition.
By 1999, Obama had joined an effort to examine completely overhauling the state’s criminal code following what Jack Ryan’s researchers called “state lawmakers’ ‘zeal to get tough on crime.'”
Obama argued that lawmakers were too often pushing through tough-on-crime legislation, complicating the criminal code.
“It’s very hard for elected officials to resist a bill that enhances penalties for drug offenses because nobody’s pro-drug,” Obama said then, according to the Copley News Service. “For the same reason, it’s very hard to vote against a bill that makes life tougher on sex offenders. Nobody likes sex offenders,” he said.
Later that year, when faced with a bill that would put convicted wife batterers in prison for a minimum of two days, Obama took a pass. The Copley News Service reported his criticism of the bill was that it would fill the court system with offenders looking to avoid jail time.
On April 27, 1999, the Copley News Service reported on Obama’s questionable voting yet again, this time noting that he voted present on a bill that would allow victims of sex crimes to have their cases sealed following a conviction. The intent of that bill was to prevent public consumption of the explicit details of those crimes without “good cause.” Obama, it was reported, questioned the bill’s constitutionality. It became Illinois state law without his support.
In May of that year, the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin reported that Obama voted present yet again, becoming one of only seven state senators to avoid registering their support for a bill meant to deter the murder of witnesses. The Senate “overwhelmingly” approved the bill, which would allow prior testimony under oath to be admitted as evidence in a case where that witness was unavailable.
On the subject of the death penalty, The Chicago Weekend reported that on September 18, 1999, Obama made his support for a moratorium on executions clear during a town hall meeting at the Alpha Temple Missionary Baptist Church.
“I was a main sponsor of a bill that would have put an immediate moratorium on the death penalty,” Obama said then. “We need to put more resources into the Public Defender’s office, so they can do things like DNA testing and take other means to make sure you’ve got the right person before you consider the death penalty.”
Jack Ryan’s opposition research also highlights a case that captivated Chicago in November 1999, when several black students were expelled from a Decatur, Ill., high school for fighting. While the school board stood by its decision, Rev. Jesse Jackson led a charge to have the students reinstated. Obama refused to give a position on the case to The State Journal-Register, but he did introduce “legislation against zero-tolerance policies” in the midst of the controversy. Additionally, he appeared alongside Jackson onstage during a rally at the Church of the Living God following Jackson’s arrest for unlawfully leading a mob into the school.
In the waning days of 1999, Illinois Republican Gov. George Ryan was convinced he had enough votes in the Senate to pass his version of a bill called the “Safe Neighborhoods Act,” which “would have kept the unlawful use of weapons a felony but allow the records of first-time offenders to be expunged if they successfully completed probation,” reported the Chicago Defender. But when the bill came up for a vote, state Senator Barack Obama — who had promised his support — was nowhere to be found. An aide later told the press that Obama was stuck at his home in Hawaii tending to a sick daughter.
A Chicago Tribune editorial ripped Obama as a “gutless sheep” for the missed vote. “Some found more important things to do than vote against crime. What gutless sheep,” the editorial read. “Sen. Barack Obama (D-Chicago), who has — had? — aspirations to be a member of Congress, chose a trip to Hawaii over public safety in Illinois.”
Obama was running for a U.S. House seat at the time but the flub “paralyzed his congressional campaign,” says the Ryan document, leading to Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush’s re-election. That loss became the only electoral defeat in Obama’s short political career.
Heading into the year 2000, the Ryan files revisit Obama’s opposition to the death penalty. “Poor folks generally get a raw deal in the criminal justice system,” Obama told a forum audience at the University of Chicago Law School on May 15, 2000, according to the independent student newspaper, The Chicago Maroon.
“The only argument for the death penalty is vengeance and that is a valid emotion. To pretend it doesn’t exist is dishonest. Don’t assume that vengeance is not a part of justice,” Obama went on. “When you place that against the possibility that one innocent person could be put to death, that is daunting. The public opinion is that as long as they catch 99 guilty people, they don’t care if one person gets carried away.”
In 2001 — after a Quad Cities man was found not guilty of “sexually molesting a child because he was too drunk to form criminal intent” — a state Senate panel that included Obama reacted by unanimously voting for a provision that would repeal a defendant’s ability to use intoxication as a legal defense. But Obama, Ryan’s research points out, “tried to weaken the measure” first.
“Committee members suggested alternatives to Jacobs’ proposal before approving the measure, Senate Bill 265, as is,” reported the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. “Sen. Barack Obama, D-Chicago, suggested that the measure only apply to violent crimes or that it should include language to explain that it did not prevent defendants from showing lack of criminal intent because of intoxication.”
In May 2001, the Illinois Senate pushed through legislation to increase penalties for dealing ecstasy, including making it easier to prosecute a dealer whose client died from drug use. That legislation aimed to make dealing ecstasy a class X felony, which would carry a minimum penalty of six years in prison.
“Sen. Barack Obama, D-Chicago, questioned whether Illinois’ drug penalties are appropriate,” reported the Copley News Service, “considering that a person convicted of raping a woman at knifepoint would be charged with the same level of offense as someone convicted of selling 15 doses of ecstasy.”
That same month, Obama “voted against a bill making it easier to impose death sentences on gang bangers,” says the Ryan research.
“People would be eligible for the death penalty if they kill someone to help their gang,” reported The Associated Press. “Under the legislation, gang activity would be one of many possible aggravating factors that trigger a death sentence.”
The Chicago Sun-Times reported that Obama’s opposition, in part, was racially motivated.
“Sen. Barack Obama (D-Chicago), who voted against the plan, said it would hit black and Hispanic neighborhoods hardest, and that lawmakers should quit creating tougher criminal penalties on the basis of one or two particular incidents,” reported the Sun-Times.
The Chicago Tribune quoted Obama explaining that his colleagues, unlike him, often vote to toughen gang penalties because of the political risks of doing anything else:
“‘The legislature has a difficult time voting against anything involving the death penalty or anything involving gangs,’ said Sen. Barack Obama, a Chicago Democrat who opposed the bill. ‘They don’t want to be perceived as coddling gangs.'”
By November 2001, Obama joined Rev. Jesse Jackson for a protest against the easier death penalty sentencing for gang members. Other notables who joined Jackson and Obama at the protest included then-CEO of Chicago Public Schools Arne Duncan and Obama’s longtime pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, according to the Chicago Defender.
The legislation, which months prior had been vetoed by Gov. George Ryan, would be buried in the committee process following Jackson’s protest effort.
When December 2002 rolled around, Obama joined Gov. Ryan yet again in calling for restrained use of the death penalty in Illinois.
Republicans in the state Senate passed legislation that would expand the Illinois Supreme Court’s “authority to review death penalty appeals and to reduce death sentences to life in prison without parole if the court determines death is a fundamentally unjust punishment,” reported The Associated Press.
Obama didn’t think the legislation went far enough and voted against the bill.
Not letting up, Gov. Ryan would go on to grant a blanket commutation of active death sentences in the state of Illinois, with Obama’s support.
Republican lawmakers were furious, according to the Chicago Tribune, and said that people who were “clearly guilty” were being taken off death row. Republicans responded by introducing a measure that would slow an Illinois governor’s ability to grant a similar mass commutation in the future.
Obama disagreed with the move and told the Chicago Tribune in January 2003, “It is not clear that the legislature can modify that power without a constitutional amendment.”
In March 2003, Obama reiterated his calls to weaken penalties for drug crimes.
He told N’DIGO, an African-American paper, that “federal mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent offenses has been a mistake, Obama said, at both the state and federal levels.”
Jack Ryan’s research also notes that Obama was supportive of easing access in Illinois to clean hypodermic needles, a common legislative battle where proponents argue that drug addicts face greater health threats without the option. Obama supported legislation that would allow adults to purchase up to 20 needles at their local pharmacy. The Chicago Sun-Times reported his rationale:
“Sen. Barack Obama (D-Chicago) said giving drug users easier access to clean needles wouldn’t just prevent AIDS among addicts but also help spouses who are in a sexual relationship with a drug user.”
In his ongoing quest to limit the use of the death penalty, Obama would vote in May 2003 to require police officers to tape their interrogations of murder suspects. The law would pass, but not before Obama stripped out “a provision that would have dramatically expanded their [the cops’] ability to wiretap drug deals.” “Police advocates” were disappointed in the move, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Obama also supported legislation later that year that would require the firing of police officers who commit perjury during death penalty trials.
“All of us understand that if you tell a lie, there’s going to be consequences. All this provision does is saying if a police officers lies, there’s going to be consequences,” Obama said, according to the Chicago Defender.
For Jack Ryan’s researchers, the “worst hits” on Obama’s crime record also included this open question: Was Obama’s “history of personal drug use a reason for [his] weakness on crime?”
The research documents three passages about Obama’s own drug use from his first book, “Dreams from my Father,” to support the argument:
- “Admitted to heavy cocaine and marijuana use. ‘Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it.’ ‘Junkie. Pothead. That’s where I’d been headed: the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man. Except the highs hadn’t been about . . . me trying to prove what a down brother I was. Not by then, anyhow. I got high for just the opposite effect, something that could push questions of who I was out of my mind . . .’ (Dreams from my Father, p. 86)”
- “Began using drugs in high school and continued at least through college. Obama’s mother confronted him about his ‘grades . . . slipping,’ and noting ‘You haven’t even started on your college applications.’ She noted ‘One of your friends was just arrested for drug possession.’ (Dreams from my Father, pp. 87-88)”
- “Obama states that ‘I stopped getting high’ sometime after he applied for and was accepted to a transfer program that Occidental College had arranged with Columbia University, presumably past his sophomore year. (Dreams from my Father, p. 106)”