Illinois State Sen. Barack Obama, a Chicago Democrat, talks with his daughter Maile Ann, 5, as his wife Michelle holds their other daughter Natasha, 2, in their hotel suite on the evening of last week's U.S. Senate Democratic primary, which he later won. Obama will face Republican Jack Ryan in November's general election.
Punahou grad stirs
up Illinois politics
The driven Democrat could
become the only black U.S. senator
By Peter Serafin
Special to the Star-Bulletin
When he kicked off his campaign 16 months ago, few people thought Barack Obama had a chance.
Veteran political observers and Democratic Party insiders throughout the country had written off this Hawaii-born civil rights lawyer, law professor and Illinois state senator who was trying to win that state's Democratic nomination for U.S. senator.
But last Tuesday's primary election was an Obama blowout. The 1979 Punahou School graduate took 53 percent of the votes in a seven-person race. His nearest opponent had 24 percent.
Obama, 42, will face Republican millionaire and fellow Harvard Law School grad Jack Ryan in November's general election to replace incumbent Peter Fitzgerald, who did not seek re-election.
If Obama wins, he will be the only African-American U.S. senator in office, and one of only three black senators since Reconstruction.
The mood was jubilant at Obama's Tuesday night victory celebration in the ballroom of a downtown Chicago hotel.
"I guess they thought there was no way this skinny little guy from the South Side (of Chicago) with a funny name like Barack Obama could ever win a statewide race," he told an overflowing throng of supporters.
>> Age: 42
>> Born: Aug. 4, 1961, Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children, Honolulu.
>> Hawaii schooling: 1979 Punahou School graduate.
>> College: 1983, bachelor's degree in political science, Columbia University. 1991, magna cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School. First African-American president of the Harvard Law Review.
>> Career: 1992-present: Attorney in private practice, senior lecturer in constitutional law at the University of Chicago. 1997-present: Illinois state senator.
>> Family: Married to Michelle Obama. Two children: Maile Ann, 5, and Natasha, 2.
In 1960, Kenya native Barack Obama Sr. was the first African to study at the East-West Center, when he met S. Ann Dunham, from Kansas, who was attending the University of Hawaii-Manoa. The two married and young Barack was born the following year.
His parents divorced when he was 2 years old and his mother married another East-West Center student. In 1969, his stepfather moved the family to the stepfather's native Indonesia. After two years in Jakarta, Barack moved back to Hawaii to stay with his maternal grandmother, who still lives in the same house on Beretania Street. He enrolled in the fifth grade at Punahou School.
His first job was at the Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop at King and Punahou streets, and he has said he's "never liked ice cream since."
"I could see he was bound for bigger things," said longtime friend, classmate and football teammate Bobby Titcomb. "He looked at the world more globally than the rest of us. There was something driven about him.
"But he also played basketball, tennis and hung out at the beach with the rest of us."
"He loves Hawaii and comes back with Michelle (his wife) and the girls whenever he can," said his sister, Maya Soetoro, who teaches history and social studies at the UH Lab School.
"My brother had it together at an early age. He had a strong sense of ethics, but with humor, literature, poetry, music, a sense of what's important in the world," she said.
After earning his bachelor's degree in political science from Columbia University in 1983, Obama went to work as a community organizer in Chicago's South Side.
Titcomb, 42, now a commercial fisherman and Northwest Airlines flight attendant living in Kailua, remembers visiting Obama in Chicago shortly after his friend had moved there.
"Barry told me, 'I really want to be able to do something for the community, but to do what is necessary I'll need a law degree,'" Titcomb recalled. "That's why he applied to Harvard. It was never about making money for Barry. That's never what motivated him."
Obama declined Star-Bulletin requests to interview him about his Hawaii years.
Eric Kusunoki, Obama's homeroom teacher at Punahou for four years, said, "I'm proud, but not surprised, that he is where he is today.
"He was always bright and personable; questioning without being arrogant about it. He was a good devil's advocate."
Obama passed the bar and worked for a Chicago law firm known for its civil rights and anti-discrimination work. In addition, he was named senior lecturer in constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School in 1992, and was elected state senator in 1997. Obama also chairs the $50 million Annenberg Challenge, a foundation dedicated to reforming public schools.
Throughout his political career, Obama has built a broad base of support statewide. His campaign Web site, www.obamaforillinois.com, features pages in Spanish, Korean and Polish as well as English. His ability to appeal to such diverse groups of people may have been honed in Hawaii.
"I realize how truly lucky I was to have been raised here," he wrote in his essay "A Life's Calling to Public Service" in the Fall 1999 Punahou Bulletin. "Hawaii's spirit of tolerance might not have been perfect, but it was -- and is -- real. The opportunity that Hawaii offered to experience a variety of cultures in a climate of mutual respect became an integral part of my world view, and a basis for the values I hold most dear."
Obama's primary victory has thrust him into the Democratic Party's national spotlight.
"What he did last Tuesday was an extraordinary accomplishment," said Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee's subgroup on Senate elections. "He is without question our best chance to take back an open seat currently held by a Republican."
James Grissom, 70, a retired physician and Obama campaign volunteer from suburban Chicago, marvels at the candidate's accomplishments and potential.
"I really think he could be president someday," said Grissom. "Can you imagine that -- our first black president -- and he's from Hawaii?"