Update, 12/09/08: Since this article's publication, the governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, has been arrested on federal corruption charges, including trying to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat. Read more here.
As Barack Obama leaves the Illinois political scene (taking fellow Chicagoans Rahm Emanuel and Valerie Jarrett with him), the state known for its mad power scrambles has a doozy on its hands. The prize is Obama’s U.S. Senate seat, and it seems like every state Democrat is not-so-subtly announcing that he would like to have it. One name that has surfaced, if as a long-shot candidate, is Kwame Raoul, who already occupies Obama’s old seat in the state senate. You might call Raoul Obama’s Mini-Me. He’s young (44 years old), African-American, and has the kind of steely ambition that would have him follow Obama to Washington.
"We had pretty good success with a state senator the last time," Raoul told The Daily Beast.
"We had pretty good success with a state senator the last time," said Kwame Raoul.
The similarities between Raoul and his predecessor are almost uncanny. Raoul, like Obama, was an accomplished attorney, representing the City Colleges of Chicago in his most recent job. He has a foreign background from his Haitian parents. He belongs to Trinity United Church of Christ, and, having grown up in a racially mixed neighborhood as one of the only black students in an elite school, has appealed to voters across ethnic lines.
But when he won appointment to Obama’s state senate seat in 2004, the year Obama went to the U.S. Senate, Raoul said he took office with a "chip on his shoulder."
"People would come to my office in Springfield,” Raoul said, “and whichever policy matter they wanted to push they'd say, 'Well, Barack was in favor of this,' and that would tick me off. I would say, 'Well, Barack is now doing his business in Washington, D.C., and he took his gray matter with him. I'm left with the gray matter I brought myself, so let's start from scratch.’"
The state's Democratic governor, Rod Blagojevich, has not tipped his hand as to whom he will choose as Obama’s successor. But the preening and self-promoting among Illinois Democrats has already begun. (Ironically, they must prove their political worth before one of the least popular elected officials in the country; Blagojevich has a 13% approval rating.
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., a top Obama aide during the election commissioned a poll to demonstrate his strength as a candidate and blasted it out to reporters from a government e-mail account. Rep. Danny Davis, who has won praise from the governor, has been anything but shy in declaring his intentions, organizing an event where his supporters would, according to his office's e-mail announcement, " REAFFIRM SUPPORT FOR DAVIS TO REPLACE BARACK OBAMA AS U.S. SENATOR."
State senate president Emil Jones, himself a candidate for the seat, noted that Raoul is one of the more modest contenders.
"You always have people who are self-promoting themselves," Jones told The Chicago Sun-Times in August. "You have Kwame Raoul—he isn't self-promoting. A very fine young man."
Dick Simpson, the chair of the University of Illinois at Chicago political science department, said he thought Raoul was a long shot for the appointment. But he added that Raoul "could end up being some sort of compromise candidate, because the governor didn't feel comfortable with the others." Simpson continued, "It's assumed that he is one of the brighter, more able senators, and is likely to move up, although to which position and when is not at all clear.”
Raoul is quick to brand himself as an Obama-style consensus builder in the legislature. He points to one of his signature bills, a law increasing penalties on people who sell guns to minors, as an example. For that legislation, he not only corralled Republicans into voting unanimously for the measure, but won the approval of the Illinois State Rifle Association as well. Within the party, he often reaches out to political rivals, like Democrat Toni Preckwinkle, who defeated him twice for alderman; Preckwinkle later sat on the committee that appointed Raoul to the state senate over the favorite in the race, former Obama aide Will Burns. Once again reaching out to a former competitor, Raoul endorsed Burns this year for a successful run for state representative. The moves were reminiscent of Obama's famed forgiveness in picking former arch-rival Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State and declining to retaliate against Joe Lieberman for jumping ship in the presidential election.
Which isn’t to say that Raoul wouldn’t mind leapfrogging other Illinois Democrats with the same speed as Obama. "As someone who's devoted myself to public service, I would be silly not to jump at an opportunity like that if it were offered," he says. "I have a good relationship and great respect for many of the other people being mentioned, so I don't want to offend any of those relationships, but at the same time I don't want to be so humble that I'm not recognizing my achievements."
There is a certain "my modesty is second to none!" quality to Raoul's humility. He has no staffer in his district office who deals with the press, electing to handle all media requests personally. His wife, Kali Evans-Raoul, runs an image consulting firm in Chicago that coaches clients on how to put their best foot forward. Raoul could again learn much from Obama in this regard, who carefully preserved his brand by couching personal ambition behind grassroots rhetoric. Remember, it was always “Yes we can!”—never “Yes I can!”
Benjamin Sarlin covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com. He is a graduate of Vassar College.